Doing the best by Indigenous children in remote communities

Last Friday was AIATSIS’s Research Symposium on Bilingual Education, organised by Sarah Cutfield and Cressida Fforde. At the end, Mick Dodson launched a paper by Pat McConvell, Jo Caffery and me, which is now available online Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory [ new link – .pdf]. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Discussion Paper 24.
Friends of Bilingual Learning have put out a media release on the subject, and resolutions from the symposium are expected soon, both long-term and short-term.
I was saddened to learn of the helplessness and isolation of the people who’ve been working with mother tongue medium programs. Many are Indigenous; many non-Indigenous staff have worked in these remote communities for decades. They’re stayers. They get very little support. Policy-makers don’t listen to them; they’re treated as problems because they can see the importance of starting from where the children are at. They came in their holidays, some got funding from NGOs. It was humbling to hear that the symposium was valuable to them.
What came out strongly from the Indigenous participants in the symposium was the sentiment behind some of the paper titles: They are our children, This is our community (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma), and Nganimpa-nyangu kurdu-kurdu, nganimpa-nyangu Warlpiri Our children, our Warlpiri (language) (Warlpiri community members and Wendy Baarda). Yes we love our children, yes we want the best for them, yes we think they can learn both ways and live in both worlds. It is movingly expressed by Connie Nungarrayi Walit, a Warlpiri health worker:

The one thing we have left from our parents and grandparents which is really our own is our language, Warlpiri. This is the last thing we have left to pass on to our children and grandchildren,

The people who have decided that English shall be the language of the classroom will have taken that language away from Nungarrayi’s grandchildren. Unintentionally, with the best will in the world, thinking they’re doing the Right Thing by Nungarrayi’s grandchildren.

What really really pisses me off is that the well-meaning policy-makers don’t understand what they are doing. They don’t understand that English immersion education throughout the Territory hasn’t produced speakers of Standard English; it’s produced speakers of creoles and mixed languages. In some respects it’s harder to switch from a creole to a standard English. If you speak a traditional language with the weight of culture, art, metaphor and history behind it, then you can talk on equal terms with speakers of English, a language with the added weight of power and access to many people. So, you can swap from one to the other without a sense of loss. But if you speak a creole or camp English, then you are used to whitefellows looking down on the way you talk as substandard English. So, talking standard English comes to be seen as talking like a whitefellow and cutting yourself off from your family. At least, that’s my outsider’s guess as what’s happening.
The well-meaning policy-makers don’t understand the richness of what will be lost by not using the mother tongue. The richness is indicated in the title of a paper given by people from Yirrkala:(Dharktja Dhuwala Djambulu Maypa: My language has layers and layers of meaning.) which derives from a metaphor involving paperbark. In turn the paperbark metaphor is woven into a comparison between education and the making of cycad bread wrapped in paperbark, which must be done carefully and in stages so as to produce a nutritious food instead of a poison. It was an elegant analogy. They also emphasised bala lili, reciprocity. Not something the Northern Territory Government showed when it reneged on the Remote Area Learning Partnership agreements that the Yolngu and the Government had negotiated – which included support for mother tongue instruction.
The policy-makers also don’t understand the weakness of the evidence they’re using to tear down the programs – one weakness was brought out by Brian Devlin – the flawed statistical basis of the comparison between the eight bilingual schools, and eight allegedly comparable non-bilingual schools. To this could be added that four of the eight allegedly comparable non-bilingual schools are attended mostly by children whose first language is an English-based creole. So kids in those schools already know a lot of words that are shared with English. It is predictable that in the early years of schooling they would do better on English literacy testing than kids whose first language is a traditional language.
There were impressive demonstrations of two programs. We can learn from them what works. We heard that not all bilingual schools are working well – but we know that mother tongue medium schooling WILL fail if schools are starved of EFL trained teachers, of professional development for Indigenous teachers, and if they are assigned teachers and principals who don’t understand team-teaching and bilingual education.
There’s plenty of research showing that mother tongue medium schooling can work very well and can work better than English immersion. So, why wouldn’t you keep it, if the communities want it? And if it keeps the communities’ languages strong? And if, for teaching children English, it does at least as well as (and probably better than) English immersion ?
I suppose you wouldn’t, if, in your heart of hearts, you believe that ‘closing the gap’ means Aborigines becoming more like whitefellows culturally, socially, educationally and linguistically, rather than living longer, in better material circumstances, and keeping and handing on what is really precious to them.
Tom Calma quoted a remark about bad policy – if your horse dies underneath you, get off it.
Outside the symposium there’s been some response and coverage. The Central Land Council, which knows the situation of Indigenous children in remote desert communities, has come out in support of the report. AIATSIS staff managed to attract considerable media attention – an impressive feat given how difficult it has been up to now to get the media to be interested in the good things about mother tongue medium instruction) (ABC Online, National Indigenous Times, Stuart Rintoul in The Australian, and several interviews with Miliwanga Sandy from Wugularr community (they don’t have a full mother tongue instruction program), including on Bob Gosford’s Crikey blog – part 1, and part 2, where she also gives her strong views on “why I’m fighting, still fighting for my people and their freedom and for getting jobs and freedom to have to spend our money in our own ways and where we want to have the freedom to be able to control our own situations.”
SBS Radio also had a detailed story on the issue (thanks Sarah!) – currently available in full (streaming) – go to the Aboriginal program and click on “LISTEN TO THE LATEST BROADCAST” – the bilingual education discussion starts about 10:20 minutes in. Two segments are available on podcast – Tom Calma ( podcast) and the Australian Council of TESOL Associations (podcast). Unfortunately the extensive discussion by Sarah Cutfield isn’t listed as a podcast.
Will it do any good? Who knows? We have tried, and can only keep trying. Write to the media, to the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Government, to Gary Barnes, CEO of the NT Education Department, to the Federal Ministers for Education and Indigenous Affairs. Join Friends of Bilingual Education for updates. Support the Ngapartji Ngapartji initiative for a National Indigenous Languages policy. Support the implementation of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

1 thought on “Doing the best by Indigenous children in remote communities”

  1. The regional partnership agreements were a disgrace. At Kalkaringi, assistant teachers were not even aware that they’d been scrapped and thought that they were still going to get support for an ILC program (they actually want a Gurindji two-way program but nobody will even talk to them about that). Nobody had even bothered informing them which basically kept them quiet because they are so used to waiting and waiting for these kinds of things.

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