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The NT Government is going to draw up a policy [.pdf] reported as "to save indigenous languages in the Northern Territory".

If the policy involves reversing the decision on stopping systematic mother-tongue medium instruction (aka bilingual education), great! If the policy involves doing something intelligent and well-grounded on developing teaching skills, materials, and curricula for strengthening Indigenous languages, also great! But it will be VERY expensive. Actually, building on their original mother-tongue medium instruction would probably cost less. Unfortunately, nothing the current NT Government has done so far on education and languages gives one confidence that they know what's involved in helping speakers pass on their language to their children.

First they stripped mother tongue instruction from the schools with children who came to school speaking Indigenous languages. They said they'd be helping Indigenous teachers teach their language after school, or later in the day. In reality, in some schools, this has come down to half an hour a week, preferably on a Friday afternoon when children are most likely to be tired and fed-up. This sends loud and clear the message that Indigenous languages are unimportant.

As far as I can see, the NT Government advisors don't realise just how hard it is to develop a staged curriculum which actually develops the children's speaking and listening abilities in their mother tongue, strengthens their vocabulary and helps them use sophisticated language. This is a seriously difficult task. There are few models of how it could be done well. Lots where it's done badly.

And there's no quick fix. You can't develop one curriculum and expect it to work for all the languages, because their grammatical structures are often radically different. Language teaching is a skilled job, and most language teachers have the benefit of lots of materials and solid curricula. Ain't the case in most Indigenous communities. Each language requires skilled speakers, linguists, and language teachers working on it to develop a curriculum. The NT Education Department has enough linguistically trained staff to cover perhaps 4 languages in the NT. It is an absolute cop-out to think that Indigenous teachers can do this on their own. It is setting them up to fail.

The policy is being developed with the NT Government's Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council, some of whom are first language speakers of Indigenous languages and/or experienced teachers. Speakers of Indigenous languages are obviously key people to be involved in developing a policy. But I would like to have seen some reference to language-teachers, teacher-linguists, and linguists. Not involving specialists is like saying you can develop a health policy without consulting health professionals.


Senator Trish Crossin, Labor Federal Senator for the NT, gave a speech last year about the dismantling of bilingual education, drawing on her experience working in a bilingual school. You can read it here. It is tragic, and enormously frustrating, that her colleagues in the NT did not draw on her knowledge in framing in their education policy. But, maybe there's a chance for a change of heart, with the change of education minister, and the obvious problems emerging with the 'First 4 hours in English' policy.

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