Local Languages and Effective education

I recently participated in an online forum by GetUp seeking to nut out ideas to present to the 2020 summit in April 2008. One of the things I chose to highlight was the importance of using local languages in education.

Australia values indigenous languages as shown in our public art, but in practice it is easy to have excuses. Photo by Superciliousness, some rights reserved
Art commenting on Indigenous Languages against Sydney sky scrapers

My experience in North East Arnhem Land is that education continues to fail here because cultural and language differences continue to be ignored. We expect Aboriginal people everywhere to learn english but make no attempt to teach them effectively by requiring personnel entering Aboriginal communities to use local languages. … A look at the history shows that in the 60’s and 70’s there were parts of the NT where indigenous people had high literacy rates. In NE Arnhem Land by the 60’s and 70’s the missions of this region trained adults and children using local languages. This changed after the late 70’s as the long term mission staff were gradually replaced by Government personnel who were not required to learn language and rarely stayed more than 2 years. … Let’s do things differently and learn from the past for a change.

The comments received from others about this post were very insightful and they can be viewed here. For some there are a number of concerns about learning Aboriginal languages and educating using local languages that become blockages, or even excuses, that prevent personnel individually or corporately from putting time into learning to use Aboriginal languages. I wish to briefly respond to these common concerns. Common concerns and assumptions about using local Indigenous languages

  1. Local Aboriginal Languages are very difficult to learn? – It is true that Indigenous languages are not simple languages and they are a challenge to learn. But they are no more difficult than most other foreign languages. Indigenous languages are in some ways easier to learn than the major European and Asian languages, for the following reasons.
    • Australian Aboriginal languages have consistent gramma and phonetic rules, primarily because they are very ancient and pure languages. Until recently they have experienced little mixing with different languages as has been the case of the major world languages English, French, Spanish and even Chinese.
    • Word order is usually not highly important. Indigenous gramma rules are based primarily on the use of suffixes and/or prefixes. English gramma is based primarily on word order, but also uses suffixes (attachments to the end of a word like; -ed or -ing). So while using only suffixes or prefixes for gramma can take some time to get use to, the student of an Aboriginal language does not need to be greatly concerned about word order which is in some ways the hardest aspect to change for an English speaker.
    • Indigenous Australian languages did not have a written language prior to European arrival, consequently the alphabets developed for Indigenous languages are entirely phonetic and aid in the process of learning new sounds and pronunciation. When learning major world languages often the written and spoken languages are like learning two separate languages.
    • There are no tonal aspects to pronunciation of these local language terms as in some Asian languages, like Thai.
    • There are few gender specific terms and common nouns and verbs are not gendered like in French or Hindi.
  2. There are too many Local Aboriginal Languages? – This is the excuse used by many government departments. However, the truth is that there are common ‘linga franca’ languages that cover large regions, courtesy of Indigenous people speaking several languages, before English. This leaves just a couple of small areas such as Groote Eylandt that are linguistically unique. Under current approaches working regionally remains a difficult because departments and organisations often try to centralise services in major urban centre as theses are easier to administer. Such centralisation then requires personnel to work in several different languages areas. Secondly, most personnel do not stay long in a single area. However, if we were to focus more on local approaches this could be overcome. One of the reasons for leaving one region for another is the stress that results from poor communication and a sense of isolation. Learning the local language is a major step toward reducing these stresses on personnel.
  3. It takes forever to learn enough language to be useful? – It takes 6- 9 months of intensive study to become effective in communication in your given field, but you can start to work in your field after the first 6 months. By 9 months you will not be entirely fluent, but you will be able to use a large range of key words and phrases in the topic areas of your work. You will understand at least half of what is said (which is more often better than in English only) and you will be more aware of cultural and language issues that are affecting specific situations. You will also be able to efficiently investigate new terms for difficult concepts you wish to communicate. All these aspects improve your effectiveness over English only. By introducing local languages as a medium for communication you allow locals to begin to use their own language in the work place, in your presence, giving them more control in conversations – effectively you are beginning to share the cultural space. This is greatly appreciated, it encourages friendships in the local community and also allows you to continue to learn the language on the job.
  4. Most Aboriginal people already speak English? – Across the whole of Australia this true. However, in places were there are still Indigenous languages being used English is the second, third or fourth language. In these places adults often speak English well but do not clearly understand intangible English concept terms, words like ‘serious’, ‘contract’, ‘lease’, ‘infection’, ‘responsibility’, guilty …etc. In places where English is the only language spoken the common language used may be an Aboriginal version of English, which uses different meanings for a whole range of intangible English words. Many intangible terms may still be misunderstood or not used at all. Sometimes it is ‘Aboriginal English’ that is the local language that must be learnt.
  5. Mixing English and Aboriginal languages produces a bastardised kriol, that reduces literacy outcomes. – English itself is actually a kriol, a mixture of Olde English dialects, a well as German, French, Latin and more. For English, this ‘bastardisation’ actually improved the vocabulary and the accuracy of the language, so that today it is one of the most accurate languages in the world. So the original assumption about kriols is simply not true. However, kriols can result in a loss of linguistic and conceptual ability when the parent languages are not being properly taught. This is happening on Aboriginal communities today due to the exclusive use of English by dominant culture personnel, limiting the ability of personnel to communicate, or teach, intangible English terms to locals.

All together, local Aboriginal languages are no more difficult to learn than any other language, in some way they are easier, but using them in education does require a local/regional approach to education.

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