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I've been galvanised [ thanks Jason!] out of deep gloom over what's happening and not happening in the education of Indigenous children in Australia. There IS something we can do.. We can all make submissions to the National Indigenous Education Action Plan draft put up for public comment. OK they may go "Sigh...another submission from a linguist...." But they do say they're going to publish the submissions. Deadline 28 February.

So here's roughly what I'm saying to them:

Strengths of the National Indigenous Education Action Plan draft (2010-2014) document are that it recognises the importance of Indigenous teachers and teaching assistants, of having high quality teachers, of having a 'culturally inclusive curriculum', of increasing the academic performance of Indigenous students, and of having community-school partnerships.

The big gap in the draft policy document is the absence of clear recognition of the differing needs of Indigenous children from different language backgrounds, and consequent focus on just one type of student . At least four different types of language background need to be distinguished.

1. schools where the children come to school monolingual in a traditional Indigenous language.

2. schools where the children come to school monolingual in an English-based creole language.

3. schools where the children come to school bilingual in an English-based creole language and a traditional Indigenous language.

4. schools where the children come to school monolingual in English or a non-standard variety of English.

As it stands, the document is mostly addressed to the needs of students in category 4.

Children in categories 1. 2. and 3. require special support in the early years of school.
a. These children may be cognitively and academically advanced, but unless teachers speak the children's first language they will be unable to assess the children's skills. This requires the employment of people who speak the children's first language, usually local Indigenous teachers.

b. These children will be severely handicapped at school if they are unable to understand the language of the classroom. Therefore all states with children in categories 1, 2 and 3 (primarily the NT, WA, SA and Qld) need to have in place sound English-as-a-second-language curricula, teaching methods and trained teachers to work with these children. You cannot teach children to read effectively if they don't understand the language of the reading materials. [Finer distinctions should be made between how one should teach children who speak a English-based creole, and those who only speak a traditional language.]

c. It is really important that these children should be engaged at school. That means that interesting stuff needs to be shown to them early. Take dinosaurs for instance. A lot of kids get enthralled by them, and they realise that school is worth doing because it helps you find out interesting things. SO you can't spend most of the day on phonics and numbers - you'll bore the shit out of kids. BUT, if these kids are to learn about dinosaurs, and if they are not to lag behind in other subjects such as numeracy, they have to understand what the teacher is saying. That is, they need to have teachers and teaching assistants who speak the children's home language well enough to explain to them in a consistent manner the important concepts of these other subjects. Consistency is crucial. Pulling in one interpreter one day and another the next will not result in the children receiving the consistent input needed for them to grasping difficult concepts. [I remember being confused at school about "four minus two, "subtract two from four", "take two away from four" - if interpreters who are not trained teachers are used, that kind of confusion will be magnified. ]

d. Since language is fundamental to culture, a 'culturally inclusive curriculum' for these children must include their home language. If schools show that they do not value the children' home languages, by relegating it to an optional extra which has to be done out of school, then this will lead to alienation of Indigenous teachers and communities from schools. (It is noteworthy that in the NT the majority of Indigenous teachers worked in the former bilingual schools where they felt valued).

The document also substitutes 'culture' where 'language' might be more suitable, or 'language and culture'. Trying to create a currciulum in which culture is studied apart from language will almost certainly result in dumbed-down material, unless substantial resources are invested in translation and work with older speakers, which does not seem likely. Similarly, focussing on teacher's 'cultural competence' rather than linguistic competence is also likely to result in continued poor communication, as these courses are almost always far too general. If you want to talk with people, attending a cultural competence course is no substitute for being able to speak their language.

Finally, the document contains an implication that there's no place for Indigenous languages in schools. This is quite extraordinary, given that no one sees any problem with teaching non-Indigenous languages at schools. The suggestion is that this can be handled by out-of-school language programs. Yeah. Like all those resentful children of German immigrants who, 40+ years ago, I went to German Saturday School classes with. Bet they don't speak German now.

Out-of-school language programs will be extremely difficult to operationalise. There's a radical difference in curricula and materials needed for monolingual children who speak traditional Indigenous languages [language maintenance] from those who are learning them as a second language [language revival and revitalisation]. But what work there has been in Australia has been done for language revival and revitalisation. We just don't know how curricula and materials should be developed for out-of-school programs for enriching the language development of first language learners. Who will pay for the on-going development of these materials? Who will train the teachers? Who will pay for the on-going employment of out-of-school teachers? In poor communities this is not sustainable.

My great fear is that removing Indigenous languages altogether from schools, (as the thrust of this document appears to be), and relegating them to out-of-school programmes will have the following effects:
1. children monolingual in another language will not learn standard English effectively
2. children monolingual in another language will have a slower start on learning other subjects
3. children, Indigenous teachers and communities will be alienated from schools
4. when out-of school programs for Indigenous languages fail, as they almost inevitably will, this will be blamed on the apathy of the children and the parents.
5. children will see their traditional languages as having no value, and will switch to speaking a creole, thus hastening the decline of traditional languages.


Agree with you Jane, too many languages, and with that who knows what intracacies of culture have been lost already. We do not need a government that sanctions more loss.

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