We heard presentations from a number of CoEDL researchers, including work on individual differences in language development, the role of symbolic play in language acquisition, some research into first language acquisition in Papua New Guinea, and the role of prosody and other phonological features in language acquisition in Malay and Barunga Kriol. We heard about projects in communities such as Wadeye and Kukatja where English is not spoken much outside the classroom, and in communities such as Jilkminggan and Gunnedah where traditional languages are no longer strong. We explored some of the challenges inherent in language revival programs, the role of Indigenous language in the Maths classroom, the effects of otitis media on Indigenous children’s language acquisition, how print literacy may impact learning Standard Australian English, the impact on children in remote Indigenous communities of NAPLAN testing and English language assessment more generally, and the ‘affordances’ of language programs in the context of the Australian Curriculum. It was also interesting to hear about some contexts that don’t neatly fit into general approaches to language acquisition, such as the complex linguistic ecology of communities where neither Standard English nor traditional languages are spoken or taught, and what that means for contact languages such as Kriol, and literacy practices outside of the school in endangered language communities.
A public event gave opportunities to share about wonderful work on the Warlpiri theme cycle and the investments in education made in Warlpiri communities, then discussion and demonstration of some language apps for Indigenous languages. These included community involvement in the development of Memrise for languages of Tennant Creek, and making short videos using Powtoon for Gamilaraay, some other potentially useful game apps, innovative means of testing phonological awareness in Yolngu Matha, and the incredible work that’s gone into the creation of the world’s first Australian indigenous language app Tjinari in Ngaanyatjarra.
The final afternoon was spent brainstorming the issues raised throughout the previous day and a half, focusing on:
where we want education of Indigenous children to be in five years time;
how does our existing research fit into that
how can we engage with, learn from, and work more closely with policy makers, teachers, principals and other education workers about what research is needed
how can our research contribute to teacher professional development
how can this research be translated and impact on those who
implement policy, i.e. teachers and principals
CoEDL has a wealth of experience in its researchers and projects, and can play an important role in this space. It was great to network with so many keen and interesting researchers, and we look forward to seeing where this discussion takes us next.
The schedule moved from ‘big picture’ to local activities, starting with a presentation from ACARA about the national framework for Indigenous languages in the Australian Curriculum. Having established the framework, it’s now up to the different jurisdictions and schools to work out how to implement it. The framework aims to be inclusive but also deliberately generic, to allow for the many different contexts in which it will be implemented. Examples of implementation will be posted to the ACARA website.
Following a presentation about the function and purpose of First Languages Australia, presentations from each state or territory (except Tasmania) gave an overview of some of the activities, opportunities and challenges in each location. It was noted that the publication of the framework “has been a game changer for Indigenous languages in schools,” and each state is implementing it in different ways according to their populations and existing curricula. The value of language as a tool for social, cultural and economic development, including workforce development was highlighted, as well as the importance of community engagement in language programs.
Presentations about the MATSITI program to get more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers in schools, and from various training providers demonstrated the range of programs available for professional development and qualifications for teachers of Indigenous languages. (I was able to share briefly about the Living Archive alongside some of the training courses offered at CDU through ACIKE which focus on Indigenous languages and linguistics.)There are some interesting things happening in Alice Springs, with senior secondary students taking on Translation Tracks through VET in schools, looking at how to translate ‘real world’ documents, and visiting workplaces where language skills are needed. We also heard about the MILE program at Sydney Uni, which uses the resources from students’ own communities, and the Cert IV Teaching an Endangered Aboriginal Language which started in SA but is now available through Muurrbay in NSW. The AnTEP Aṉangu Tertiary Education Program from the APY lands, and the Gumbaynggir tutors program, opportunities through VACL, all reflected one participant’s comments “it’s not just language we’re teaching, it’s all about culture, our ancestors, our land, all together.”
On the second morning, we heard from school programs doing interesting and important things, and some of the challenges they face. Longstanding programs such as mother tongue education in the APY Lands, newer ones such as the Lurra program in several languages in Maningrida (where the point was made that learning in language gave the children a chance to be successful where they might struggle in English), Warlpiri and Anmatyerr in TiTree, efforts in Broome to create 20 fluent speakers of Yawuru in the next five years, Arrernte teching in Ltyentye Apurte, the strong history of language at Yipirinya School, and the challenges facing Indigenous language teachers in WA.
What emerged throughout the program was a series of ‘themes’ which were then explored in smaller groups, and issues were identified for each theme. In the final workshop, small groups aimed to write ‘one sentence’ which would sum up the situation and give focus to what is required. Key questions were addressed such as:
who will teach these languages?
who will fund the great ideas?
how can teachers be recognised and supported when their numbers are so small?
The value of events such as this is in bringing together groups of people with similar interests but working in very different contexts. The specifics are very diverse, but the challenges are just as vast. From languages with no speakers being revived from documents, to highly multilingual communities struggling to learn via English, the common thread was that each community was committed to passing on their knowledge to the next generation.
Besides the important issues discussed from the front, the support and encouragement felt among all attendees was very encouraging. In the many conversations during breaks, connections were renewed, relationships created, ideas shared, notes compared, resources shown, contact details swapped, stories told, and support demonstrated. People involve in teaching Indigenous languages can sometimes feel isolated and disconnected from support networks, so opportunities such as this are invaluable for connecting people and reminding everyone that they’re not alone, and that what they’re doing is important and valuable.
Thanks to Faith and the staff at First Languages Australia for bringing this group together, and to Karina and Simone for keeping it moving, and to everyone for being willing to share and support.
Dr Sue Smith, Senior Lecturer in Education at Charles Darwin University has sent a lovely message about how she uses the Living Archive in her teaching.
Just a short note to say how useful the links to the Living Archive in my subjects are for students.
I teach child and Adolescent Development that includes language acquisition, and effects of family, peers and culture/s.
Children have tremendous potential to learn languages, and it is vital that that they maintain the languages of their families and communities for their overall wellbeing and ongoing educational successes.
The Living Archive is a wonderful resource to introduce some of these complexities to my students, a repository for teachers to access to provide resources that can capitalise on Indigenous students’ languages and knowledge, and provide an entry point for non-Indigenous students to learn about Indigenous cultures with authentic age-appropriate materials.
This is a wonderful resource that offers itself to many learning contexts.
The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages is honoured to have been chosen as the recipient of donations in lieu of flowers at the funeral of Denise Millar. Her daughter kindly sent this photo and these words to describe her mother.
Denise Millar 5.11.46 – 17.12.14
Denise was a lover of art, culture and history. She was also a passionate advocate for Indigenous education. She felt supporting the Living Archive was her way of leaving a legacy that combined all of these things.
We wish to warmly thank those who donated in Denise’s name, and we will shortly be announcing our plans to use the money in a way that honours Denise’s legacy.
Rumour has it that the Northern Territory Government is proposing to scrap the one remaining linguist position in the southern part of the Northern Territory. This position has been going since the mid 1970s, and the occupants have worked with Indigenous people and schools to create shared understandings of Indigenous languages, of the needs of school-children for understanding what happens in the classroom, of the needs of Indigenous teachers for support and training. They have produced amazing materials in Indigenous languages for classrooms, curriculum materials and reference documentation, some of which is archived and available in the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages.
Rumour also has it that the reason for scrapping the position is because there is “no need for any linguistic expertise in Central Australia and the Barkly schools”.
But rumour doesn’t have it that the kids have all staged a revolution and started speaking Standard English.
Nor has rumour passed on in whispers evidence that their NAPLAN results have suddenly reached those of middle-class Australian non-Aboriginal children. Nor that their results will get better if their teachers know less about their languages.
And fact, not rumour, indicates that wilful blindness to children’s language needs violates the language rights of indigenous peoples – see the UN’s declaration on the rights of Indigenous people. Articles 14 and 15 are fine statements of language rights, and of the need for states to provide resources to back up the rights.
If rumour is right, then Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are losers again.
Article 15 Indigenous children have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State. All indigenous peoples also have this right and the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning. Indigenous children living outside their communities have the right to be provided access to education in their own culture and language. States shall take effective measures to provide appropriate resources for these purposes.
The question of what language(s) to teach Indigenous students, what languages to teach them in, and how to go about it has been generating a little political heat (but not quite so much light) of late.
On ABC’s Q&A earlier this month, Yalmay Yunupingu – the widow of Yothu Yindi front man Mandawuy Yunupingu – asked a pointed question about how the teaching of Indigenous languages will be funded given that Article 14 of the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People states that Indigenous children have the right to education in their own language. And a recent piece in The Conversation by Stewart Riddle sparked controversy after he said it could be argued that the emphasis placed on English literacy was no better than discredited historical attempts to make Aboriginal kids more “white”.
In fact, there’s a broad consensus that Indigenous students need to be taught English to fully participate in society. Most people also agree Indigenous languages need to be preserved. But there’s a great deal of confusion about how to go about this. This stems from confusion about how to address the language needs of children.
How and what do we teach Indigenous children?
Let’s begin with children who come to an Australian school speaking an Indigenous language or Cantonese or Arabic or a language of Somalia or… These children need to learn English as a subject – they need to learn English grammar, pronunciation, and to expand their English vocabulary. Otherwise they’re cut off from the goods and services of mainstream society. Everyone agrees on this: Indigenous parents, immigrant parents and teachers alike. Where they disagree is how this should be done.
There’s the el cheapo sink-or-swim approach – we chuck the kids into an English-only classroom where they don’t understand a word of what is being said, and then we expect them to learn to speak English by immersion. This may work in classes where almost all the classmates speak English and the child’s parents can provide support at home. But it doesn’t work in classrooms where the classmates don’t speak English, and where parents can’t read or write English. If a child can’t understand what a teacher is saying about arithmetic, then they won’t learn the basics of arithmetic. Children become bored with not understanding what is happening in the classroom, and lose confidence in their ability to join in mainstream society.
There’s a better approach – where children are taught in English, but where from the start teachers do teach them English as a subject in a systematic way, building up their confidence in speaking, reading and writing English. This will result in delays in understanding subjects such as arithmetic and science, until children have mastered enough English to understand what the teacher is saying. But at least it gives them a chance to learn English well.
In both these approaches, the home language is sometimes taught as a subject for perhaps 30 minutes a week. This doesn’t help children understand what is happening in the classroom, but it may give them a sense that the language is valued. However, to do this properly, a staged curriculum is needed, where children build on what they have learned, and enhance their knowledge. There aren’t the materials to do this in many communities, and so children may endure a lot of repetition of the same low-level material on plants, animals and artefacts. This may lead them to think that their home language is a restricted language, not something that they can use on Facebook, or something to use to talk about rockets, asteroids etc.
Then there’s the best practice approach – where the home language is used as the medium of instruction in the classroom at the start. Children begin school with teachers who can explain what’s happening in the classroom in their home language. These teachers can teach children English in a systematic way, building up their confidence in speaking, reading and writing English grammatically.
They can explain the fascinating and complicated ideas of maths and science in a language that children can understand, until they have mastered enough English for a switch of language of instruction to English. This is ideal. For it to work, governments need to invest in training fluent speakers of the languages as teachers, in helping them learn how to teach children to speak, read, write and understand English, and in developing elementary curricula and materials in the languages (see the Living archive of Aboriginal languages for examples). The payoff of a good mother-tongue-medium instruction program is excellent – children who can talk about a range of ideas in two languages, and who grow up knowing that both their languages are valued.
Indigenous languages are shrinking
As the children grow older, there’s the question of enriching their home language. As English speakers, most Australians are used to developing a mastery of the language in school, through using it to talk about maths, the economy, genetics, and so on. They learn new ideas and new words to express these ideas concisely.
Classes on English literature, poetry, plays, and films are other ways of increasing our knowledge of English. A few second language speakers of English may be lucky enough to have the opportunity to enrich their home languages in a similar fashion – German or French or Mandarin speaking children may be able to go to bilingual schools in Australia where they can learn to talk about ideas in a sophisticated way. They can learn at school about the histories and societies linked to their home languages. They can read Goethe, Victor Hugo, Mo Yan.
Indigenous children have no such luck. The domains in which they can use their home languages are shrinking, there is little or no material in their languages for them to study at school, and compulsory schooling in English means they have less time to speak their home languages anyway. Very few learn at school about the great works of verbal art of their communities. All too often, teaching about Indigenous arts at school is reduced to “didgeridoos, dots and damper”. Teaching at a higher level requires teachers who know the Indigenous language and understand the language of songs and storytelling, or who can collaborate effectively in team-teaching with senior Indigenous singers, performers and story-tellers.
English-only schooling as practised in most Australian Indigenous communities is destructive – it reduces children’s ability to learn English, to learn other subjects, to learn about the verbal arts of their own societies. It reduces opportunities to enrich their first languages through discussing new ideas in those languages. In the long-term, it reduces the chances that the next generation of Indigenous children will be bilingual in Indigenous languages and English. And in that way English-only schooling reduces the chances that Indigenous languages will survive much longer.
Jane Simpson receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a member of the Friends of Bilingual Learning.
Noella Goevas, a teacher at Ngukurr School writes:
“We are reading books about dogs. So looked for a Kriol one on the Living Archive website and found Angriwan Dotdot. Read it aloud to the kids with the (Kriol-speaking) Teacher Assistant who said I didn’t need any correction (yay) and you should have seen my kids… They were at such ease… I was asking them to recount and they were recounting with 100% accuracy. Then they asked for more! “Naja Kriol one”. So we read Bifo Langa Drimtaim. Such a long story but they didn’t care… They were right into it. Such a crazy good feeling. I had kids who rarely speak answering questions. There. Done.”
Send us your stories about using the materials in the archive!