The language of instruction – an ESL expert’s opinion

[From an ESL expert working in the public service outside the NT]
I have heard a great deal about how bilingual programs in the NT have once again been targeted for demolition- personally, I think this is completely and utterly wrong. I would hasten to add, however, that I think that the language situation for Indigenous students in classrooms throughout much of Australia is also generally totally undesirable – ie, not just because bilingual school programs are being stopped/limited…
In my opinion, the best-case scenario for any children who are learning new information/concepts/knowledges is that they understand the language in which this new material is being presented to them. Students’ “strongest language” – the language variety in which they are understanding the world, thinking deeply, communicating fluently etc – is what I would recommend as the most effective language of instruction… I support the NT bilingual school programs because they have been utilising students’ “strongest language” for teaching junior school information/concepts/knowledges including literacy. Students have been gradually introduced to English literacy in a structured way, bridging from pre-existing first language literacy skills into second language (English) literacy.

Students’ “strongest language” may be a traditional language in some parts of Australia, however, in most of Australia it will be a mixed variety, a creole or a related variety… This highly complex Indigenous language situation has been brought about by language use shifting away from traditional languages, precisely because traditional languages have not been serviced, supported, valued, allowed, acknowledged, acclaimed, studied, celebrated etc etc. And if speakers of traditional languages have suffered this neglect, I can assure you that speakers of the mixed, creolised and other varieties are totally ignored. It won’t surprise you to find out that of the NT bilingual programs which have functioned up to the present, all cater to traditional language speaking children; no speakers of mixed, creolised or other varieties have had such opportunities. (The one NT bilingual program for Kriol speakers in Barunga was stopped during the previous round of attacks on bilingual schooling – and Kriol is the language with the most Indigenous speakers by far.)
As for ideas on English teaching! It is not sufficient to declare that there will be “English only instruction” – whether children have been attending a bilingual school or not, it is nonsense in areas where children get no purposeful opportunities to use English in their day to day life. Many remote, rural and urban NT schools have entire or majority Indigenous student cohorts who share a language and do not speak English: These students are not doing “English only” in the classrooms: they are not thinking in English only, talking to each other in English only (in- or outside of the classroom) and they might just have the opportunity of one best-attempt-at-English exchange with an English-speaking teacher in their entire day. I consider the declaration of an “English only” zone for the first X hours of the day to be an intellectually lazy and pedagogically bereft approach.
If there is an agreed goal that children should learn English (and there usually is, because English is incredibly useful for accessing mainstream services because they’re generally not offered in Indigenous languages), then it should be taught, explicitly, in sequential and age-appropriate language lessons, with developmentally sound principles, like overseas students would be taught English as a foreign language. This is not the same as “English only” which uses English (which children have not yet acquired) to teach concepts (which children do not yet know) to use for demonstrating the extent of their understandings (by answering questions which they cannot comprehend) etc.
I do wonder if NT educational planners think that if traditional Indigenous languages are not supported, that all the Aboriginal groups might turn into English speakers. (Actually, the experience in the rest of Australia is that Indigenous groups shift to mixed, creolised and related varieties – NOT to Standard Australian English: Then again, they are usually treated as if they do speak English, just badly). I really doubt, however, that the current approach is anywhere near this clearly planned: I expect the truth is much more likely to be that educational planners are monolingual, monocultural people who really do not understand the difference between learning a language versus learning through a language.

2 thoughts on “The language of instruction – an ESL expert’s opinion”

  1. by “pre-existing first language literacy skills into second language (English) literacy” are you meaning to imply that Aboriginal languages are written? I think you will find they are aural/oral

  2. It’s true that Indigenous Australian languages weren’t written down by their speakers before colonisation. However many now are written down, and in some communities, speakers of Indigenous languages are teaching children how to read and write in those languages. The languages usually have a much more transparent spelling system than English does, and so it is easier to learn to read and write in Indigenous languages. The problem is that over recent years less effort has been put into creating reading materials in the languages, and previous uses for writing, such as letters, have declined with the coming of cheap phone calls and cheap transport.

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