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Richard Trudgen of the Aboriginal Resource Development Service Inc (ARDS, working with Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land) has an interesting discussion paper on the Federal Intervention in the Northern Territory.

It's called 'Are We Heading in the Right Direction? "Closing the Gap” or “Making it Bigger”?[.pdf] [Thanks Greg for pointing it out!] He gave the paper [1] just before the NT Minister for Education, Marion Scrymgour, announced the plan to make all schools teach in English for the first four hours every day (see posts by Inge Kral and Felicity Meakins), but much of what he says is directly relevant to that policy.

One of his basic arguments is that in places like Arnhem Land much of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in areas such as education, health, etc stems from a failure of communication. Yolngu often don't understand what non-Indigenous people are telling them, and vice versa. But the consequences are much worse for the Yolngu who, so Trudgen says, are living in nightmarish confusion. Bureaucrats/teachers/police etc. are irritated by communication breakdown, but it doesn't affect their day-to-day lives so much.

The Minister's response to this breakdown is to tell Indigenous people "Learn English". That's what Governor George Gawler told the Indigenous inhabitants of Adelaide in 1840. Trudgen's response is to tell the non-Indigenous people who go to work in Arnhem Land "Learn Yolngu Matha" [or the relevant local language].

"All teachers, police officers, health personnel, administrators, miners, and contractors entering Aboriginal lands, should attempt to learn the language of the people, as does the Australian Army before sending soldiers into East Timor, Afghanistan and other non-English speaking places". [2]


Learning a language is difficult, hard work and takes time, so that it is unlikely that many non-Indigenous people will adopt Trudgen's approach. The Minister's approach,has behind it a kind of realism (for access to information the Yolngu must learn English), and above all the weight of the mass media (predominantly English-speaking) and the concerned but ill-informed opinionati (such as Helen Hughes). Unfortunately they mostly fail to recognise that the same reasons why the average Darwin journalist/NT teacher/bureaucrat doesn't bother learning Indigenous languages (difficult, hard work and takes time) apply to Indigenous people.

So, if Governments are serious about communicating better with Indigenous people, they need to recognise that they speak different languages. On the one hand, this means helping Indigenous people learn English. (They could invest in decent English-as-a-second-language programs (preferably ones that treat the students' first language as a resource, and not as an inconvenience) as well as in training Indigenous teachers to explain what's happening in the class to children). On the other hand, they need to understand what the Indigenous people are saying. (They could invest in good interpreter and translator services, and in Indigenous language training for staff who plan to work for a long period in a non-English-speaking community).

This all takes time, commitment and money. Pity about the world financial crisis. Pity about the 10 wasted fat years that went before the W.F.C.


[1] Paper delivered to the 32nd Annual Meeting of the Uniting Church in Australia Northern Synod 30th September – 3rd October 2008

[2] Maybe Trudgen is a bit optimistic about presuming that good language training is automatically given to Government-sponsored relief and aid workers. Sigh.

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