Will Aboriginal languages still have a role in school learning?

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Current NT Government policies do not appear to favour the use of Indigenous languages in the classroom, but the Australian Research Council has recently agreed to fund a second stage of the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages

Will Aboriginal languages still have a role in school learning?

Brian Devlin


The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages (LAAL) is a digital collection of materials in Australian Indigenous languages and English from around the Northern Territory. These materials were produced by Literature Production Centres at schools with bilingual programs over several decades from 1973. With funding assistance from the Australian Research Council the books have been catalogued and digitised, and with permission from the original creators, uploaded to the LAAL website.

The Living Archive team working on Stage 1 of the project includes chief investigators Professor Michael Christie, Dr Brian Devlin (both from Charles Darwin University), Professor Jane Simpson (Australian National University), and project manager Cathy Bow. They are all indebted to CDU Library technical staff, the NT Department of Education, the software developer, Steven McPhillips, and others for their assistance.

LAAL Stage 2, which has now commenced, brings on board additional partners (the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Education, Catholic Education, and the Northern  Territory Library),  and involves four strands:

Yet an important question has to be be asked. At a time when access to online vernacular language materials is becoming easier, when the Australian Curriculum framework explicitly encourages their use in educational settings,  and after Education Department staff have been been working for a year or more on a language policy which sensibly balances English and Aboriginal language instruction, it seems that, once again, thanks to a quiet government policy switch, the planned and informed use of home language and English in the classroom is now off the agenda again. This is despite research pointing to its effectiveness, provided political support is not withdrawn.

This is what had been advocated in a sensible draft EAL/D or ESL policy, before it was set aside earlier this year:

Some approved schools will deliver bilingual instruction with biliteracy which uses listening, speaking, reading and writing).  Schools will work with the community to identify the appropriate type of bilingual instruction.

The planned and informed use of home language and English in spoken and written form in the classroom to:
• explicitly teach conceptual knowledge and curriculum content
• teach listening, speaking, reading and writing of home language
• teach listening, speaking, reading and writing of English

Can Aboriginal Languages still play a role in school learning? Yes, they can. Will the Education Department assist in that regard? We would like to think so. Can the use of Aboriginal languages assist with the development of English language proficiency? Most certainly. Will it be necessary for the curriculum to be restricted to English and Maths in remote NT primary schools in the first four years of a child’s education, as Bruce Wilson has recommended in his draft report? Well, it is to be hoped that the Minister for Education will not agree to put in place  such a draconian and limiting ‘solution’ for the next ten years,  as has been mooted.

From English to Chinese to Chinglish: “Expanding the colour space”?

As the weeks have passed, I realise that I am happy with the name that I settled on for my blog: “Snippets“. It allows me to include quite modest pieces that haven’t yet been worked up into more solid, more recognisable genre, such as short stories, novels or collections of poems. And so, over the next few weeks, I think I will feel free to share some cross-cultural stories—a few slender autobiographical snippets—but I probably won’t be including any more complex, personal,  poetic tidbits. At least not yet.

However, despite that reticence,  I thought it might be useful to include an amusing example of a back-translation involving one my early poems. Back-translation, as you would know,  is a common technique used in cross-cultural research to test the equivalence of words and concepts across languages.

Years ago, while on the road, I composed a few lyrics on the general theme of inspiration. This was one of them:

Deep in the heart of a growing pearl
Through the soft whirl
Of colour and unfolding space
A tiny crystalline speck
Is agitating spheres, without fade or blemish.
And so would I,
A little mind at large,
Devise mandala worlds of translucent perfection.

When translated in Chinese, the poem was rendered as follows in simplified characters:


and in Pinyin:

Shēn cáng zài yuè lái yuè zhēnzhū de xīnzàng
Tōngguò ruǎn huí
Yánsè hé zhǎnkāi de kōngjiān
Yīgè wéixiǎo de jiéjīng bāndiǎn
Bèi jiǎobàn qiú bù tuìshǎi huò wūdiǎn
Děng huì wǒ
Yǒudiǎn tóunǎo zàitáo
Bàn tòumíng de shèjì wánměi de màn tú luō shìjiè

The other day I thought I would back-translate the Chinese version into English. The result was quite wondrous to behold. Although the first line, “Deep in the heart of a growing pearl”, was preserved, the central idea of the poem progressively lost itself in a bizarre, obscure wordscape, in which the evolving pearl became a “stirred ball” residing within  the pearl oyster’s “expanded color space” and the poet pluralised into multiple identities.

All verbs and pronouns fell away at the end, leaving behind a terse, almost impenetrable summary of what had been produced as a result of the “stirred ball’s activity: Mandala translucent design the perfect world. It’s a phrase that would need to be said slowly in English, with lots of pauses, to make any sense; for example: Mandala: [pause]  translucent design [pause] the perfect world. 

Here then is the quite venturesome and weird back-translation in full:

Deep in the heart of a growing pearl,
By soft whirl
And expanded color space,
A tiny speck crystallization
Was stirred ball,
[Which] does not fade or stain,
And so will I,
Little minds at large,
Mandala translucent design the perfect world

Yes, indeed. Still, perfect world is not a bad note for the back-translation to finish on!

Brian Devlin
March 29, 2014