[lg policy] Australia: New NT education policy still sidelines Indigenous language
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Mon Nov 7 16:41:11 UTC 2011
New NT education policy still sidelines Indigenous language
Saturday, November 5, 2011
By Emma Murphy, Darwin
The Northern Territory government’s latest proposed approach to
teaching Aboriginal students, like its previous policy, places a
primacy on reading and writing in English. It allows for students’
first language to be used to help teachers explain new concepts, but
critics fear it falls short of valuing Aboriginal languages.
The draft Literacy Framework for Students with English as an
Additional Language was released on August 31. It slightly amends the
controversial “First Four Hours” policy, introduced in January 2009,
which expired earlier this year.
Many criticised the First Four Hours policy, saying it ended the NT’s
“Two-Way Learning” policy, which used bilingual education approaches
and recognised the central role of Aboriginal teachers and teacher
assistants. Under the First Four Hours policy, the first four hours of
the school day — the most productive learning time — were taught in
English only. The government came under much pressure over the policy.
At a time when it claimed to be focused on improving school attendance
in Aboriginal communities, critics said ending bilingual education
discouraged students from taking part in the mainstream schooling
Case studies of four Warlpiri schools showed no improvement — and
sometimes a drop in attendance rates — since the policy was
When the policy was announced in 2008, Yolngu educator Yalmay
Yunupingu said: “The decision to make English the only important
language in our schools will only make the situation worse for our
young people as they struggle to be proud Yolngu in a world that is
making them feel that their culture is bad, unimportant and irrelevant
in the contemporary world.”
Article 14.1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous People, to which Australia is a signatory, says:
“Indigenous peoples have 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.”
The new draft policy was released in August. Many who saw the First
Four Hours policy as an attack on Aboriginal identity and
self-determination, and thought it contravened the UN declaration,
eagerly awaited it.
The draft is based on a government-commissioned report by the Menzies
School of Health Research, which reviewed the literature on “Early
years English language acquisition and instructional approaches for
Aboriginal students with home languages other than English”.
The draft acknowledges the linguistic diversity of Aboriginal students
in the Northern Territoty. It says: “More than 100 Aboriginal
languages and dialects are spoken in the Territory. About 30% of NT
school students are English as Additional Language (EAL) learners with
one or more Indigenous home languages.”
Yet the policy does not recognise that teaching and nurturing literacy
in these languages is of inherent worth.
Australia is home to some of the world’s oldest living languages. But
UNESCO says it also has the world’s highest rate of language
extinction. Yet the draft policy says teaching in the first four hours
should remain “predominantly in English”, with home language used to
explain new concepts.
Meredith Davies from the Darwin Aboriginal Rights Coalition told said:
“Through supporting bilingual education, government respects
Aboriginal culture, signalling that it has an equally valid place
within the education system. This new policy does not recognise the
inherent value of Indigenous languages but rather sees that they may
be a useful tool through which to achieve better English literacy
The Menzies review covered several approaches to teaching EAL
students. These included “Bilingual 50:50 instruction”, which aims to
have students read and speak in both languages, through to “Culturally
responsive instruction with strong [EAL] support”, which teaches
students to speak and read in English only, but leaves space for
The Menzies report said effective bilingual approaches require support
from the community, leadership from the school and Indigenous
teachers, competent staff (including first-language speakers) and
Failing these conditions, the report said EAL strategies were “the
best approach to achieve improvement in student educational and
The government’s draft policy most closely resembles such EAL
strategies. This is despite evidence that bilingual education has
strong support in communities, that there are many qualified and
skilled Indigenous teachers working in the NT, and that some schools
have teacher-linguists and language resource production centres.
The draft policy acknowledges “some communities will identify a desire
to have their children learn to read and write in their home language
as well as … English”. The education department will support
communities by allowing them to use school facilities after hours “for
cultural and language activities”.
The draft policy does not address how this option will work in
practice. It is not clear whether teachers will have to work overtime
or if extra funds will be allocated.
The draft proposes a further option for schools that want to teach
Indigenous children’s first language in school hours. Directors of
School Performance will consider “arrangements in schools where
communities want their children … to read and write in their home
The draft policy says such arrangements may be approved if the school
can prove it has community support, competent staff and suitable
There is no requirement that the government help communities meet
Yingiya Guyula is a Liya-dhalinymirr man from north-east Arnhem land
who was taught in the bilingual system. He is now a senior Yolngu
Studies lecturer at Charles Darwin University. He said learning to
read and write in one’s own language — not just maintaining the
ability to speak it — was vital for his people to keep their strength
and identity, while they negotiate their way through the
non-Aboriginal world at the same time.
“Bilingual education did work. It did work,” he said. “I am one of the
students who learned Yolngu Matha and Balanda Matha [English] in
school. And now, I am here, working in the university, teaching
language and culture. I sometimes help [my non-Yolngu colleagues] with
“Bilingual education never got in the way of a mainstream education.
It fitted very, very well. It fitted perfectly. A lot of us are now
teaching, and I am able to write, and I do lots of transcriptions,
translations, for the stories that our old people have recorded.
“If I had never learnt Yolngu Matha, through bilingual education, back
in the late ’60s and ’70s, I would have never got this far.”
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