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Politics

May 4, 2012

Clear focus on Indigenous languages is rather fuzzy

The Federal House of Representatives Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities visited Darwin this week, and the Northern Territory government had a hard time defending its first-four-hours-in-English policy. Greg Dickson explains.

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Greg Dickson writes:

The Federal Government is nearly one year into a national inquiry into Indigenous languages. I spent a whole day this week working hard listening live to the Darwin hearing of the inquiry, officially titled “Language Learning in Indigenous Communities”. The hearing was gripping stuff (well, for me anyway) with a really interesting range of people giving evidence to the committee. If you haven’t heard of the inquiry – and I doubt many have – taking time to read some of the submissions and hearings transcripts will be worth your while.

The NT Government were first in giving evidence at the Darwin hearing. It was an important moment for the inquiry as the parliamentary committee has received many submissions and much evidence criticising the NT Education’s limiting of Indigenous language instruction in schools, restrictions on Indigenous language literacy programs and a policy dictating the “Compulsory Teaching in English for the First Four Hours of Each School Day“.

Chris Burns (ABC)
Malarndirri McCarthy

Minister Malarndirri McCarthy was the primary spokesperson for the NT Government and she spoke very well. She is a lovely women who holds her identity as a Yanyuwa woman close to her heart. She is also a former ABC journalist and very personable and media-savvy. Having her as spokesperson was a clever but somewhat curious choice. Education, which was the main topic of the day, is not actually her responsibility. That portfolio goes to the less charismatic Dr. Chris Burns.

With the NT Government putting on their best table manners for the inquiry’s committee, they swiftly issued a media release claiming ‘Indigenous languages a clear focus of the Government‘. The sentiments are noble and there are certainly some nice projects going on. The Aboriginal Interpreter Service in particular does a good job in a challenging field. But for the NT Government to claim it has “clear focus on Indigenous language” is a bit hard to swallow. The previous day (May 1), the NT Government had handed down their budget, followed by a flurry of self-promoting press releases. I searched through the 22 press releases and couldn’t find a single mention of Indigenous languages.

And would any of these government issued materials be available in Indigenous languages? As Hilary Clinton “texted” to Sarah Palin, “Lolz, bitch please”.

As I see it, anything positive that the NT Government does for Indigenous languages is undermined by their continued maintenance of the “Compulsory Teaching in English for the First Four Hours of Each School Day” policy, which is on display for all to see on the NT Education Department’s website.

Much respect to Minister Malarndirri McCarthy, who represented the NT Government very well, but I’m genuinely puzzled as to how and why DET and NT Government continues to support this policy. It has not led to any demonstrable benefits. The CEO of the Education Department, Gary Barnes, pretty much told the inquiry that schools are free to work around the policy. The NT Government has admitted this policy was introduced badly. Its designer, Marion Scrymgour, said it was “put together in a few days”. It’s been criticised widely from all sorts of people ever since its inception – even right up to the UN. Why do Indigenous students and remote teachers still have to deal with this policy? It is demeaning to Indigenous languages and therefore demeaning to Indigenous people who hold their languages as a vital part of their identity.

The transcript of the Darwin hearing will be available on the inquiry’s website after a week or so and will make for an interesting read.

This post is adapted from one originally posted at that munanga linguist.

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