Archive for the ‘Indigenous language education’ Category.

Yan-nhaŋu in the National Year of Reading

What a good decision in today’s Australia Day honours to make Laurie Baymarrwangga Senior Australian of the Year 2012! Read Claire Bowern’s post for an appreciation of her and her work documenting the Yan-nhaŋu language and getting it written down. She sounds a delightful person.

2012 is also National Year of Reading. Everyone with a reading-scheme in their revolver will be lobbying the government for funds to smelt and fire their silver bullets. Will the glitter of silver blind officials to the evidence as to whether they can hit the target?

How about for a change we read Yan-nhaŋu, Warlpiri, Enindilyakwa, Arabic, Vietnamese…? And for an even greater change, fund the production of reading material and decent language enrichment programs in these languages? Which brings me to a quibble about the description of Ms Baymarrwangga’s achievements:

Speaking no English, with no access to funding, resources or expertise, she initiated the Yan-nhangu dictionary project. Her cultural maintenance projects include the Crocodile Islands Rangers, a junior rangers group and an online Yan-nhangu dictionary for school children.

‘initiate’ is a slippery word, which then slithered into the ABC report as’establishment’.

Another is her establishment of the Yan-nhangu dictionary project, without any funding, resources, expertise or the ability to speak English.

This is a dangerous inaccuracy. Others were involved in the Yan-nhaŋu dictionary work who had access to resources. Ignoring their contribution lets governments off the hook. They want us to believe that love is all you need to maintain a language and create an online dictionary for it. Not schools, not interpreters or translators, not curricula or interesting stuff to read, not web-hosting or software, not linguists or programmers, nothing that needs paying for. Certainly nothing that would cost as much as some of the silver bullet reading-schemes.

Buttering parsnips in the Year of the Dragon

Three things to think about/do..

1. Creeping towards constitutional recognition
Section 127A Recognition of languages
The national language of the Commonwealth of Australia is English.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage

This is what was proposed in a report on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution (You Me Unity. The report authors seem to think that many people will vote for this because they are worried about the loss of Indigenus languages. The national language bit is supposed to soften the doubters into accepting Indigenous languages.

And as well, the report authors want to add:

Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;

Q. What is respect? A. Respect = Fine Words

Evidence from the report: “However, a separate languages provision would provide an important declaratory statement in relation to the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. The Panel understands that a declaratory provision would be ‘technically and legally sound’, and would not give rise to implied rights or obligations that could lead to unintended consequences.”

Q. What are unintended consequences? A. = making Governments pay for decent education, translators, interpreters etc

Evidence from the report: “In relation to the second sentence of the first paragraph of the proposed ‘section 127B’, consultations with lawyers and State government officials indicated that an ‘opportunity’ to learn, speak and write English could give rise to legal proceedings challenging the adequacy of literacy learning. Similarly, the last paragraph in the proposal about recognising a ‘freedom’ to speak, maintain and transmit languages of choice could lead to argument about the right to deal with government in languages other than English. Such expressions would raise potentially contentious issues for all levels of government. The Panel has concluded that the potential unpredictable legal risks associated with these two sentences are such that they would not be appropriate for inclusion as part of a proposed constitutional amendment.”

Intended consequence: the language parsnips are not going to get buttered.

As a side-point, information distributed by the YouMeUnity mob [thanks Bruce!], include YouTube audios of a whole lot of translations into Indigenous languages and creoles of information attributed to Alison Page, a Panel Member, but read by language speakers:

“15 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, namely Guringdji , Murrinh-Patha, Anindiyakwa , Arrernte, Kimberley Kriol, Pitjantjatjara, Wik Mungan , TSI Kriol, Warramangu , Walpirri , Yolngu, Kriol, Tiwi, Alywarra and Kunwinjku”.

The awful spellings of names of Indigenous languages in the report shows how little butter the parsnips are getting.

2. New resources
– From Claire Bowern
Claire has posted a call for material for the Australian part of ‘ElCat’, a new catalogue of endangered languages that will be launched (late February). She’s calling for links to sites about language programs [photos, videos, links to you-tube channels too!], “or if you’d like to include something about your language and what it means to you”. Hop over to Anggarrgoon to read the call and add your bit.

2. What I wish I could hop over to

– From Candide Simard
7th European Australianists workshop 2012
3-4 April 2012
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London

The European Australianists are happy to announce their seventh workshop to be held at SOAS, University of London, on 3-4 April 2012. The purpose of the workshop is to provide a venue for the presentation and discussion on current research on Australian languages. As in previous workshops a theme is suggested: “Contact phenomena in Australian languages”. However, participants are free to present papers not related to this theme, we welcome contributions relating to any aspect of Australian languages, from any perspective.

Langfest 2011 – inspiration and exh(ilar)alation

Canberra is breath-taking at the moment, and I am just catching breath between marking and Langfest … it starts today with the French Studies conference.

Tomorrow=Monday, dictionary-making, with AUSTRALEX, and a keynote by Sarah Ogilvie, the soon-to-be-director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre.

Wednesday brings New Zealand and Australia together with the combined mega-conference of the applied linguistics associations of New Zealand and Australia (ALAA-ALANZ) at the University of Canberra

Thursday sees a session on Indigenous language revival and revitalisation at the start of the Australian Linguistics Society conference and shared with ALAA-ALANZ at the University of Canberra. Then we whiz back to ANU for ALS’s first poster session which contains several posters on endangered languages, followed by Canberra’s first Linguistics in the Pub session.

Friday is a big day on Language and the Law at ANU – language rights of different types. ALS has heaps of papers on endangered languages. And our workshop on Kids kriols and classrooms. And Jenny Green and Barb Kelly’s workshop on Current issues in non-verbal communication research. That was the trigger for getting sign language interpreting for some sessions on Friday and Saturday – very professional interpreters, and brings home the cost of language rights. It’s easy enough to ask for Governments to pay for language rights. But it makes us much more aware of what we are asking when societies like ALS and ALAA and conference attenders realise the cost to themselves of language rights.

And, and, and, Saturday has a class on learning and teaching Gamilaraay. AND a workshop on Modality in the Indigenous languages of Australia and PNG, as well as other papers on endangered languages (perception in Avatime?, fronting in Mawng, voicing in Gurindji Kriol). Sunday has lots of papers in the general session and workshops from telling who intentionally does what in Sherpa, to body-parts in Kriol and Dalabon, to Topic Continuity of Subject and Non-Subject in Squliq Atayal Legends: Evidence from Statistics. There’s also a special audio workshop run by David Nathan.

And, completely breathless by now, we down the last arvo tea, and head to Kioloa for master classesJoan Bresnan on Probabilistic syntax (up to us to think how can we do it with small data sets as we normally have for endangered languages) and Fiona Jordan on Cultural phylogeny. Others stay on in Canberra for a workshop on tone in New Guinea languages.


Policy playtime

First there was (and still is, if you move quickly) the Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities being held by the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, discussed here.

Then came the National Cultural Policy. This shouldn’t just be for visual and performing artists. It includes Cultural heritage of which they say:

In parallel with core arts and creative industries there will be a strong recognition of Australia’s cultural heritage, and in particular, Australia’s Indigenous culture which is the oldest living culture in the world. Australia’s Indigenous culture is unique, and comprises both dynamic, living systems and expressions which must be supported to develop, and endangered systems and expressions which must be protected and where possible, revived.

And now today, what the NT Government has decided to do about Indigenous languages in schools. They commissioned a report from the Menzies School of Health Research [pdf 2.6 mb].1 The report deserves a serious reading and analysis. All I can say for the moment is that it doesn’t seem to distinguish clearly between programs in communities where the dominant language is the target language, and those in communities where it is not (as in many remote Indigenous communities). The initial conclusion seems to be that while mother tongue medium instruction may be good, well wouldn’t you know it, there aren’t the resources to run decent bilingual education programs in the NT schools (silence over how & why the resources were run down). What’s the answer? You guessed it, those communities can’t have bilingual education programs.

In communities where these circumstances do not prevail, the literature suggests that ‘English as a Second Language (ESL) strategies’ are the best approach to achieve improvement in student educational and language outcomes and to support community retention of Indigenous languages and culture – providing that they are delivered within a culturally responsive framework.

This may not have been the intention of the authors, but this is what the NT Government has made of it.

What ‘culturally responsive’ means to the Menzies researchers may be different from what it means to the NT Government. Their new ‘culturally responsive’ policy is “first four hours in English” in a frilly black, red and yellow skirt.

Frill No.1 The Department of Education and Training values home language and culture and will support communities in this endeavour through the use of school facilities after hours for cultural and language activities.
Somehow or other this is supposed to be part of EAL programs that are “inclusive of the students’ language and culture”
Newspeak: inclusive = exclusive

Frill No.2 Home language may be used to support quality teaching, including introducing concepts, across all year levels, particularly in the early years.
No mention of how they will ensure that Indigenous teachers have the support they need to explain the “quality teaching” – just that the schools need to “recruit and develop staff”.
Newspeak: quality teaching = all teaching?

Frill No.3 Oh, and you can seek special special approval from the Director of School Performance for in-school language activities (code for biliteracy, but it could be ANY language activity).
BUT the Director of School Performance can only approve it if the community can show that the School will jump through many many hoops:

  • committed support from the community for this instructional approach in the initial years of school education.
  • there is a sufficient number of instructionally and culturally competent staff to properly implement the approach
  • the school‘s ethos and learning programs aim to promote positive and active representation of children‘s (and families‘) first language and cultural heritage.
  • suitably adaptable and culturally responsive curriculum, teaching and learning resource materials are available or could be produced at reasonable cost.

You achieve this? Wait….

  • the school leadership team is committed and able to take a proactive role in engaging community and family resources to support the approach.
  • there is a commitment to professional support of the approach to the specific community/school.

A let-out for any principal who doesn’t want a bilingual program.

You wanna comment on this? They don’t want to hear from anyone except schools and their communities. But you could try anyway. And you could tell the Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities.

[ Update; I’ve just been alerted to [ Thanks Mary!] some highly relevant Garma Forum material on the Indigenous Stock Exchange. Quite a different take.

Jose Ramos Horta Address to Garma

Dhalulu Stubbs, The Importance of Family and Education

Wali Wunungmurra, The Disappointing Level of Support for Contemporary Yolngnu Education

Banbapuy Ganambarr, A Short History of Yolngu Education

Mick Gooda, The Importance of Rights

Galarrwuy Yunupingu: How Little Children Learn

Mp4 Highlights of the First Day of Garma

Jenny Macklin’s Opening Speech to Garma 2011]


  1. Oddly, the report doesn’t give the credentials of the authors; those that are googlable are not obviously experienced in primary education, in the study of languages or in applied linguistics.

Submit today!

Regarding the Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities being held by the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs: we would like to strongly encourage you all to make a submission to the Inquiry, and to reach out to communities, Indigenous organisations, educational institutions and any other relevant people and organisations.

Submissions are due by this Friday, 19 August. However, the Secretariat is open to giving extensions for submissions. If you need to make a late submission, or are concerned or need more information, you can contact the Secretariat by telephone on (02) 6277 4559 or by email.

Jane Simpson (ANU) has created a proforma of useful topics to include in a submission to the Inquiry. You can download the proforma from the RNLD web site here or read the details below.

23/8/2011: UPDATE from Jane Simpson Please draw on these points if they are helpful, but do include the details of your own situation, or concerns that you are familiar with. That’s more useful to the Committee.

Continue reading ‘Submit today!’ »

Deeply depressing news from the Northern Territory

Central Australia is home to some of Australia’s few communities where Aboriginal languages are still spoken by children: Warlpiri, Pitjantjantjara, Pintupi and some Arandic languages. For many years they had mother-tongue-medium instruction programs at school, often taught by trained Indigenous teachers and supported by linguists and teacher-linguists. Governmental support for these programs has eroded over the years. Fewer Indigenous people have trained as teachers — reportedly only a handful have graduated in the last couple of years over the whole Northern Territory.

And now Central Australian government schools have lost their last linguist. The funding allocated for the salary for the remainder of the year will go to the Darwin Languages Centre, which deals with non-Indigenous and Indigenous languages, but is mostly about teaching as a second language.1 No funding has been allocated for a Central Australian linguist in 2012.

There’s an Indigenous Language and Culture Officer position who supports schools, but again no funding is guaranteed for 2012.

So for the rest of this year and maybe forever — no linguist to support teachers in Central Australia in

  • Indigenous Language teaching and curriculum development
  • developing, providing and archiving resources for Indigenous language enrichment
  • teaching English as an additional language – i.e. helping teachersunderstand the language background of their students so they teach them English more effectively

Let alone get new teachers up to speed on the language background that kids come to school with.

Let alone look after the immensely valuable language resources developed in Central Australia over nearly 40 years of mother-tongue medium instruction programs.

E-mail your constructive suggestions to the relevant NT Government ministers and officials: and Gary Barnes, CEO, NT Department of Education and Training:


  1. For example, the website states that the Darwin Languages Centre library currently caters for Arabic, Auslan, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tiwi, Vietnamese, Yolngu Matha.

A Warlpiri double launch

The annual meeting of Warlpiri-patu-kurlangu Jaru Inc. and its professional development workshop known as Warlpiri Triangle this year is being hosted by Yuendumu CEC, 16-19 May 2011.

This evening in the Yuendumu school library two resources were launched to a large gathering including senior Warlpiri women.

Yuendumu launch invitation

Continue reading ‘A Warlpiri double launch’ »

Pap smears, footy and language/culture teaching

My colleagues teaching modern European languages are really into plaiting/braiding — recycling bins, speed dating, Tintin cartoons, Dante, and revolutionary songs in Uruguay are entwined with their language teaching.

So now, if you were going to work with Aboriginal people to make a language/culture plait, what would it contain?

I found an answer thanks to Bruce Birch who – much appreciated! — sent me No. 1 and 2 in a series of guides to the language and culture of the Iwaidja-speaking people of northwestern Arnhem Land (mostly Minjilang on Croker Island): Audio CDs accompanying! And available online from Skinnyfish.

No.1 Kindi ngamin nuwung? “What do I call you?” has a lovely structure (there must be a better word than ‘lovely’, but my internal thesaurus has gone to sleep).

  • family words (you and your parents/siblings/grandparents)
  • what skins are
  • how they relate to marriage
  • how you introduce people, greet them and say goodbye
  • AND pronouns, and dialogues, and traditional story and a map
  • AND it’s elegantly laid out

Perfect! It could save other language groups heaps of time as a useful model. No need to agonise and reinvent.

No. 2 is at first glance surprising, but makes sense. It’s Nganduka angmaju? “Where does it hurt?” The balanda (non-Aborigines) who have the most life-and-death need to talk with Iwaidja people are medical people. And there’re lots of interesting things that can be done with health words – possession, body-part syntax, psych word syntax, transitivity. That’s for the language strand. The socio-cultural strand includes important advice on asking for body fluid samples, pap smears, and giving instructions for tablets, washing, ointments etc.

Again, a book that could save other language groups heaps of time by giving different ways of explaining complex ideas.

The books are published by Iwaidja Inyman, and funded through the Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records (MILR) program. It has got to be one of the better MILR projects.

Following the Skinnyfish link revealed other interesting-looking books on Aboriginal languages on sale online. One that looks promising, given what I’ve seen of the interests of young Aboriginal people is: Tiwi Footy by Monica Napper, Peter Eve and Andrew McMillan. It’s a piccy book with a 6,000 word essay which is said to have been translated into Tiwi. Wow! Up there with Kaurna footy talk and the Arrernte footy (natural language generation in Arrernte).

Indigenous education in the NT – 2010 style

If you are interested in Indigenous education in Australia or what happens when Governments get worried about minority groups not reading and writing the dominant language, check out Prioritising Literacy and Numeracy: A strategy to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes 2010-2012. Darwin: Northern Territory Government Department of Education and Training. There are some good things in it, but there are some worrying things. Take this paragraph:
“The language and cognitive skills domain includes basic literacy; basic numeracy; interest in literacy, numeracy and memory; and advanced literacy. The percentage of Northern Territory children vulnerable and at risk in the Language and cognitive skills domain at the commencement of full-time schooling is significantly greater than the national average, as indicated below.” (p.6)
Now it may be that the NT has lots of children from all backgrounds who are at risk. But I bet this is code for “Indigenous children”. Looking further – what is literacy? Literacy=English literacy. How are the cognitive skills tested? Almost certainly in English. This calls into question the reliability of the information on which this claim is made.
A lot of people in the NT are worried about the NT Government’s approach to Indigenous education – Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL) , Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, NT branch (ATESOL NT) , Uniting Church in Australia, Northern Synod, Darwin Anglican Church of Australia, Diocese of the Northern Territory, Darwin and the Top End Linguistics Circle (TELC). They’ve got together to sponsor a seminar. So, if you’re in Darwin on Thursday 9 September, hop along to Indigenous languages in education Do current policies match our needs?
7:30pm, Thursday, 9 September 2010
Mal Nairn Auditorium,
Charles Darwin University,
Casuarina Campus
Contact: Phil Glasgow, 8931-3133

Continue reading ‘Indigenous education in the NT – 2010 style’ »

NT Policy on Indigenous Languages

The NT Government is going to draw up a policy [.pdf] reported as “to save indigenous languages in the Northern Territory“.
If the policy involves reversing the decision on stopping systematic mother-tongue medium instruction (aka bilingual education), great! If the policy involves doing something intelligent and well-grounded on developing teaching skills, materials, and curricula for strengthening Indigenous languages, also great! But it will be VERY expensive. Actually, building on their original mother-tongue medium instruction would probably cost less. Unfortunately, nothing the current NT Government has done so far on education and languages gives one confidence that they know what’s involved in helping speakers pass on their language to their children.
First they stripped mother tongue instruction from the schools with children who came to school speaking Indigenous languages. They said they’d be helping Indigenous teachers teach their language after school, or later in the day. In reality, in some schools, this has come down to half an hour a week, preferably on a Friday afternoon when children are most likely to be tired and fed-up. This sends loud and clear the message that Indigenous languages are unimportant.
As far as I can see, the NT Government advisors don’t realise just how hard it is to develop a staged curriculum which actually develops the children’s speaking and listening abilities in their mother tongue, strengthens their vocabulary and helps them use sophisticated language. This is a seriously difficult task. There are few models of how it could be done well. Lots where it’s done badly.
And there’s no quick fix. You can’t develop one curriculum and expect it to work for all the languages, because their grammatical structures are often radically different. Language teaching is a skilled job, and most language teachers have the benefit of lots of materials and solid curricula. Ain’t the case in most Indigenous communities. Each language requires skilled speakers, linguists, and language teachers working on it to develop a curriculum. The NT Education Department has enough linguistically trained staff to cover perhaps 4 languages in the NT. It is an absolute cop-out to think that Indigenous teachers can do this on their own. It is setting them up to fail.
The policy is being developed with the NT Government’s Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council, some of whom are first language speakers of Indigenous languages and/or experienced teachers. Speakers of Indigenous languages are obviously key people to be involved in developing a policy. But I would like to have seen some reference to language-teachers, teacher-linguists, and linguists. Not involving specialists is like saying you can develop a health policy without consulting health professionals.