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 This is despite research pointing to its effectiveness, provided political support is not withdrawn.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.


One thought on “Will Aboriginal languages still have a role in school learning?

  1. This is a very thought-provoking piece Brian. What I don’t understand is why Aboriginal languages are treated differently to other languages in our country? For example, at my children’s high school, the community language is Italian and the school has a number of Italian teachers who are permanent DEC employees. All the students, including students who are not from an Italian background, have to learn Italian for at least two terms in years 7-8. Why is it that governments see the value in employing languages teachers and consider it worth their while to do so, but go into a political coma which requires some drastic action such as a referendum or public opinion poll in order to resuscitate them? So many indigenous languages have already been lost and it’s a shame to think that even in this day and age, we are still debating the importance of maintaining the languages, and by default, the heritage of the oldest inhabitants of this country.
    I’ll jump off the soap box now…


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