Generally, government agencies and organisations working in communities do not encourage staff to speak local languages. The result is that education and training of remote Aboriginal people in Australia is usually provided in an English dominated environment. Furthermore one of the prevailing views in regard to education, particularly english literacy, is an english only approach. Accelerated literacy for example, while it certainly has merits for teaching english, encourages an english only classroom. Such an environment can actually mask the problems of not utilising first language knowledge and concepts to teach english. It is important to understand how education or training can be going wrong without an english only speaker even knowing it, as a result of neglecting language use. I will discuss these problems over a series of posts.
Some of the advantages of teaching in the Aboriginal students’ native language are obvious; english words and concepts can more quickly be explained using terms locals already understand well. Some argue that by speaking english only it exposes students repeatedly to new english words, which allows Indigenous people to increase their vocabulary. This can occur in highly contextualised teaching sessions. However, contextualising in english to ESL students is difficult because of the loss of information that occurs as the student tries to understand english. When a learning a second language many of the words that a person does not know are not even heard by the brain, and if they are heard they are quickly discarded as the brain tries to decipher the meaning of the sentence using the word its does know. If you have learnt a second language yourself you would recognise this process, which leaves you hoping the words you missed were not too important. You may be able to see how this kind of word deafness can go unnoticed. This process of word loss is particularly detrimental to learning when contextualising, giving instructions, or explaining a meaning or concept, because these processes depend the most on information being transferred correctly. This is when the use of local language is most important. If local languages were used for these parts of the training process, particularly in literacy education, the learning process could be accelerated beyond what is achieved now by even the most successful english based strategies.