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First language education is a matter of common sense

Aidan Wilson writes…

As Greg Dickson reported, the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs inquiry into language learning in indigenous communities, titled Our Land Our Languages, was tabled in parliament yesterday. Education was of course, a central theme of the inquiry and is a significant part of the resulting report.

Of the eight terms of reference of the inquiry, three relate to education. They are:

  • The potential benefits of including Indigenous languages in early education
  • Measures to improve education outcomes in those Indigenous communities where English is a second Language
  • The educational and vocational benefits of ensuring English language competency amongst Indigenous communities

The areas that the committee covered included attendance rates in remote schools, the lack of trained indigenous teachers and the inadequate training of non-indigenous teachers given the context, the lack of language testing to establish just what language a child speaks when entering the school system, NAPLAN and its inherent problems for non-English speaking students, and perhaps most importantly, how best to achieve competency in Standard Australian English (SAE). Bilingual education, as you might expect, features heavily in the submissions, the hearings and the report.

“Incorporating Indigenous languages into the education system leads to an improvement in both Standard Australian English and Indigenous languages and can have many cultural, health and wellbeing advantages.”

Bilingual education is clearly a hotly debated topic and the proponents and opponents are quite categorically divided. Proponents claiming that bilingual education is beneficial to both first language and target language, while opponents claim that teaching children using their first language is deleterious to the acquisition of the target language and that the best way to ensure that all children learn English is to immerse them in English-language classrooms. One commentator, who shall remain nameless, exemplified this position quite concisely yesterday, even before the report was released:

Two problems with [introducing bilingual education], both likely to cripple the future of the children.

First, finding teachers able to teach in indigenous languages will be fearsomely difficult, and likely to lead to language proficiency trumping any real aptitude to teach.

Second, Aboriginal students out bush must learn to speak English fluently if they are to escape their welfare ghettos and find work elsewhere. No other skill is as important to their future. Language immersion at school is critical to that.

The committee found heavily in favour of the proponents of bilingual education as the substantial evidence submitted clearly shows that rather than being deleterious, the use of the child’s first language in early childhood education had widespread benefits. Attendance rates increase when the child’s first language is used in class, children engage in the class for more sustained periods when they can understand what is being said by the teachers, and above all, competence in both languages is increased:

Incorporating Indigenous languages into the education system leads to an improvement in both Standard Australian English and Indigenous languages and can have many cultural, health and wellbeing advantages. (Section 4.158)

The commentator quoted above mentions language immersion at school as the best way to ensure that children learn English. However this is not entirely accurate. Immersion is known to be the best method for learning a language, but immersion requires to leaner to be completely surrounded by speakers of the target language, hence ‘immersion’. One monolingual English teacher in a classroom with thirty or more children speaking a different language is not immersion – not for the children anyway; it would actually be more accurate to describe it as immersion for the teacher. Bilingual, or two-way education, is the tried and tested effective means of teaching children in communities where English is not commonly heard, and ensuring that they learn the standard language.

Recommendation 14 therefore calls for the provision of adequately resourced bilingual education programs in areas where the child’s first language is an indigenous language, whether that language is a traditional language such as Warlpiri or Murrinh Patha, or a contact language such as Kriol, Gurindji Kriol or Light Warlpiri.

A corollary issue is of course the lack of indigenous teachers, and the almost complete lack of adequate training for all teachers in dealing with English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D). This fact is often cited by the opponents of bilingual education – see above – as a key factor against its provision.

The committee agreed that bilingual education would likely fail unless this shortfall was addressed, and so recommends the development of a national framework of flexible and accessible training for Indigenous people to gain limited authority qualifications to teach, and incentives for them to do so (recommendations 16 and 17) and also, that English as an additional language/dialect becomes a compulsory component for all teaching degrees, as well as retrospectively as professional development for all teachers currently working in indigenous communities (recommendations 21 and 22).

Language testing is another crucial area that usually receives little attention. It won’t matter how well-provisioned an education system is, if the school doesn’t know what language a child speaks upon entering the education system, they will not succeed. Often, children who speak a contact language such as Kriol, are often mistaken by teachers and schools as speaking a poor form of English. The committee recommends mandatory first language assessment for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children entering the school system (recommendation 13). For most communities, I would add, most children would speak a similar language/dialect, with only a few minority cases of individuals whose family have moved, for instance.

Another significant section of the Our Land, Our Language report deals with NAPLAN. Of course, national standardised tests in Australia are conducted in English. This is obviously problematic in contexts where the children who undergo the tests do not speak or understand this language, and the test therefore becomes primarily a test in English literacy. This means that the knowledge and skills the students do have, albeit in languages other than English, are invisible to the tests. The result is that otherwise intelligent children are painted as linguistically deficient, and we see statistics such as the following (for the benefit of the reader I have inserted crucial caveats to aid the correct interpretation of the figures in square brackets):

Across Australia in 2004, 83% of Aboriginal students and 93% of students overall achieved the [English] literacy benchmark for year 3.

But in the Northern Territory, only 20% of Aboriginal students achieved the benchmark [for Standard Australian English]. Less than 30% of children tested for [English] literacy in Years 3, 5 and 7 were able to read or write [English] properly leaving them with [English] numeracy and [English] literacy skills of five-year old [Standard Australian English speakers] when they leave school.

NAPLAN testing for these children is not only pointless, but as the committee found it can also be damaging to these students and can lead to disengagement in education:

In addition to being misleading, in painting a negative portrait of learners, assessments that fail to take account of these issues impact negatively on learners’ sense of worth and ongoing engagement with formal education.

ACTA, submission 72, p. 17.

There is however, a strikingly simple way that will go some way towards fixing this. It is something that experts in the field have been saying for some years, and now it’s also the view of the parliamentary committee: the provision of alternative NAPLAN testing for students learning English as an Additional Language or Dialect (recommendation 15). In concert with a supported and well-resourced bilingual education system in the children’s first language, this would mean more accurate representation of the children’s educational development, without it being clouded by difficulties of translation.

Opponents of teaching children in their first language, at least for the first few years of primary school, often argue that:

No English means no future.

We at Fully (sic) completely agree with this opinion: without access to the standard national language, an individual, or more accurately, an entire community of people, will have no prospects beyond the cultural and linguistic borders of their community. The question is how best to ensure that these children learn English. As the report clearly states time and time again, bilingual education, i.e., teaching children for the first few years of primary school in their first language before gradually transitioning into the target language, in this case English, is the proven most effective way to do this.

It isn’t rocket science; it’s just common sense. Unless a child understands what’s going on in the classroom, they won’t engage, they won’t attend, and they won’t learn anything.

As of this morning, The Australian is reporting that both major parties have expressed their acceptance of the report’s findings and support for the recommendations, at least in principle. We at Fully (sic) welcome this, but urge the various governments to immediately enact these 30 recommendations, and allow the system time to function properly, and we as a nation will eventually begin to reap the multifarious benefits of an education system that is accessible to all, and does not discriminate against entire communities whose first language is not English.

Individual sections can be downloaded from the House of Representatives website here. The full report is here (pdf).

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  • 1
    SBH
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    “One monolingual English teacher in a classroom with thirty or more children speaking a different language is not immersion”

    Or as is the case in East Arnhem and elsewhere – children speaking four or five languages interchangeably all at once and then being told they have to learn a language that has a reputation as being very difficult to learn.

  • 2
    Secomb Michael
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    As an ESL teacher in Brisbane with students who speak up to five languages, I believe multilingualism from birth is the best way to go. It appears from research that learning multiple languages from birth increases the area of the brain used by language, with great benefits. Truly multilingual people don’t translate, they just change languages. The old days of English speakers arrogantly expecting everyone else to learn English to communicate with them in an Anglo-Saxon language ghetto are over. Most English speakers in the world today speak English as a second or other language. First language English speakers are in a minority. If indigenous students are fluent in their first language plus English from birth they will benefit greatly. Being fluent in their first indigenous language may help indigenous students to alslo learn English. They can only benefit.

  • 3
    Warren Joffe
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    @ Secomb Michael

    “If indigenous students are fluent in their first language plus English from birth they will benefit greatly. Being fluent in their first indigenous language may help indigenous students to alslo learn English. They can only benefit.”

    If this is not justt rhetorical flourish because you had exhausted your eruption and wanted to find a way to finish, what are you trying to say? After all, everyone who can speak is “fluent in their first language”. I can see a logical case for suggesting that to retain fluency in one’s first language is important for giving one a standard for what qualifies a fluency when you are speaking another language. But what you have said seems to be just a muddle.

  • 4
    Catherine.Cox@sa.gov.au
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    There’s an excellent opportunity here to benefit from the language-ready brains of younger children, and at the same time to preserve the formality and beauty of aboriginal languages. It seems to be that language is very pivotal to culture – imagine a language where you have a special verb structure for ‘doing something while you are walking along’ – it says something about the importance of walking. So attention to language means attention to culture, which might help to restore pride and self esteem where that is needed. But also, it seems to me that many aboriginal languages are so elegant in structure, so beautiful in their sounds, so expressive in their word forms that they are in themselves a tutorial in language development. As often seems to be the pattern, more machine-age languages like English have been simplified and have lost the beauty and regularity of their structure. That simplification is continuing (for example the ‘d’ on ‘Iced Tea’ has nearly gone). The literature tells us that young students can readily learn several languages. So rather than causing confusion, an investment in multilingual teaching will expand intellectual capability, will benefit the community, will increase respect, and will be just plain enjoyable. And if you are worried about students learning English – consider this: How many English speakers really understand the genitive case in their own language? Very few apostrophe-huggers. But Pitjanjatjara speakers use the possessive forms of nouns naturally and clearly distinguish them from dative, ablative, accusative and multiple other forms. Knowing for example, Pitjanjatjara will I believe make it easier for a student to unravel the apparent irregularities in English. In addition, these language structures provide a foundation for structured thought, for the complexities of any system of symbolic coding: in botany, geometry, music, bridge, baseball(?)! Flexing the brain doesn’t tire it out, it just builds the muscle.

  • 5
    Singer Ruth
    Posted September 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Good piece Aidan but I’m wondering about your remark that “For most communities, I would add, most children would speak a similar language/dialect, with only a few minority cases of individuals whose family have moved, for instance.” In north-west Arnhem land children come to school speaking a range of traditional aboriginal languages. Their sets of languages do not all overlap. In addition, most remote communities are characterized by high mobility, with many families moving between various communities and urban centers. And also I’m wondering about your assumption that testing children to see what languages they speak would be relatively easy. Of course I think bilingual education should be available to Aboriginal communities, but the language used will not be the first language of all children in highly multilingual communities.

  • 6
    janis price
    Posted October 27, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Yes, of course first language is important. It is the language these kids dream in, so we cannot expect them to leave it behind. But Indigenous languages are not written languages. Bilingual education relies on non indigenous interpretations of the phonetics into complicated alphabets and even more complex grammatical structures. The words are long and difficult for little kids to learn. Sure they can learn them by whole word, but phonetically very very difficult.
    One of the main problems as I see it, is that these schools are not set up as ESL schools. They follow Nt mainstream curriculum and employ ordinary classroom teachers who may have undertaken a short ESL course, but have very little experience teaching children from LOTE backgrounds. ESL teachers recognise first languages and scaffold their learning step by step. It is simply absurd to be asking kids to learn English for a Naplan test when they can’ t ask a simple question or tell you where they live.
    Most of the ‘Grow your Own’ indigenous teachers have great difficulty with the jargon of curriculum and assessment. the burden is then assigned to the mainstream teachers who are already struggling with their own workloads. Having 10 teachers who aren’t capable to do this part of their job is not ideal. Yes we need more Indigenous teachers, but lets not put the cart before the horse. How about offering them good quality ESL classes before we train them in edu speak.

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