Northern Territory governments of both persuasions have long persisted in white-anting the maintenance of strong Australian** languages afforded by bilingual schools in remote Aboriginal communities. Meanwhile many whose languages were ‘put to sleep’ by colonisation in the more ‘settled’ regions are successfully expanding the teaching of their heritage tongues as part of a growing re-awakening movement.

At last count over 40 of the once 270 or so Australian languages were being taught in schools, and comprehensive syllabi and support documents continue to be developed in most states and territories. The New South Wales government’s recently implemented OCHRE plan will see the establishment of several regional coordinating centres, or Aboriginal language and culture ‘nests’ that have local language revival as a core goal, including through teaching languages in schools.

But a major obstacle remains in providing enough skilled and experienced teachers to meet the resulting demand at the chalkface.

Masters of Indigenous Language Education graduates, University of Sydney 2012

Those with teaching skills and those with language knowledge are often not the same people, if the language is being spoken outside schools at all. And there is currently no initial teacher training degree with Indigenous languages as a teaching method offered anywhere in the country. In such circumstances there can be a quite understandable, but totally futile, interest in hunting for silver bullets.

High on the lists of potential saviours is technology. Every time a new smartphone app with content from an endangered language is released, we hear yet again that technology is going to ‘save’ the languages. Unfortunately, it simply isn’t true, just like it wasn’t true for television, videotape, computers, or CD ROMs before. Pocket electronic dictionaries are still just pocket dictionaries. They don’t teach language any more than paper ones do, no matter how many hours they keep kids quiet for. And, in case you were still wondering, the ‘subliminal language-buried-under-music’ CDs don’t work either!

Sure, information and communications technology is constantly evolving and part of most folks’ everyday lives, and it’s important that minority languages get equal airtime and are seen to be modern and relevant. But just being able to tweet or friend someone online in your own language won’t save it. Only speaking it to other people can do that, regardless of what medium you choose to do it through – two cans and some string still works.

Likewise technology isn’t going to replace teachers of endangered languages – at least not any time soon. If it was, we’d already have world languages like English routinely being taught without human involvement, and there’s not much sign of that, just yet.

Another popular place to look for miracle cures is overseas. The Maori and Hawai’ians have had some major success; can’t we just copy from them? If we had the luxury of a single language, substantial native speaker populations and legislative reinforcement, following closely in their footsteps might be a good look.

Of course, there are some great strategies in use ‘over there’ to respond to community language revival needs, like master-apprentice, and (immersion preschool) language nests. But these are not intended for school use, so much as re-establishing what linguists refer to as intergenerational transmission – passing the language directly from (typically) older, more fluent person to younger, less fluent when they are either too young, too old, or too cool for school. And these strategies are, unlike most school-based second language instruction, primarily designed to re-establish or sustain native speaker populations. School-age second language classes are never going to do that.

The language situations of the Aboriginal Canadian and Native American peoples are much more similar to ours but, again, the legal and economic settings are quite different. They are far more likely to have treaties and lands that afford them economic resources and some autonomy. Here there’s almost total dependence on the noblesse oblige of the state.

In any event, the teaching methods and classroom techniques used overseas, or in any other language, really only differ in their superficial presentation. The underlying elements for success are the same – frequent meaningful exposure to good quality realistic models, lots of repetition, and motivation. Well-trained languages teachers will always make use of a broad range of methods, strategies and activities to cater to the diversity of learners they encounter in every class, and to maintain student engagement.

There’s just no single or easy way – learning a language is hard and takes time and effort. And the sad reality is that, in the absence of widely available indigenous languages teacher education, those in similar revival contexts overseas are often left casting about for magic cures themselves.

An intuitively appealing, ‘quick fix’ answer is to simply accredit the current best speakers as teachers. It’s an idea that has a lot of ideological appeal and is often voiced. However, apart from a few (very exceptional) cases, it’s a strategy that rarely leads to happy endings.

Just having skills in a language is no substitute for years of university-level training in child development, educational psychology, classroom management, curriculum development, languages pedagogy and meaningful assessment, etc. Mainstream languages teachers have all that plus the language skills.

Language teaching is a highly skilled, specialist field that takes more than just some ability in a language. The fact that you are reading this suggests your English literacy is probably reasonable – I’m estimating a reading age of at least 16. Your oral skills are almost certainly better. Assuming you’re not a trained teacher already, would you consider yourself sufficiently prepared to develop and deliver ongoing multi-level English classes in a school in a non-English-speaking country, with almost no developed curriculum or materials to work with?

What sort of message would it send, placing untrained speakers in classrooms and calling them teachers; this language is so simple you don’t need training to teach it? Realistically, the only answer that will produce quality outcomes is to providing relevant and appropriate training for Aboriginal people to teach their own languages.

The WA Department of Education provides excellent in-house, on-the-job training for its staff, but it does not lead to full teacher accreditation. There are some TAFE programs in NSW and SA, but they are infrequently offered and don’t afford a standard teacher’s license. The University of Sydney offers a professional development masters, but you need to be a qualified teacher already to be admitted.

Clearly what we need is an initial teacher education degree that is designed to be flexible enough to cater to multiple languages, in different stages of developing health, and accessible to people from across the country. It wouldn’t be easy, but it wouldn’t be impossible either. It just needs a university with enough vision to step up to the plate.

The question that remains is, how much does the ancient and unique cultural heritage that Australian languages embody really matter to us as a nation?

*Because all Australians should accept responsibility for keeping them alive.

**Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the only Australian languages; English belongs to the Germanic family of Indo-European languages.

John Hobson is a lecturer in Indigenous Education at the University of Sydney, established the Master of Indigenous Languages Education program which trains Aboriginal teachers to become language teachers and before all of that spent a decade working as a linguist in Central Australia.


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