If you have read any of my other articles about the use of the local languages or English only approaches to Indigenous education (pt1, pt 2) then you will already know how I feel about such a dis-empowering approach to education. But what is most troubling is that a large portion of Territorians and other Australians seem to support the rhetoric expressed by the minister Marion Scrymgour. She argues that Indigenous languages have no place in teaching literacy and numeracy in schools, and therefore the first 4 hours of every school day must be in English. After talking to a few people, and media watching on the issue, it seems that support for the Government’s position is based on a few misunderstanding about the learning that is actually happening on community. Let’s briefly explore the reality behind these assumptions about the bilingual and remote community schools this policy will most effect.
Misunderstandings about literacy education on remote communities.
- The children in remote and bilingual schools are not being taught English.
Reality:The children on remote communities and in bilingual schools are taught English and grow up with the ability to speak English and write english. The problems are that many have a limited vocabulary, poor written literacy and numeracy skills.
- Bilingual schools are teaching in local languages
Reality: Bilingual schools are unable to train, and thus do not have, specialist teachers who know the local Indigenous language. You would be forgiven for thinking it should be otherwise. They are provided with funding for only one linguist and the rest relys on the linguistic skill of locally employed indingeous teacher aids who recieve little additional training.
- Children in remote communities are not being taught in English.
Reality: English is the language spoken by almost all teachers in remote Indigenous classrooms already. If there is any education using the local language, it is provided by Teacher Aids from the local community. Conssequently at least 50% of education has been taught in English for the last 30 years. Teaching in english has not help indingeous kids learn to speak or read english well.
- Someone out there wants to stop English being taught.
Reality: No one, including Indigenous groups, have argued against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders being taught English. Aboriginal people have always asked to be taught English.
- The forcing of teachers to use English in the classrooms is new policy that has not been tried before.
Reality: This is not the first time a policy like this has been introduced. The education department introduced a policy of English only education (100% of the time) about 4-5 years ago. It did not apply to bilingual schools, but in a number of bilingual schools new priniciples encouraged the use of english in class rooms. Schools that currently use english only models did not perform better than the bilingual schools in recent tests.
- The current thinking in the NT and around Australia seems to be that the best way to teach a new language is to force people to listen to it as much as possible.
Reality: Such an approach only works if the student is immersed in the language and removed from peer groups that speak their first language That is, for immersion to be successful at teaching English, the kids must be taken away from their families and friends – Australia has been there done that, No thanks.
Reality: We do not use this approach when we teach foreign languages to English first language speakers. Have you ever learnt French or Indonesian at school or university. What do we do? We teach the new language using the student’s first language, English. Why? Because language acquisition is fastest if it is charted in the first language – eg. djugu = contract, guyaŋa = think… you just learnt 2 new words in a new language using your first langauge. Untill the student has a good grasp on the langauge we must use structured programs that teach English using the language the students already know. Why don’t we do this in Indigenous schools?
- Indigenous languages are not powerful or accurate enough to teach difficult English concepts.
Reality: Indigenous languages are highly effective, accurate and contain all the meanings necessary to teach mathematical, scientific and humanitarian subjects. I know this because I teach economic literacy, governance and germ theory using an Indigenous language
- We have to do something. We have tried almost everything.
Reality: The one policy no government has ever implimented to solve low literacy and numeracy rates in Australian remote Indingenous schools is the training of EFL teachers to use local Indigenous languages to teach english and other subjects. This would enable true bilingual education rather than what actually happens today.
Considering that mainstream support, rather than research and local community knowledge, tend to drive government policy it is possible that these misunderstandings or assumptions are driving the current push to once again force english only environments on children in remote Indigenous schools. I hope this clarifies the issue for you and helps you to explain some of the issues to others.