Vernacular education – PNG and Australia

Four Corners is planning a program on bilingual education in the Northern Territory, currently scheduled for 14th September. It’s timely, as there’ve been several news items recently on the topic.
Miliwanga Sandy, Jeanie Bell and Jo Caffery did an interview on Bush Telegraph on endangered languages. Peter Buckskin has headed a review into education (reported by Anna Patty in the Sydney Morning Herald, and also here):

Professor Buckskin, who is the dean and head of school at the David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research at the university, said his review found no proof that teaching Aboriginal students in English only would result in better literacy.
”What evidence did the Government of the day have to say this was the best way forward? We can’t find it,” he said. ”There was more evidence to support bilingual education than there was against it.”

To provide contrasting views, Patty turned, not to specialists in education or language, but to Helen Hughes, an economist, whose views, perhaps, are coloured by her experience emigrating to Australia as a child from Czechoslovakia.

”It is absolute nonsense they don’t have enough time to spend on their own language,” she said. ”Aborigines, like other Australians, have to speak fluent English, and the way to do that is to start very early.”

This misses several points. First, bilingual education is exactly that – education in TWO Languages. Children are taught English right from the start. Second, if children don’t understand English, they’ll learn faster if they are taught in their own language, and are given proper classes in learning English. You can’t learn if you don’t understand what the teacher is saying. Immersion education, such as Hughes probably experienced, works best when children have already grasped the concept of reading and writing through learning to read and write in their first language, when their parents are literate, and when the language they are learning has plenty of reinforcement in the community. That’s not the case in many Indigenous communities.
Back to Peter Buckskin for the third point. Interviewed by Sara Everingham on the ABC along with Wendy Baarda, stalwart of bilingual education at Yuendumu, he said

“The Northern Territory has a real privilege of having inter-generational language speakers and that should never, never be lost to the communities of the Northern Territory,”

He’s right. Helen Hughes’ grandchildren can go to Europe and refresh and reinforce their Czech or German. But if Indigenous children don’t have the chance to strengthen their languages, the languages will disappear. And there’s absolutely no need for this to happen – there’s plenty of room in the curriculum for Indigenous languages and English. Done properly, it will enhance the children’s education. The catch is ‘done properly’. There are plenty of ways to stuff up bilingual education – as any education program.
Meanwhile, in Papua New Guinea… passed on via Lila San Roque – A new mailing list has been set up for people who are interested in vernacular language education issues in Papua New Guinea. This list is intended to help share information and foster the network of people working with, researching, and/or developing the use of tok ples in the formal and non-formal education sectors in PNG.
If you would like to join the PNG Vernacular Education Network (VEN) mailing list you can do so at:
http://mailman.anu.edu.au/mailman/listinfo/ven

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