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Voice of America has a piece, Aboriginal Languages Slowly Making Way into Australian Schools on teaching Indigenous languages in New South Wales.

Good stuff.

But it also contains two bizarre claims.

(i) "traditionally, Aboriginal people were forbidden from speaking their own language. If they were caught doing it, they could be punished by beating, or they could be killed."
Kids were punished yes, beaten yes, but I have never come across evidence that people were killed for speaking their own language. Killed because they couldn't understand English and couldn't make the killers understand them, yes.

(ii) "In New South Wales, all students have to learn a second language, and this policy being pioneered by the state government aims to make indigenous languages the main option, along with Chinese and French. "

Why French? Why not the languages of our neighbours, Indonesian? Tok Pisin?

For a reality check I browsed the NSW Education Department's policy website. L for languages, nothing. C for Community languages produces a policy for the payment of a Community Language Allowance to suitably qualified employees who have a basic level of competence in a language other than English. Under C for Curriculum, there are: Driver education & road safety, Environmental education, Homework, Literacy & numeracy, Religion, Values, Vocational education. No Languages.

[Additions and changes here cos I'd BADLY misread the website - eeek - thanks Mari!]
Buried in Curriculum Support. are Aboriginal languages, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Indonesian (phewwww!), Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. Arabic is pretty important, since there are far more native speakers of Arabic in the Sydney area than native speakers of French, and since we trade a lot with Arabic speaking countries.

Aboriginal languages are also dealt with far far away here and also under the Board of Studies.

Buried deeper still , I found the figures for 2006, for Secondary students at Government schools enrolled in languages, which I have reordered in terms of number of enrolments.

language
enrolments
FRENCH 22,963
JAPANESE
20,753
GERMAN
7,318
ITALIAN
5,850
INDONESIAN 
4,774
CHINESE 
2,471
SPANISH
1,741
ARABIC 936
LANGUAGES: LIFE SKILLS 
*your guess is as good as mine as to what this is all about
*905
LATIN
799
MODERN GREEK 491
VIETNAMESE
329
KOREAN
287
CLASSICAL GREEK 289
ABORIGINAL LANGUAGES
202
TURKISH
114
HEBREW 
55
RUSSIAN 
26
TOTAL
70,303

Anyway, from these numbers, while French is still top of the pops, Indigenous languages and Chinese have a long way to go to displace Japanese.

Helping Indigenous people reclaim their history through re-learning an Indigenous language is a social concern, as is, by and large, teaching non-Indigenous people about Indigenous languages. For only a few Australian language speech communities is it vital for life-and-death communication that some non-Indigenous people learn them. By contrast, learning the languages of our neighbours and trade-partners is a strategic and trade concern ( cut to banging on again about Tok Pisin and Indonesian ...). The situations of Indigenous languages and languages of other countries are different and require different strategies for teaching them. It does both concerns a disservice to treat them as if they were one.

How about.... everyone learning something ABOUT Indigenous languages, some people learning an Indigenous language in detail, and most people being encouraged to learn well a language of another country.

Comments

When I was a young lad starting high school in Newcastle a few decades ago, everyone in first form did a term of French, a term of German and a term of Latin. I suppose I might be remembering the experience with rose-colored glasses, but even a single term seemed like a useful introduction to another language.

You'd want to keep the Latin, naturally, but you could substitute Chinese and an indigenous language for the other two.

Do you think that learning a foreign language should be a practical concern (the language of a near neighboring country or of a large immigrant group being more appropriate than French)? Yet learning a heritage languages by indigenous people is not so much practically necessary as emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Is there anything wrong with an Australian wanting to learn a language, (say, French) simply because she finds it beautiful or is interested in a far off "exotic" land? I agree that everyone should know something about the country's indigenous peoples, languages, & cultures. As far as what second language youth choose to learn, I just say hallelujah that they're studying any languages!

Umm - over the take-a-language-for -a-single term - too often it substitutes for putting serious effort into learning a language, and degenerates into "count to ten in Chinese" "eat a croissant" "dance a Greek folk dance".
Over French versus Chinese. French is a lot easier for an English speaker to learn - lots of words and structures in common, and an alphabetic writing system. I think my rather unformed view is that sure, each child can choose to learn what they like depending on what's available, (and I romantically and strongly support offering units at university in Akkadian, Armenian , Coptic, Hittite, Old Mon, Old Norse - each gives you another picture on the world). But for the sake of the country's future, it would be good to give people incentives to teach and learn languages which will be useful to the country's future.

I think that it is possible to learn heritage and culture without learning a language.

Although languages are definitely a big part of culture and heritage.

I agree with suv... good point

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