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If you are interested in Indigenous education in Australia or what happens when Governments get worried about minority groups not reading and writing the dominant language, check out Prioritising Literacy and Numeracy: A strategy to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes 2010–2012. Darwin: Northern Territory Government Department of Education and Training. There are some good things in it, but there are some worrying things. Take this paragraph:

"The language and cognitive skills domain includes basic literacy; basic numeracy; interest in literacy, numeracy and memory; and advanced literacy. The percentage of Northern Territory children vulnerable and at risk in the Language and cognitive skills domain at the commencement of full-time schooling is significantly greater than the national average, as indicated below." (p.6)

Now it may be that the NT has lots of children from all backgrounds who are at risk. But I bet this is code for "Indigenous children". Looking further - what is literacy? Literacy=English literacy. How are the cognitive skills tested? Almost certainly in English. This calls into question the reliability of the information on which this claim is made.

A lot of people in the NT are worried about the NT Government's approach to Indigenous education - Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL) , Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, NT branch (ATESOL NT) , Uniting Church in Australia, Northern Synod, Darwin Anglican Church of Australia, Diocese of the Northern Territory, Darwin and the Top End Linguistics Circle (TELC). They've got together to sponsor a seminar. So, if you're in Darwin on Thursday 9 September, hop along to Indigenous languages in education Do current policies match our needs?

7:30pm, Thursday, 9 September 2010
Mal Nairn Auditorium,
Charles Darwin University,
Casuarina Campus
Contact: Phil Glasgow, 8931-3133

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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.

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UPDATE: check out Greg's post on the new Crikey language blog Fully (sic)

Greg Dickson has done a great service by looking at the figures on attendance rates in NT schools with large numbers of first language speakers of Indigenous languages - you can find his discussion on the Friends of Bilingual Learning website.

One of the few schools with good attendance is Areyonga

2008 - 95%
2009 - 89%
2010 - 93.6%

Pitjantjatjara teachers there, Peggy Gallagher and Daphne Puntjina, and the teacher-linguist, Leonard Freeman, were doing terrific work. But Areyonga school is in the news again: Schools boss seeks solution to bilingual anger. Areyonga people have consistently been pushing to maintain their program of education through the children's first language - and were supported by their principal in 2008. The CEO Of NT Education says there has been confusion about the policy. But surely he must have been misquoted:

"We want people to speak their home language for the first four hours but we want it predominantly done in English."

Hammering the point home about the importance of first language, the Australian Council of TESOL associations has useful links on Indigenous issues and on the place of first language in children's learning. They state:

The Australian and international TESOL fields argue that the maintenance and ongoing development of a student’s first language (L1) provides learners with a solid base from which to acquire an additional language.

Awareness of the positive influences associated with supporting L1 development is particularly important for young learners. Older learners actively draw on knowledge of their first language and its structure, conceptual and content knowledge held in this language and their L1 literacy skills when learning a subsequent language. However younger learners do not yet have this depth of knowledge to draw on and without appropriate support they are at risk of failing to acquire full proficiency in either their first language or the main language of school instruction.

The upshot of Greg's calculations on attendance is that most of the former bilingual schools are not like Areyonga. They seem to have given up - attendance has dropped in many schools. My guess is that this relates to a poisonous sense of powerlessness in communities faced with the introduction of the 'First four hours of English' against their wishes, the loss of community control to the Shires and the relics of the Intervention.

What a mess.

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Sydney University students - your chance to study an Indigenous Australian language this semester!

KOCR2605 - Speaking Gamilaraay 1 - University of Sydney

Gamilaraay is an Indigenous Australian language from the mid-northwest of NSW that is currently undergoing revitalisation. This unit of study will provide students with a basic competence in speaking, understanding, reading and writing Gamilaraay sufficient to recognise and construct simple utterances in the language, and to understand its relationships with other languages. Classes will take the form of three-hour intensive oral workshops that progressively develop each students abilities in the language. Assessment will be by short written assignments based on lesson content and an appraisal of individual oral/aural performance together with a short essay on Gamilaraay culture or a related topic.

Unit coordinator: Br John Giacon

Classes: (1 x 3hr seminar)wk

Assessment: Homework sheets (35%), Oral performance (45%), Essay (20%)

In Australia, there's been a lot of downplaying recently of the fact that young kids understand what's happening in the classroom better if they hear it in their first language - from the NAPLAN tests which don't factor this in, to the MySchool comparisons which ignore it, to the English literacy push expressed recently by Margot Prior.

Writing about MySchool I whinged that we needed more numbers. Well, Brian Devlin has done a lot with existing numbers.

Using the MySchool site, he's revisited the claims of the NT Department of Education in November 2008 that bilingual schools were doing a lot worse than non-bilingual schools on the NAPLAN tests. At the time, problems of comparability were raised (why were some high performing bilingual schools omitted? Why was a secondary school included? Why were schools included where the children spoke a creole rather than a traditional language?). But we had trouble getting numbers on the allegedly comparable schools. MySchool gives it. Brian's put his findings in the files section of the Friends of Bilingual Learning site. You can download Brian's paperlets "Year 3 performance data for 2008 'bilingual' and 'non-bilingual' schools compared.pdf" and "2008 attendance comparison.pdf".

Here are the highlights. Based on averages in 2008,

  • Bilingual school children win out on Year 3 numeracy, and, for what it's worth grammar/punctuation [the questions in this part of the NAPLAN test have so far had little regard for staging, difficulty, or even the kinds of mistakes that second language learners are likely to make]
  • Bilingual school children also do as well, or better, on reading and spelling, as children in the non-bilingual schools.
  • They do worse on writing.
  • Their attendance is the same or better depending what comparison set is used.


And of course on top of all this, in bilingual schools, the home languages of children at bilingual schools are being strengthened and valued; they have Indigenous teachers who act as role models. [cracked record, me].

As Brian points out, the numbers aren't good for the remote schools generally in the NT, bilingual and non-bilingual. And a lot more needs to be done with the numbers - comparisons over time, across years and so on. The 2009 numbers are bound to be weird, because the schools were floundering trying to implement the Department's "Talk English" policy , and many communities with previously bilingual schools were demoralised by the disregard of their wishes. So a quick check suggests that the Year 3 figures in Lajamanu and Yirrkala worsened substantially in 2009 from 2008. Most importantly, the NT Department of Education has a lot of work to do with communities and schools to improve the results in future years.

Devlin's figures show that the Department's stated rationale for getting rid of bilingual education in 2008 was flawed. And since partnerships with communities are essential for getting good results from schools, why not support those communities that want their children to understand what's happening in the classroom?

We have until 28 February to make submissions to the National Indigenous Education Action Plan.

On Ockham's Razor (24/1/2010) a psychologist, Margot Prior, talks about the need to do something about Indigenous children's literacy. There's some good stuff in it - the need for more Indigenous teachers, for partnerships between schools and communities, for teachers to be sensitive to the differences between non-standard English and Standard English (note that this is NOT limited to Indigenous children - there are plenty of other children in Australia who don't speak Standard English as a home language).

Prior's overall solution?

If preschool education at a minimum of 15 hours per week was universally available, and every child had at least a year of programs which focused on enhancing language and pre-literacy skills, provided by committed preschool teachers, many more children would begin school well prepared for reading and writing.

I expect politicians will welcome this solution. Why should we treat it with caution?
First, for Prior "language" = "English". But her talk shows some basic misunderstandings of languages and how children learn languages and reading and writing. The distinction between speaking a traditional language and speaking a non-standard variety of English are treated as if they presented the same difficulties for children attempting to learn standard English. They present rather different challenges - the methods of teaching English as a second language have to be different from those of teaching English as a second dialect.

As worrying are remarks such as the following:

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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:

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Indigenous Australian languages have been in the news recently. On the positive side, Liza Power has a long piece in The Age, The new songlines which looks at Indigenous languages and music [thanks Myf!], and brings in Nick Evans' new book Dying Words. It's in my bag waiting to be read when I get through oh the Mound of marking and stuff.....

Four Corners did a program on the decision to abolish bilingual education in the NT, focussing on Lajamanu, but with some footage at Yirrkala. They’ve also come up with a good set of links and resources, and extended interviews with Djuwalpi Marika (Chairman Yirrkala School Council), Wendy Baarda (former teacher-linguist, Yuendumu) and Gary Barnes, CEO NT Education Department. Barnes' most quotable quote:

GARY BARNES: We absolutely want our young indigenous people to become proficient in the use of English language... It's the language of learning, it's the language of living, and it's the language of the main culture in Australia.

And a quotable one-worder from the Chief Minister and Minister for Education:

DEBBIE WHITMONT (to Paul Henderson): Is it fair to expect that children who are trying to learn in a second language should meet the same benchmarks at the same time as children in other parts of the country who are learning in their first language?

PAUL HENDERSON: Absolutely.

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Four Corners is planning a program on bilingual education in the Northern Territory, currently scheduled for 14th September. It's timely, as there've been several news items recently on the topic.

Miliwanga Sandy, Jeanie Bell and Jo Caffery did an interview on Bush Telegraph on endangered languages. Peter Buckskin has headed a review into education (reported by Anna Patty in the Sydney Morning Herald, and also here):

Professor Buckskin, who is the dean and head of school at the David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research at the university, said his review found no proof that teaching Aboriginal students in English only would result in better literacy.
''What evidence did the Government of the day have to say this was the best way forward? We can't find it,'' he said. ''There was more evidence to support bilingual education than there was against it.''

To provide contrasting views, Patty turned, not to specialists in education or language, but to Helen Hughes, an economist, whose views, perhaps, are coloured by her experience emigrating to Australia as a child from Czechoslovakia.

''It is absolute nonsense they don't have enough time to spend on their own language,'' she said. ''Aborigines, like other Australians, have to speak fluent English, and the way to do that is to start very early.''

This misses several points. First, bilingual education is exactly that - education in TWO Languages. Children are taught English right from the start. Second, if children don't understand English, they'll learn faster if they are taught in their own language, and are given proper classes in learning English. You can't learn if you don't understand what the teacher is saying. Immersion education, such as Hughes probably experienced, works best when children have already grasped the concept of reading and writing through learning to read and write in their first language, when their parents are literate, and when the language they are learning has plenty of reinforcement in the community. That's not the case in many Indigenous communities.

Back to Peter Buckskin for the third point. Interviewed by Sara Everingham on the ABC along with Wendy Baarda, stalwart of bilingual education at Yuendumu, he said

"The Northern Territory has a real privilege of having inter-generational language speakers and that should never, never be lost to the communities of the Northern Territory,"

He's right. Helen Hughes' grandchildren can go to Europe and refresh and reinforce their Czech or German. But if Indigenous children don't have the chance to strengthen their languages, the languages will disappear. And there's absolutely no need for this to happen - there's plenty of room in the curriculum for Indigenous languages and English. Done properly, it will enhance the children's education. The catch is 'done properly'. There are plenty of ways to stuff up bilingual education - as any education program.

Meanwhile, in Papua New Guinea... passed on via Lila San Roque - A new mailing list has been set up for people who are interested in vernacular language education issues in Papua New Guinea. This list is intended to help share information and foster the network of people working with, researching, and/or developing the use of tok ples in the formal and non-formal education sectors in PNG.

If you would like to join the PNG Vernacular Education Network (VEN) mailing list you can do so at:
http://mailman.anu.edu.au/mailman/listinfo/ven

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[From Felicity Meakins]
Hi all,

I have just made and ordered new 'Don't Cut Off Our Tongues' postcards. They
have been ordered to coincide with a Four Corners documentary on the
Lajamanu Two-way language program which will be one of the bilingual
programs to be axed soon. This program will air on 14the or maybe 18 September. The
postcards will be some follow-up lobbying, so please send some out!

The postcards exist in two forms:

1. The first has 'Don't cut off our tongues' on the front and is addressed
to Paul Henderson.

2. The second has 'Reinstate bilingual education' on the front and is
addressed to Julia Gillard.

The image on the front isn't the greatest quality, but the point is still
made. They will be ready in a couple of weeks.

If you are interested in getting your hands on some, send an email to Greg
Dickson (greg.dickson AT batchelor.edu.au). Let him know which postcards you
want and how many. Get them out bush, get them to your friends, family and
students. But please make sure they are sent!

Alternatively, you could send Greg a return self-addressed envelope:

Greg Dickson
Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics
Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education
Katherine Annexe
PO Box 1896
Katherine NT 0851

E-mail me for any other questions: felicity.meakins AT manchester.ac.uk

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Two Ministers responsible for different aspects of Indigenous Affairs in Australia, Jenny Macklin and Peter Garrett, have jointly announced $9.3 million of funding for Indigenous languages. The grand aim is to "to help take 113 indigenous languages off the critically endangered list."

Some good stuff:

"A focused and coordinated national approach is critical to safeguard indigenous culture and save these unique languages."
Communities will be encouraged to use endangered languages as much as possible and all efforts will be made to pass them on.
... The policy will also encourage the teaching of indigenous languages in schools"

Some bad stuff:

"although it is understood not to alter the course in the Northern Territory, where bilingual education is set to be scrapped in 2010." (out of date... in several schools, energetic principals and superintendants have already enthusiastically closed down bilingual programs).

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The "Understanding Children's Languages Project" of the Queensland Department of Education is developing a very rich website, (yay Denise!), which will have heaps of resources and sensible explanations of what's going on with Indigenous children's languages. Really useful if you have to explain things to teachers, parents, community members, or anyone who goes to sleep at the drop of a noun. A lot of the content is still under development, but they have uploaded some interesting interviews with Queensland Indigenous people about language histories (Under "Language awareness") .

There's lots to think about in the interviews, but I'll just single out 2 things which intrigued me. Very relevant to the current English literacy push is Val Wallace's comment

I think the kids need a pat on the back really. That is just a part of living biculturally really regardless of the language you speak at home and what you are taught at school. English should be seen as picking up another skill rather than it being something that is 'the be all and end all' of you getting an education. There has to be a reason for learning English. You shouldn't actually just tell people to do something without giving a reason as to why they are doing it.

We are in danger of forgetting that kids should learn other things than English at school - and if the focus is all on learning to read English, when do they learn about science, dinosaurs, geography, their family's history, the country's history, law-making, and all the things that we take for granted that English-speaking teachers will talk about with English-speaking kids from early on.

And an entirely different point - it's worried me for a long time that we may be overemphasising the substrate influence from local Indigenous languages on new Indigenous languages such as Kriol, Broken and so on. The structures of the traditional languages vary considerably - especially if you add Tok Pisin from Papua New Guinea as Cherry Royee does

There are a lot of Torres Strait Islanders here and they use the word Creole to name their talk. Pidgin is another name I've heard - my husband is Papua New Guinean so they speak that or Broken. I just call it Murri Talk or Murri Way, I never really thought about it. Is there a proper way? I never heard about it!

In other words, in contrast with traditional languages across mainland Australia, the Torres Strait and PNG, all these new languages is so similar, that it is easy to learn one if you know one of the others. So, to find substrate effects, we have to look at more subtle differences - i.e. look at regional differences among new languages and see if they correlate with regional differences in the older languages.

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Last Friday was AIATSIS's Research Symposium on Bilingual Education, organised by Sarah Cutfield and Cressida Fforde. At the end, Mick Dodson launched a paper by Pat McConvell, Jo Caffery and me, which is now available online Gaps in Australia's Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory [ new link - .pdf]. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Discussion Paper 24.

Friends of Bilingual Learning have put out a media release on the subject, and resolutions from the symposium are expected soon, both long-term and short-term.

I was saddened to learn of the helplessness and isolation of the people who've been working with mother tongue medium programs. Many are Indigenous; many non-Indigenous staff have worked in these remote communities for decades. They're stayers. They get very little support. Policy-makers don't listen to them; they're treated as problems because they can see the importance of starting from where the children are at. They came in their holidays, some got funding from NGOs. It was humbling to hear that the symposium was valuable to them.

What came out strongly from the Indigenous participants in the symposium was the sentiment behind some of the paper titles: They are our children, This is our community (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma), and Nganimpa-nyangu kurdu-kurdu, nganimpa-nyangu Warlpiri Our children, our Warlpiri (language) (Warlpiri community members and Wendy Baarda). Yes we love our children, yes we want the best for them, yes we think they can learn both ways and live in both worlds. It is movingly expressed by Connie Nungarrayi Walit, a Warlpiri health worker:

“The one thing we have left from our parents and grandparents which is really our own is our language, Warlpiri. This is the last thing we have left to pass on to our children and grandchildren,”

The people who have decided that English shall be the language of the classroom will have taken that language away from Nungarrayi's grandchildren. Unintentionally, with the best will in the world, thinking they're doing the Right Thing by Nungarrayi's grandchildren.

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AIATSIS's Research Symposium on Bilingual Education is gathering pace. The program's now available. Audio recordings are expected to be available in a week's time.

Friday 26th June
8.30 – 9.00 Registration in the National Museum Foyer
9.00 – 9.30 Welcome to Country by Matilda House.
Introduction by Dr Lisa Strelein, Acting Principal, AIATSIS.

9.30 – 10:10 Mr Tom Calma (Australian Human Rights Commission)
They are Our Children, This is Our Community
10:10 – 10:30 Morning Tea

10:30 – 11:15 Dr Jane Simpson (University of Sydney), Dr Patrick McConvell (ANU) & Dr Josephine Caffery (ACU)
Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory

11:15 – 11:40 Leonard Freedman, Peggy Gallagher and Daphne Puntjina (Areyonga School)
Areyonga Two-Way School: What we do and why we do it

11:40 – 12:05 Rarriwuy Marika, Marrkiyawuy Ganambar-Stubbs (Yirrkala CEC), and graduates from the Yirrkala School Two-Way program
Dharktja Dhuwala Djambulu Maypa: My language has layers and layers of meaning.

12:05 – 12:30 Janet (Maxine) Nungarrayi Spencer, Connie Nungarrayi Walit & Wendy Baarda (Yuendumu community)
Nganimpa-nyangu kurdu-kurdu, nganimpa-nyangu Warlpiri Our children, our Warlpiri (language)
12:30 – 1:30 LUNCH

1:30-2:10 Ass. Prof. Brian Devlin (CDU)
Bilingual Education in the NT and the continuing debate over its effectiveness and value

2:10-2:50 Kathy McMahon (CDU) and Cathy McGinness (St John’s College)
Tales from the North: Bilingual pedagogy and sustainability

2:50-3:30 Prof. Joe Lo Bianco (University of Melbourne)
What Happened to Language Rights?
3:30-4:00 Afternoon Tea

4:00-5:15 Discussion Panel. Chair: Dr. Peter Toyne
Panelists: community members associated with NT Two-Way Schools; Prof. Joe Lo Bianco; Dr Inge Kral; Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney; Dr Jane Simpson

5:30 – 7.00 Reception at AIATSIS
Launch by Prof. Mick Dodson of:
J. Simpson, P. McConvell & J. Caffery 2009: Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory (AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24 - see here)

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Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory: Principles, policy and practice

AIATSIS Research Symposium

Date: Friday, 26 June 2009
Venue: Visions Theatre, National Museum of Australia, Canberra
Time: 9:00am – 5:15pm, followed by a reception at AIATSIS

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Way back when (actually 20-21 February), I went to the National Symposium on Assessing English as a Second/Additional Language or Dialect in the Australian Context. Jill Wigglesworth and I gave a talk on some of the problems we see with the NAPLAN testing of second language learners of English, in particular Indigenous children living in remote communities where they mostly only hear standard English at school or on the telly. There were plenty of bloggable moments and discussion, but life got in the way of actual blogging.

Now, thanks to Adriano Truscott, I've got the link to the handouts and powerpoints of the presentations. Here they are.

And here [.pdf] also are the recommendations that people concerned with Indigenous education made.

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[From an ESL expert working in the public service outside the NT]

I have heard a great deal about how bilingual programs in the NT have once again been targeted for demolition- personally, I think this is completely and utterly wrong. I would hasten to add, however, that I think that the language situation for Indigenous students in classrooms throughout much of Australia is also generally totally undesirable - ie, not just because bilingual school programs are being stopped/limited...

In my opinion, the best-case scenario for any children who are learning new information/concepts/knowledges is that they understand the language in which this new material is being presented to them. Students' "strongest language" - the language variety in which they are understanding the world, thinking deeply, communicating fluently etc - is what I would recommend as the most effective language of instruction... I support the NT bilingual school programs because they have been utilising students' "strongest language" for teaching junior school information/concepts/knowledges including literacy. Students have been gradually introduced to English literacy in a structured way, bridging from pre-existing first language literacy skills into second language (English) literacy.

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Further on the decision of the NT Government to require schools to teach the first four hours of each day in English.. a media release from Misty Adoniou, President of the Australian Council of TESOL Assocations (ACTA), the peak body for professional associations for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.


Ignorant decisions exacerbate declining outcomes for Indigenous learners

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[ Update: David Wilkins has just published an article W(h)ither language, culture and education in remote Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory? in the Australian Review of Public Affairs (October 2008) on the topic which is well worth the read as it covers some of the research into bilingualism, bilingual education and the cognitive advantages. Essential reading for people who want to base policies on evidence.]

Previous posts (here, here, and here) discussed the likely bad effects of the NT Minister of Education's proposal for Indigenous children to be taught English for the first four hours of every school day.

The Minister has now clarified this in Parliament. It's rather carefully worded, and doesn't mention the four hours proposal. It gives qualified support for Indigenous languages.

"Our schools will still be able to undertake Indigenous language and cultural programs and I emphasise strongly here that I am not removing the resources from our two-way schools. There will continue to be Indigenous teacher assistants working in partnership with the teachers in those classrooms in our very remote schools."


This is welcome, but it needs further clarification. Not "removing the resources" doesn't preclude "diverting the resources". An Indigenous teacher assistant could spend a lot of time photocopying English lesson plans, and no time explaining class material in an Indigenous language to children who don't understand English.

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[ from Inge Kral, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University ]

On Tuesday October 14 Marion Scrymgour, the Northern Territory Minister for Education and Training, announced a greater emphasis on teaching English in NT DET remote community schools. Why? Because she is ‘committed to making the changes needed to improve attendance rates and lift the literacy and numeracy results in our remote schools’ as the literacy results in remote schools are still ‘unacceptable’ while the results being achieved in Darwin, Alice Springs are comparable to schools in similar parts of Australia. So what is the aim here? To improve English oracy, literacy and numeracy, and to increase the employability of Indigenous youth in the real economy, one assumes.

For those of us who have worked in Indigenous education on the ground in remote areas over the past few decades, it is clear that these policy decisions are not evidence-based. Yes, English is important, however a critical flaw in the argument is that more ‘teaching’ in English will not necessarily equate to better ‘learning’ of English. Rather, the best path to increasing remote Indigenous students’ English involves increasing the relevance of what is offered to students and communities, and paying more attention to the provision of meaningful post-school contexts that allow for application of the learning. To assume that increasing the requirement in remote schools to spend more hours of the day teaching English, in English, by non-Indigenous teachers who speak English only will increase school attendance and lift literacy and numeracy rates is way off the mark. Furthermore, literacy levels are comparable whether a school teaches in English or the children’s own language for the first four hours of the day – only 10 out of 55 remote schools are bilingual, and there is considerably more community commitment to the children’s education in the bilingual schools than in non-bilingual. Communities want bilingual education [1] – why is this government not listening to them?

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[From John Giacon]

As noted in the blog post on John Hobson's lecture, the Koori Centre has been one of a number of forces which have pioneered major developments in Indigenous Language education in NSW and other parts of Australia. I want to comment on two sentences in the review:
'Indigenous children need qualified teachers who are fluent speakers of the language'
and 'Majors in Indigenous languages just aren't on offer [in Universities]'.

I will use my experience of Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay to reflect on these. I started working in the languages 12 years ago. Sadly, I have not met anyone who has or had elementary fluency from 'handed down' language. For instance I have met a number of people who know that yanay is 'go/walk', but none who knew the past-tense form 'yananhi' or the various continuous forms. Nor have I met anyone could productively use the locative suffix for meanings like 'in, on, at'. Just two examples of the many elements you would need to know for even moderate fluency. People who have done courses now know these elements of Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay, and much more. Fluency is growing, slowly.

So, the fluent teachers necessary for language teaching are not there, 'in the community'. However the rules for forming past tense and the forms and meaning of the locative suffix, and much more, are in Corinne Williams' Grammar of Yuwaalaraay (1980). And there is much more information that she did not have time to process in tapes and other Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay sources. So if those sources are used, then resources and courses can be developed: for instance the Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay Yuwaalayaay Dictionary, the 'Speaking Gamilaraay' course at the Koori Centre/University of Sydney and the TAFE Certificate 1 in Gamilaraay and Gumbaynggirr courses.

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The first Koori Centre lecture for 2008 was given by John Hobson, "Towards a model for training Indigenous languages educators in Australia" [the full paper will be up via the e-repository shortly). And a timely and thought-inducing talk it was too.

John's recently been to Canada, the US and Aotearoa /NZ, looking at Indigenous languages education there. He's come back convinced that we need to do a lot more in Australia to improve the way Indigenous languages are taught. The price of doing nothing is that kids will lose interest in Indigenous languages, and won't put the effort in that's needed to go beyond saying a few words and singing a song or two.

On the (highly) political side, he's come back convinced that the existence of treaties has created climates much more favourable to Indigenous languages rights in those countries than we have in Australia.

On the money side, he noted the major difference between the user-pays attitude to education found in the US and Canada, and the reliance on governments here and in NZ. Native Americans and Native Canadians are using money from mining, from gambling, from whatever resources they have to pay for language work. In practice this means a great diversity in what's on offer, since some groups have far more resources than others. It also means that they rely more on summer and winter institutes (the inpsirations for our Indigenous Languages Institute and Australian Linguistics Institutes) than we in Australia have.

On the less (but still) political side, he highlighted the growing realisation that, like any children learning languages, Indigenous children need qualified teachers who are fluent speakers of the language. (This point has been emphasised by Timoti Karetu (Inaugural Commissioner of Maori Language) *).

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After South Australia, and New South Wales, another Australian State gets serious about bringing Indigenous languages into schools.

The Queensland Studies Authority has released a flyer [.pdf] about Indigenous languages, affirming that, among other things:

"understanding the language backgrounds of Indigenous students is a critical factor in the successful learning of Standard Australian English as part of formal education in Queensland schools"

and

"it is valuable for all students to understand the language diversity of Australia's Indigenous peoples"

and finally, the promise..

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community perspectives on valuing, maintaining and reviving local languages will be supported through our products and services."

A start, a start! Good on the many people who have worked to get this up.

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Among the people invited to share ideas at the 2020 Summit on visions for Australia's future are several speakers of traditional Indigenous Languages, Jeannie Nungarrayi Egan, Raymattja Marika and Thomas Jangala Rice. Apart from them, as far as I can see, linguists haven't got a look in. Our ideas aren't part of the vision for Australia. Sigh, so what's new?

Australia's language capacity has declined. This includes the capacity to speak the languages of our neighbours, the loss of Australia's Indigenous language heritage, and the fact that Indigenous children in remote communities are not learning Standard English. Changes in policy are needed to rebuild our ability as a country to learn and use languages. It'd be great if the summit considered this as something to push for.

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The Australian's running a campaign against cultural appropriateness where it pertains to Indigenous Australians. Cultural awareness courses, out the window! Cultural training for journalists? No need! Last Saturday they had a front-page story taking up a paper due out this week on Indigenous children's education by the economist Helen Hughes of the Centre for Independent Studies . Helen Hughes, so The Australian claims, is saying that educational apartheid exists in the Northern Territory (a claim denied by Nadine Williams, the very experienced President of the NT Branch of the Australian Education Union, but The Australian buries her view at the end of the article. A teacher talking about education isn't sexy; an economist is).

What The Australian is licking its chops over is that apparently Hughes is inveighing against 'culturally appropriate' teaching methods.

I'm with them in that the term 'culturally appropriate' has been over-/ab-/mis- and sloppily -used ( Lexical Integrity, die!), and in that the idea of Western science and Western maths versus Indigenous science and Indigenous maths looks like a false opposition. Science is science - I want the bridges I cross over and the planes I fly in to be constructed according to the best available science and technology, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, Chinese, English or whatever.

Where we part company is as to how the best available understandings of science and maths are to be taught and in recognising that Indigenous people have knowledge which should be built on.

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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.

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The Canadian territory of Nunavut, created in 1999, has a population of 26,665, of whom 85% claim Inuit identity (2001 Census data). Of these approximately 85% claim to speak the Inuit language at home. (ibid. "Inuit Language" subsumes two major dialect groupings: Inuinnaqtun in the west and Inuktitut in the East.) With their huge political majority and their geographical isolation, the Inuit ought to have no trouble maintaining their language, but the challenges they face demonstrate that minority language maintenance is a difficult process, even when the odds appear to be extremely favourable.

The government of Nunavut has recently introduced two language-related bills, which have now progressed to second reading in the legislative assembly. The first, Bill 6, is an official languages act which establishes Inuit Language, French and English as official languages of the territory. The second, Bill 7, is an Innuit language protection act that seeks to promote the maintenance of the Inuit Language.

Prof. Ian Martin, language policy consultant to the Nunavut government and to the Inuit organization, NTI (Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated), presented his assessment of the stituation in a talk at Glendon College of York University this past week.

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LingFest 2008 will be held at the University of Sydney, Australia, 1 – 13 July 2008. LingFest is a series of linguistics conferences and the Winter Linguistics Institute.

In conjunction with LingFest 2008 , the Indigenous Languages Strand will run between 7 – 11 July 2008. It will be held at the Koori Centre of the University of Sydney. The Indigenous Languages Strand will be a useful forum for a wide range of people working in the area of the revival and maintenance of Australian Indigenous languages.

More details follow, or download the form for expressions of interest here - deadline Friday August 24.

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[From Gail Woods, Lecturer, Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Education, with respect to the Languages in Crisis summit]

Whilst the discussion paper is clearly focused on Languages Other Than Australian (LOTA) and the inherent security and economic risks associated with monolingualism, its sentiments could/should be subversively harnessed to develop the case for the maintenance of Australian languages.

For example, the pertinent benefits relating to studying a second language such as the increased rate of literacy development (as opposed to the myth that maintaining Australian languages decreases the uptake of English); the consistently high performance levels achieved by European children (who study second and third languages) as opposed to Australian children, in comparative literacy and numeracy tests; and “the cognitive benefits such as divergent thinking processes and more efficient uses of brain functions” could be equally fed into a proposal to reinstate properly resourced bilingual programs in schools where students’ first language is other than standard English.

That the industries of tourism and international education rely on a notion that Australia is “a tolerant society that welcomes people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds”, must be seen as laughable when we have demonstrated such a poor record of Indigenous language preservation and maintenance. Australian language and culture programs in schools are miserably underfunded, if in fact they operate at all. They are then held up as failures, with the blame squarely placed on Indigenous communities. And when the dollars are tight they are the first to go.

Certainly, as stated in the discussion paper, schools should not be seen as a monolingual habitat and never was this more true than in remote community schools throughout Australia.

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[ From Carmel O'Shannessy, who's worked in the NT Department of Education for many years, and has recently finished a PhD on children's Warlpiri]

Mal Brough shows how much he doesn't know about Australian Indigenous children's schooling when he suggests in today's Australian that compulsory learning of English would be something new. All children in Australian schools compulsorily learn English. Children in bilingual schools in the NT, of which the school in Wadeye community is one, also learn an Indigenous language at school. By the end of their primary years, if the school is well run and good programs and teaching methodologies are in place, the children in bilingual schools perform slightly better in English than the children in similar communities who attend English only schools. And they can also read and write in the Indigenous language, so they have learned twice as much.

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We just heard from a Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) member about their recent follow-up visit to !Khwa ttu: San culture and education centre, 70 km north of Cape Town. The San (sometimes called ‘Bushmen’) are the indigenous people of Southern Africa, and, like indigenous peoples in many countries, they have suffered dispossession and loss of much of their heritage. This centre is a space which combines restoration and display of heritage, tourism, and training for the San in "literacy, entrepreneurship, tourism, health issues, community development, craft production/marketing and gender awareness". A brilliant idea, and one that needs on-going support (equivalent cultural centres in Australia have had severe problems with trying to be self-sustaining).

FEL members got to visit it in 2005, before it opened. I was very impressed then. And I gather now that it's open, they are getting many school classes coming for tours. The other thing that impressed me was that the Centre was providing indigenous language classes for the children of the San who were training there. Now, the children are having mainstream education in Darling, about 20 minutes away by bus, but they attend classes in their own languages and culture in a Saturday school at !Khwa ttu.

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[Nick Thieberger, PARADISEC, Melbourne University branch, sent in this post after The Puliima National Indigenous Languages Information Communication Technology Forum.]

This forum was held in Newcastle, Australia, 24-26 April 2007, coordinated by the Awarbukarl Cultural Resource Association (ACRA). Subtitled 'Modern ways for ancient words', it was organised by Daryn McKenny and his team (including Dianna Newman and Faith Baisden) who put together two and a half days of presentations on the state of ICT in Indigenous language (IL) programs. The forum had a number of sponsors, testament to Daryn's ability to pull in support from various quarters, including DCITA, Telstra, Microsoft among others.

Representatives of language programs and language centres came from far and wide, including Townsville, Cairns, Port Hedland, Kalgoorlie, Bourke, Adelaide, Nambucca Heads, Sydney, Melbourne, Walgett, the Kimberley and New Zealand. We were given lots of information over the two days that I was there (I missed the last morning) and I'll try to summarise it here. Apologies to anyone I've left out.

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In the last seven days, the New Zealand Ministry of Education Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga introduced new national curricula of Māori and NZ Sign Language for mainstream English-medium schools (better late than never).

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I was thinking about tone-vowel and consonant sandhis in Fuzhou and I stumbled across this spectacular website from Matsu where they put up their primary school Fuzhou language textbooks with recordings of all the texts (and cutesy background music). There are also audio demonstrations of all the consonants, rhymes and tones. Apparently they are also working on putting up traditional kids stories on their website. All the Chinese characters are glossed with IPA and Zhuyin. (Sorry, no English.)

http://www.chinaweblaw.com/matsu/index.htm

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After weeks of hot weather and blame-firing over failed native title compensation land deals, rape, gangs, children taken into state care etc., it was like a fine lemon gelato to come across a couple of good news stories on Australian Indigenous languages. New flavour-of-the-year language and tourism, and long-term favourite language reclamation.

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In 1998, the Canadian government established the Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI) to fund projects aimed at preserving and protecting Aboriginal languages. Initial funding was CAD 5M per year. In Dec. 2002 the government announced funding of $175M for a proposed Aboriginal Languages and Cultures Centre (ALCC), which would replace the ALI. The Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures was also established, with a mandate "to make recommendations to the Minister of Canadian Heritage on the preservation, revitalization and promotion of Aboriginal ... languages". The Task Force submitted its recommendations in June 2005.

The election of Jan 23rd this year saw the rejection of the long-reigning left-of-centre but corrupt Liberals and the installation of a shiny new right-of-centre Conservative government.

On Nov. 3, the new government cut the remaining $160M of funding for the ALCC and reinstated the ALI for 8 years, with funding at the original level of $5M per year. The change has been condemned by various Aboriginal groups, including the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the First Peoples' Heritage, Language and Culture Council of British Columbia. On Nov. 14, the Ontario-based Native radio station CKRZ aired a discussion of the situation with representatives of Aboriginal groups, including the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine. The reinstatement of language funding was among the demands of a national protest in Ottawa on Dec. 5, sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations.

Letters of concern may be sent to The Honourable Beverley J. Oda, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Status of Women, House of Commons, Ottawa, Ont., Canada K1A 0A6 Oda.B@parl.gc.ca and to Ms. Judith A. LaRocque, Deputy Minister of Canadian Heritage, Aboriginal Affairs, Les Terrasses de la Chaudière, Room 12A14 25 Eddy Street, Gatineau, Quebec, Canada K1A 0M5 Judith_A_LaRocque@pch.gc.ca

Wendy Baarda's 2003 report The design and trial of an interactive computer program Lata-kuunu to support Warlpiri school children’s literacy learning, can now be read here. It's a report on a project she did as part of an M.Ed. at the Northern Territory University.

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There's an interesting post up on slashdot today about a legal battle between the Mapuche people of Chile and Microsoft. It seems that the tribal leaders of the Mapuche are unhappy about Microsoft working on a Mapudungan version of their Office suite of software.

Slashdot is a geek oriented web site that likes to track court cases against Microsoft. Cultural group ownership is a slightly left of field topic. The site generally advocates open source software and more liberal IP laws, so it was interesting to read the attitudes of the commenters on the main article.

UPDATE: 25/11/06
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Mark Liberman of Language Log weighs in.
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UPDATE: 27/11/06
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See a second post by Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log, and also see Jane Simpson's post for a thorough and very interesting analysis of the Australian situation.
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If you had $350 to teach kids one word of an Indigenous language, what would you do with it?

• pay a skywriter to write Janapurlalki "eagle" over an Eagles grand final footy match in Tennant Creek?

• pay a cheersquad of 5 people to chant Ja na pu rlal ki at the Eagles footy game?

• buy 35 t-shirts printed with wawarta "clothes" and give them to the kids?

• pay someone to reprogram a Barbie doll to say "Ooooh wawarta!"?

• provide two big loaves of damper bread with, spelled out in raisins, kantirri "bread" or marnukuju jangu "with raisins", once a week for a year?
or
• pay a language speaker to work with the children once a week for 4 weeks. And record the classes.

• pay a PhD student a scholarship for three years plus preparation, evaluation and testing expenses to work with speakers on devising a curriculum, lesson plans and teaching materials ( oops - only a very cheap PhD student in a very poor country - thanks Ilan!)

Now you've got $80,000 to get the kids using 230 words. Would you spend it on 230 reprogrammed Barbie dolls? Or on weekly school language classes for fifteen years? Or on a multi-media CD?

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Following on our previous posting.....

The Fifth International East Nusantara Conference (Kupang, Indonesia, 1-3 August 2007) has an important theme for speakers of many endangered languages: Language and Cultural Aspects of Tourism and Sustainable Development. I don't know of work on this for endangered languages (apart from the negative - we can't share our language with outsiders because outsider tourist operators might use it and take business away from us) . So it'll be very interesting to hear the results.

Here's a call for papers from John Haan.

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The making of contemporary Aboriginal learning and literacy: Ngaanyatjarra engagement with changing western practices was a seminar given by Inge Kral today at the Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research. The seminar raised questions about reading and writing practices in Indigenous communities, and about the survival of small Indigenous communities faced with increasing demands from governments for paper work.

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Suppose you're a linguist working in a community where
• the speakers have a shaky grasp of literacy
• community development workers have a shaky grasp on the speakers' languages
• there's an existing orthography which is crying out for improvement
My advice - block your ears to its cries....

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Suppose you're a linguist working in a community where
• the speakers have a shaky grasp of literacy
• community development workers have a shaky grasp on the speakers' languages
• there's an existing orthography which is crying out for improvement
My advice - block your ears to its cries....

5 comments | Read more...

It's been very hard for ordinary city-dwelling Australians (i.e. most of us) to learn Indigenous Australian languages. Most universities don't teach them, and getting to Alice Springs for courses at the Institute for Aboriginal Development is out of most people's reach. Summer schools, such as the Gumbaynggirr and Gamilaraay ones mentioned in a previous post are rare. So it had to come, and it has, but in a rather unusual way. The first public online course in an Australian Indigenous language is run out of a demountable building in Alice Springs by the Ngapartji Ngapartji group. Trevor Jamieson and his family want to tell the story of how they, some of the Spinifex people, were forced to leave their lands during the missile testing in the 1950s and 1960s. They do this at arts festivals, using Pitjantjatjara, English, songs and dance. And they run an on-line language program, so that future audiences can understand the Pitjantjatjara talk in their performances.

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There've been two recent stories in the media about Indigenous language education - one on teaching Yuwaalaraay, the language of the Walgett area of NSW to local children, and the other on teaching the Western Australian language Bunuba in a private school in Melbourne. One's about language revival, and the other's about language tasting.

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Behaving in a good way to the people one is working with is vital - unethical researchers do damage to communities in the short-term. And they do incalculable longterm damage, because communities that feel burned by researchers will reject other research proposals which might benefit them. There's a new publication addressed to Indigenous people on how to deal with health researchers. It's a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) booklet Keeping research on track: a guide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about health research ethics. In the past, the NHMRC guidelines for working with Indigenous people have been taken as models in other disciplines. And so it's important for us to look at them, even though linguists don't go sticking needles into people, and a grammar is of less direct benefit than the results of a study of the causes of kidney failure.

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Pitjantjatjara people in South Australia are thinking of abandoning their experiment with monolingual English education after fifteen years. At the same time, some communities in the Northern Territory are suffering from dysfunctional schools which happen to be bilingual, and so are thinking of abandoning their bilingual education programs, and the attendant teaching positions for community members. Churn churn. It's not about whether the program teaches English literacy and numeracy only. It's about children understanding what is happening in the classroom, and it's about communities understanding language shift. The evidence is that dropping bilingual education is no magic silver bullet for a miraculous improvement in children's English language and literacy.

But there's more evidence that bilingual education can produce better results than monolingual education. In The Australian Anthropological Society Newsletter Number 103, September 2006 (thanks David!) is an article by Ute Eickelkamp On a Positive Note: The Anangu Education Service Conference. Ute describes a conference held in Alice Springs in which half of the more than 200 delegates were Anangu staff and tertiary students "and many discussions and workshops were held in Pitjantjatjara". Yes!

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Want to learn some Gumbaynggirr and Gamilaraay in Sydney this January? John Giacon passes on this information. Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-operative  and Many Rivers Aboriginal Language Centre, in association with the Koori Centre at the University of Sydney, are facilitating Ngaawa-Garay, a summer school which will offer one week courses in Gumbaynggirr and Gamilaraay from Monday 15 - Friday 19 January, 2007.

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There was an engaging documentary Bush School on SBS tonight, about Warrego School in a ghost mining town out of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. It started a few years ago with eleven Warlmanpa children from the Mangarlawurru [Mungalawurru] Aboriginal community travelling 80 km each day to get to there. They're still going, singing their lessons in the bus. They attend 100% of the time, achieve national benchmarks in English literacy and numeracy, focus on horse-riding and swimming. The school is working hard to combat the hearing loss that most of the kids suffer from (ear infections have meant that several of the children have hearing aids). And they've sent one of their brightest students to study at a private girls school in New South Wales.

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To all our readers who'll be in the Tamworth area (New South Wales) on Friday 20 October, 2006. Remember the post on the excellent new Gamilaraay Yuwaalaraay resources?

Well this is your chance to admire the resources, and to see performances from the kids learning the Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay languages. John Giacon passes on this invitation.

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Kirsten Storry's paper on the problems with Aboriginal education received a write-up was discussed by her in an opinion-piece in the Australian 31 August 2006. She is described as a 'policy analyst' for the Centre for Independent Studies. For her, problems with "literacy levels" equals problems with literacy in English - Indigenous languages are not on her radar. Hence the complexity of teaching second language students to read and write in a second language does not feature in her account. Remember when outsourcing was supposed to save government departments heaps of money, and also to improve efficiency of IT systems? Well, that's Storry's solution to Aboriginal education..

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Kirsten Storry's paper on the problems with Aboriginal education received a write-up was discussed by her in an opinion-piece in the Australian 31 August 2006. She is described as a 'policy analyst' for the Centre for Independent Studies. For her, problems with "literacy levels" equals problems with literacy in English - Indigenous languages are not on her radar. Hence the complexity of teaching second language students to read and write in a second language does not feature in her account. Remember when outsourcing was supposed to save government departments heaps of money, and also to improve efficiency of IT systems? Well, that's Storry's solution to Aboriginal education..

11 comments | Read more...

Today I've been pointed to The Center for Indigenous Languages of Latin America (CILLA):
"The Center hopes to help indigenous communities realize their goals of language recovery and widening the contexts of language use by providing technical education in fields related to language, with an emphasis on language maintenance, documentation, and applications to social institutions that depend on language and communication among all citizens."

They have some excellent ideas about training and working with speakers of Indigenous languages.

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The Wednesday linguists' lunch at the CHATS cafe, ANU is a free-wheeling discussion of language, Indigenous Studies, and life in our various institutions - this week it ranged from the reconstructions of the pronunciation of  place-names (is Ulladulla really  Nguladarla?),  to language revival programs, especially John Giacon's experience with Gamilaraay,  and what works and what doesn't.

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Last Wednesday (26 July) I went along to a ceremonial ribbon cutting on a bunch of books on Wiradjuri in the Parkes Shire Library (central west NSW). This prompted some thoughts on language revival, Wiradjuri, the German Saturday school I went to, and teaching language.

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Nick Thieberger has just drawn attention to an article today from "The Australian" about the impending extinction of Australian languages, based on a Worldwatch report.  "It is estimated that 90 per cent of the languages spoken by Australia's Aboriginal peoples will perish within the current generation".

This is timely, as over the last few months we have seen increasing attempts by representatives  of the Government to attribute the dreadful state of some Indigenous people to  policies assisting them to maintain their languages and cultures.

In fact, over the last century many Indigenous communities all over Australia have been shifting from speaking traditional languages to speaking English-based creoles or varieties of English.  I have
seen no studies to show that, (keeping remotenesss of location and availablity of jobs constant) this shift has been accompanied by greater access to jobs, wealth, health and happiness.  
(Please add comments with reference if you can think of any).

Bilingual education has been blamed for Aborigines' poor English. But most Indigenous schools in remote Australia have not, and never have been, officially bilingual.  They have been English-medium schools. There is no evidence to suggest that children from the English-medium schools have learned English and other school subjects better than the children from the bilingual schools, and consequently have better access to work.  There are places where such testing could be done, but it needs to be done by independent assessors without a vested interest in the success of one or other type of program.

Second, bilingual programs in Australia have by and large been transfer programs - that is, they are based on the premise that many children learn better through their first language, and that  this allows them to transfer their skills to the dominant language.  The children have been taught English as a second language, from very early on. 

Third, these bilingual programs have often been under-resourced and under threat - they are more  expensive to run than English-only programs.  Whether a school remains bilingual usually depends on the principal of the school - and often new principals want to make their mark by reversing the policies of their predecessors. (a case in point is a new principal in a school which until his arrival had a Kriol bilingual program.  He made a bonfire of the Kriol materials laboriously
created by the local school staff).

Whether bilingual education slows language loss really hasn't been tested either.  We can point to communities such as Yuendumu which have had long-standing bilingual programs, and children
are still learning Warlpiri as their first language.  But no longitudinal studies have been done considering language loss and maintenance in comparable communities with and without bilingual
education programs. 

What isn't in doubt is that communities are shifting away from speaking Indigenous languages, and that once children stop speaking these languages, the languages will disappear.  If there are benefits to this language shift, as the Government appears to be claiming, they certainly don't seem apparent right now. Bilingual education may not be the solution to language loss, but until a better solution appears, it certainly cannot be dismissed.

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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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E-MELD The E-MELD School of Best Practices in Digital Language Documentation

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Murriny-Patha Song Project Documenting the language and music of public songs and dances composed and performed by Murriny Patha-speaking people

PFED The Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries

DOBES Endangered language documentation and archiving, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and sponsored by the Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen.

DELP Documenting endangered languages at the University of Sydney

Ethno EResearch Exploring methods and technology for streaming media and interlinear text