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In 1838 Governor George Gawler gave a speech to the local Aborigines in the Adelaide area, which was translated into their language, Kaurna, by William Wyatt.

Black men--
We wish to make you happy. But you cannot be happy unless you imitate good white men. Build huts, wear clothes, work and be useful.
Above all things you cannot be happy unless you love GOD who made heaven and earth and men and all things.
Love white men. Love other tribes of black men. Do not quarrel together. Tell other tribes to love white men, and to build good huts and wear clothes. Learn to speak English.

Two hundred years later, the descendants of Gawler's audience are re-learning their language using the materials left by missionaries in new ways (see Jangari's post on this). Gawler's successors in Government are still wanting to make Aborigines happy by urging them to learn English, and more particularly to read and write English. Sometimes they translate this call into Indigenous languages.

Inge Kral gave a great seminar not so long ago on Ngaanyatjarra literacy, and the importance of 'administrative literacy'. She also blogged here about the foolishness of closing down local Indigenous TV in remote areas if you want to encourage literacy. Well, she has a piece in the Courier Mail (11/03/08) on literacy in remote communities where the first language is often not English. She makes the point that:

Much of the present discussion is based upon the assumption the only valuable literacy is English literacy. There is no acknowledgement of the importance of the bilingual/bicultural learning environment and the important role local indigenous staff employed on award pay and conditions can play as teachers and language workers in bilingual and non-bilingual programs.

Kral stresses the importance of building literacy in the community.

For literacy to take hold in remote communities, youth need to see reading and writing as elemental to everyday life, and not just as something done by non-indigenous experts. Youth need to be engaging in community-based activities that incorporate written text and literate processes.

Yes, yes and yes. Literacy is not soma, you can't pour it down people's throats and make them happy. They have to see its uses for themselves.

A different, maybe complementary, approach is taken in a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald (11/03/08) by David Rose, who was involved in the Pitjantjatjara move to abandon bilingual education and go for English-only education. This move is now being rejected by some Pitjantjatjara for failing to produce kids who can read and write English, let alone Pitjantjatjara. The comeback is doubtless that the schools haven't been properly resourced and the teachers haven't been properly trained to teach kids to read and write, rather than the kinds of points about community literacy that Inge Kral makes for similar communities. So, he's involved in an approach which is being used in the "Reading to Learn in Murdi Paaki" programme. Murdi Paaki refers to a region of remote NSW, not a language, and the language of literacy is English, since Indigenous languages, alas, are no longer spoken as first languages in NSW. Rose coordinates training programs for teachers and Aboriginal education workers "to give their students the skills they need to read and write at the level they should be for their grade, and to manage their classes so that all students are continually successful at the same challenging learning tasks".

The sad thing about the literacy debates (and this goes for the phonics vs whole-word debate too) is the blind evangelism. Consistency of approach is undoubtedly important for kids (ask anyone whose handwriting "developed" through copperplate, cursive, modified cursive, italic and modified italic - hey, that's why I type..). But that's not the same as saying There Is Only One Right Way to learn to read and write. One side right, one side wrong should have gone out with the victory of the Viet Cong.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.
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