Hopes and dreams

On Thursday I had an interesting time in a sleek-looking conference room at Parliament House with the House of Representatives Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities. The terms of inquiry cover learning English and learning Indigenous languages. Lots of people have put lots of time and thought into their submissions and appearances (available online). They are a fascinating snapshot of current concerns, hopes and dreams. (A couple contain not-so-subtle touting – gimme a gazillion and I’ll solve literacy/attendance/savethelanguage, but they’re the exception).

So I was answering questions about my submission [.pdf] on language learning in Indigenous communities. Here goes with points that I wanted to make, and then what I remember of questions asked by the Committee:


  • If we say we value Indigenous languages, then an enduring sign of that would be if, in 50 years time, lots of Indigenous children are fully bilingual in both an Indigenous language and the language of the majority of Australians (today English, but who knows what in 50 years?).
  • Doing this is difficult because there are at least three different types of language situation in Australia: communities where children come to school speaking a traditional Indigenous language, those where children come to school speaking one of the new Indigenous languages, Kriol or a mixed language, and those where they come to school speaking standard English.
  • These different situations have different needs and satisfying those needs requires different skills. Indigenous people and government are central to all. The skills of language teachers, ESL specialists, linguists, hearing specialists, reading psychologists will also be needed.
  • As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Reading schemes have their place, but they are only one small part of the picture, because language learning is a lot more than literacy, and because all literacy schemes on the market have serious weaknesses along with strengths.
  • To ensure that the money spent on Indigenous languages is spent wisely, we need evidence in a range of areas.
      a. we need to know what languages the children are coming to school with, i.e. what level of English and what level of Indigenous language they have mastered. For many communities we don’t know this.
      b. we need to have sensible assessment of the progress that children are making at school in both English and Indigenous languages. That is, for communities where children come to school not knowing English, we need tests that give us information about what they have learned, and whether they have learned as much as could be expected of a learner of English in that type of setting (remote/rural etc) And if we are serious about maintaining Indigenous languages we need to have measures of how well the children speak the Indigenous language. Are they increasing their knowledge, or are they falling behind? Are the kinds of additional language programs offered at schools helping or not?
  • Two areas that need much more investment are:
      the place of Indigenous languages at high school. Here, it is important to distinguish between programs designed to teach the language to students who don’t know it, and programs designed to enrich the language for students who are native speakers of the language. This is recognised for non-Indigenous languages – we expect that native speakers of Mandarin will have different language courses at school from learners of Mandarin, and will have different assessments in final year matriculation examinations.
      the place of Indigenous languages at universities. This point I didn’t get to make properly. By utter coincidence two people dropped by my office separately that same day, people not enrolled at ANU. They wanted to know how they could learn an Indigenous language at University. Not information that’s easy to find. As far as I know currently only two universities offer university-accredited courses in Indigenous languages still spoken by children: Yolngu Matha at Charles Darwin University (which can be done online), and Pitjantjatjara at the University of South Australia (which is a two week intensive introductory course, way down from the heyday of five levels of Pitjantjatjara course offered in the 1980s). Two other universities offer courses in languages which are being revived: Kaurna at the University of Adelaide, and Gamilaraay at the University of Sydney. Not many, eh?

Questions from the Committee:

  • What’s the point of reviving Indigenous languages? How can we justify spending money on this instead of on health, job creation etc, or on languages that are still spoken?
  • How do we improve the competitive grant application process so as to get people in remote communities to have access to Federal funds? [My estimates suggest that most applications come from language revival and restoration situations]
  • If there is to be expert review of funding applications for work on Indigenous languages, where do we get the experts from?
  • Do we have tests already to measure how well students have mastered a traditional language?
  • Is it easier to transfer from speaking a Kriol to speaking English than from speaking an Indigenous language to speaking English?
  • Is there anything in Kriol for people to read?
  • Is it culturally inappropriate to write down an unwritten language?
  • How come Mission schools like Mount Margaret which taught only in English got such good results?
  • Why can’t we just have bilingual teaching assistants interpreting non-Aboriginal teachers?
  • How do we get university education faculties to make ESL training a compulsory part of teacher training?
  • Is there any point to establishing a National Indigenous Language Commission?

Some I could answer, some I couldn’t, some I wish I’d answered better. The transcript will appear on the website some time. What did strike me however is that committee members had clearly taken on board a lot of stuff from the large number of submissions, some had passionate views, had a lot of relevant experience (former teachers, degree in anthropology, growing up in Southern Cross WA and Alice Springs), and were well-informed. E.g. a nice side-point was a proud mention by Sharon Grierson, Member for Newcastle, of the work being done at Newcastle University on endangered languages and Indigenous languages.

The question on Mount Margaret Mission allowed me to pay my respects on transcript to the late Kathleen Trimmer – because it was where she grew up, and the mission was the reason why she wrote a dictionary of Wanggatha (which is listed on GoogleBooks), and not her father’s language, Ngatju. Thanks to committee members, I took away references to two sides of the Mount Margaret question – Barry Haase referred me to: Morgan, Margaret. 1986. A drop in a bucket: the Mount Margaret story. United Aborigines Mission. And Sharon Grierson raised in discussion an article with a different point of view which she was going to distribute – I think it was probably this keynote address [.pdf] to the Australian Council of TESOL Associations by May [Lorna] O’Brien, who grew up on the mission. It is a moving address, which shows also the inescapable problem of language maintenance – the languages are the speakers’, and they are torn between conservatism and modernism, between one spelling system and another, between orthography and anarchy. She ends with the words:

In conclusion I make two recommendations. Firstly we must seek always to understand what occurs when a second language confronts the first. I say confronts because of what occurs in the process of learning that second language and I have provided some examples. Additional to this, however, is the fact that the child’s first or home language is part of his/her world, his/her relationships, his/her beliefs and values and is the means whereby his/her world is explained and can be manipulated. It is in every respect appropriate, needed and never to be devalued.

All languages are precious and important. My plea is, be careful and respectful of those Aboriginal languages that have survived. Our children must pronounce Aboriginal language words correctly or we will end up with an Anglicised version of the original Aboriginal language that is not true to its tradition. In my opinion, language inaccuracy can be an additional tool used to destroy another one of the few Aboriginal languages we have left. We, the speakers of our languages, who are the teachers and the custodians of the languages, must never let our languages be corrupted or silenced again.

In closing I pay tribute to those linguists of by-gone times who went out on a limb, spending their valuable time in recording the many languages and dialects we have left today. We honour and thank them because they believed in our languages and valued them. To linguists and supporters of today, working with Aboriginal language speakers and elders, I also extend my sincere thanks. And a special thank you to the Aboriginal language groups who so willingly have shared their languages so that Aboriginal children today, and those who will follow, will have languages that are correct and which they will be proud to own and speak.
But may we always remember, and in my Wongatha language…
Ngalibagu wanga gamu ganmarrthingala

2 thoughts on “Hopes and dreams”

  1. Thanks for this Jane. It’s RNLD’s turn to appear at the Inquiry this coming Thursday, and it’s helpful to have your perspective on the committee process. I found most of the submissions very moving – in part, because of the powerful stories some people told, but even more so because of the ways they reflect the passion and determination from people and organisations across the country to keep languages living and relevant. It’s good to reflect on this on Apology Anniversary day.

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