Report: Bilingual education in Aboriginal communities is crucial

The Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs tabled its much-anticipated inquiry into language learning on Aboriginal communities on September 17, titled Our Land Our Languages.

The report unashamedly puts language front and centre, not just to Aboriginal identity, but also health and wellbeing. For example, it says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who speak an Indigenous language enjoy “markedly” better health and are more likely to be employed, attend school and receive a post-school qualification than those who do not. They are also less likely to abuse alcohol, be charged by police or be a victim of violence.

Aboriginal languages are dying at a horrifying rate. Of the close to 250 languages spoken at the time of invasion, about half have disappeared. The report found that only about 18 are spoken today. Many others are being painstakingly revived, recovered and recorded. Greg Dickson, writing in Crikey on September 17, said that National Geographic has identified northern Australia as a “global hotspot”, where endangered languages face a “severe threat” of extinction.

This is why Aboriginal communities and bilingual education advocates have long campaigned for more support and funding for the urgent work of teaching children to speak, read and write their own language.

The recommendations in Our Land Our Language have been welcomed by bilingual education advocates. They are implicitly very critical of current approaches — especially in the Northern Territory, where bilingual education was dramatically scaled back four years ago by the then-Labor government.

For example, the report recommends “resourcing bilingual school education programs for Indigenous communities where the child’s first language is an Indigenous language”. In the NT, about 40% of children speak a language other than English at home. It also recommends compulsory cultural awareness training, and training in “English as an additional language” teaching for all teachers working in Aboriginal communities.

Beyond the classroom, the report says the government should set up a national interpreting service for Indigenous languages, expand the Indigenous Languages Support Program and improve community access to the language archive at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

It also recommends that Indigenous languages be recognised in the Australian constitution.

While it is unclear how many of the recommendations will be implemented, Labor and the Coalition were quick to welcome the report. The September 18 Australian said Minister for School Education Peter Garrett had promised to “talk to state governments about adopting bilingual education for Indigenous children”. He acknowledged that school attendance would improve if children were taught in their own languages for the early years.

Opposition Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion said education was a matter for state and territory governments, but conceded: “I generally support bilingual education as a transitional program from preschool to Year 5”.

However, in the recent past, Labor and Coalition governments have stressed the importance of English as the predominant language in education.

Labor MP Shayne Neumann, who chairs the standing committee, said on September 17 that the result of NT Labor’s English-only policy, introduced in 2008, was “a decline in school attendance and educational outcomes”. He said NT Labor defended the policy at the committee hearing in Darwin early this year, only to quietly drop it soon after.

The report was released less than a month after the NT elections, which saw the Country Liberal Party (CLP) swept to power on a strong bush vote. On the campaign trail, and during community visits since, the CLP has talked up the importance of first-language learning. But it has not released any detailed policy or funding commitments.

The task now for Aboriginal communities and defenders of bilingual education will be to make sure governments start putting funding and resource commitments on the table. It will be a large task to rebuild abandoned bilingual programs in the NT, for example. We must ensure governments don’t adopt the easier, more symbolic recommendations and let the actual hard work fall by the wayside.

[Read Our Land Our Languages here.]

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