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Noel Pearson sets up a deliberately provocative contrast between 'we' (Indigenous Australians and good guys) and 'they' ('middle-class culture producer's and bad guys) in The Australian (21/7/07).

* They say we should respect Aboriginal English as a real language.
* We say we should speak our traditional languages and the Queen's English fluently.

False contrast.

I'm a they person, the more so since working on an Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition Project, in which we've found that in four communities the children are speaking new languages that Pearson may think of as Aboriginal English.

Starting with part 2 - what we theys say about Pearson's we beliefs. [Pity English lacks the distinction made in Pearson's language Kuku Yalanji between "we= me and you" and "we=me and them but not you"]

1. We theys who say that 'Aboriginal English' names real languages mostly also believe that Aborigines have the right to choose to speak their traditional languages and standard Australian English and, indeed, any language. As for should speak them, sadly, adults find it hard to change their ways of talking and to learn to speak other languages.

2. Most of us theys agree with Pearson that it is an awful pity if Aborigines stop speaking their traditional languages.

3. And most of us theys think that Aborigines will have to learn to speak, read and write standard Australian English, if they want to have access to further education and the information, interest, pleasure and resources that it can bring (as well as the colossal amount of junk). And yes, we theys mostly think that children shouldn't be deprived of this because of their parents. That's why we theys mostly want across Australia good, well-resourced, free state schools with excellent teachers who command respect for their knowledge and skills. (And why this they is rather concerned by Government funding of small private schools of any fundamentalist anti-science religion, and also by some homeschooling).

4. Most of us theys know that it would be hard to find a school in Australia where 'Aboriginal English' is promoted at the expense of standard Australian English. Most teachers in Indigenous schools don't speak Aboriginal English. This is actually a problem because it makes it hard for some young children, especially those with hearing losses, to understand what the teachers are saying anyway.

So now to part 1 - whether "we should respect Aboriginal English as a real language." Real languages, hmmm - footnote (2) below gives a short description for non-linguists of what we they linguists think 'real languages' are, and what the label 'Aboriginal English' covers.

The basic point is that new languages have developed in Australia based on English - some close to it, some so far from it that teachers who only speak Standard Australian English can't understand what the kids are saying. In many Indigenous communities the kids and their parents are talking in these new languages, not in their traditional languages, and not in standard Australian English. Only the grandparents and great grandparents still use the traditional languages. It's a cold hard fact. And it's also a subject which arouses many people's fears and grief. Grief at loss of languages. Fear that the way they speak shows their lack of education, their inferiority. Even that they aren't real people because they don't have a real language.

If teachers, speech pathologists, audiologists and policy-makers don't recognise this, then they will screw up. They will do things as silly as say that a kid has a speech problem or a learning difficulty because the kid says e like dog instead of She likes dogs. (Yes this happens). And once you criticise kids for the way they speak, you immediately set up a barrier which is hard to break down. And if you teach a kid that the way their parents speak is somehow wrong, uneducated, inferior, then this is not going to do much for family relations. That's why respect is important.

And yes, teachers can simultaneously respect the way the children speak and teach them to speak, read and write standard Australian English. In fact, only respect will provide a chance of getting most of the kids to learn. (You'll always get the bright spark learning standard Australian English, but school policy must be based on education for everyone, not just for the very bright). The most successful program I know of is the FELIKS (Fostering English Language In Kimberley Schools) program developed by Rosalind Berry and the linguist Joyce Hudson and others for the Catholic Education Office in 1994, (2), which has been taken up in the Northern Territory, and in Queensland [.pdf].

So, we are they and we. There's no need to contrast the two views.

(1) For non-linguist readers: What's a real language? What's 'Aboriginal English'?
Jo Linguist's cliche is that a real language is a dialect with an army and a navy. That is, distinguishing between languages and dialects isn't easy. Using 'variety' as a cover-term for 'language' and 'dialect', one criterion is whether speakers of the two varieties can understand each other ('mutual intelligibility') - if they can, then it's one language. BUT - Serbian and Croatian are mutually intelligible but written in different scripts and politically so different that their speakers think of them as different languages. Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese are not mutually intelligible, but they're written in the same script, most of the speakersof both languages share the same government, and so their speakers often think of them as dialects of the same language "Chinese".

Many non-linguists think that a real language has heaps of stuff written in it, like tax forms and Shakespeare and Bibles and school textbooks. Noel Pearson knows that this is not the case - there's not much written in any Indigenous Australian language, and yet of course they are real languages.

'Aboriginal English' - there isn't one 'Aboriginal English'. Indigenous people across Australia speak a range of varieties which include at one end a way of talking which is close to the way some country people in Australia talk. They might say come and give instead of standard English came and gave. Teachers are used to changing this when they teach kids to write. In the middle of the range are varieties of an English-based creole. Speakers of this English-based creole might say Yu bin kam instead of you came. The best known variety (spoken around Katherine, Ngukurr) is called 'Kriol', (i.e. the word 'creole' written using the spelling system that has been devised for this particular variety). Other varieties include Barkly Kriol (Barkly Tablelands), and Fitzroy Valley Kriol (Fitzroy Crossing). At the end of the range are mixed languages which have verb structures like the creole, but many nouns and case-endings from the traditional language.

Speakers may not have specific names for the way they talk: 'English', 'Camp English' or 'Pidgin English', or 'Nunga English' (in Adelaide), or 'Wumpurrarni English' (in Tennant Creek). Speakers may also firmly say that they do not speak 'Kriol', because they think of 'Kriol' as the way of talking around the Roper River, and as such, different from their own ways of talking.

(2) Berry, Rosalind, Joyce Hudson, and Catholic Education Office (Perth W.A.). Kimberley Regional Office., 1997, Making the jump : a resource book for teachers of Aboriginal students: Catholic Education Office Kimberley Region.


And still it is so easy to fall into the trap of paying only lip-service to the value of "Aboriginal English" but pretty much forgetting to put it into practice. I have a feeling at Wangka Maya we don't have an official policy about incorporating it into our resources and projects and I know there is not much conversation about it either - the focus is so strongly on making sure there's something publicly available for all our traditional languages.

It sort of comes up at the post-editing stage of a project when a proof-reader asks: "so who is your audience?" by which time it is quicker to just "tidy up the English" to all Standard Australian English rather than THEN also adding a whole lot of text in whatever version of Aboriginal English. Definitely food for thought in reflecting and working on my own practices.

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