Two Ministers responsible for different aspects of Indigenous Affairs in Australia, Jenny Macklin and Peter Garrett, have jointly announced $9.3 million of funding for Indigenous languages. The grand aim is to “to help take 113 indigenous languages off the critically endangered list.”
Some good stuff:
“A focused and coordinated national approach is critical to safeguard indigenous culture and save these unique languages.”
Communities will be encouraged to use endangered languages as much as possible and all efforts will be made to pass them on.
… The policy will also encourage the teaching of indigenous languages in schools”
Some bad stuff:
“although it is understood not to alter the course in the Northern Territory, where bilingual education is set to be scrapped in 2010.” (out of date… in several schools, energetic principals and superintendants have already enthusiastically closed down bilingual programs).
Garrett and Macklin will have an uphill battle – they probably don’t know that heaps of teachers, principals and education bureaucrats out there are saying that everyone (parents, Indigenous teachers..) should talk English to Indigenous kids so that the kids learn English and get good scores on the NAPLAN tests.
Garrett and Macklin also perhaps don’t realise that if they get rid of bilingual education (Indigenous-language-as-medium-of instruction), there’s only one thing left for Indigenous languages in schools in Australia at the moment. “Language-other-than-English” (LOTE) is used as a cover-term BOTH for programs for children who don’t speak their traditional language and for programs for children who DO speak a traditional language.
Unfortunately, LOTE program mostly mean flash cards of words for body-parts and animals, and a few songs like ‘head and shoulders, knees and toes’. Not how we’d expect to develop an English-speaking child’s English. There’s no half-way house. There’re no programs I’ve heard of recently in Australia which systematically develop the child’s first language, taking them through learning more sophisticated vocabulary, more sophisticated sentence structures, and finally adult genres.
Devising such programs requires a lot of research and testing and teamwork from Indigenous teachers, language teaching specialists and linguists. It all takes time.
It’s all too hard …. So, what if you think your Minister won’t buy the line that singing a couple of songs is a good structured ‘language & culture’ program? Well, language is part of culture, right? So – easy! get rid of the ‘language’ and call them ‘culture programs’. Then, if kids just draw boomerangs for a couple of hours a week, or read in English about boomerangs, you’ve done your culture program, right?
If Garrett and Macklin really want to save those languages, they and their departments have some serious thinking to do.