Miliwanga Sandy, Beswick NT
Miliwanga Sandy, Wugularr NT

This is my long-time friend Miliwanga Sandy, who lives at the Wugularr (formerly Beswick) township 100 or so kilometres outside of Katherine in the NT.

Right now she’s in either a car, bus or plane travelling to Canberra to attend a one-day seminar at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to speak on a subject very close to her heart – the rights of her, her family and the people she lives with to speak, learn and be taught in your own language.

This bundle of rights have recently been sadly neglected in Australia generally and here in the NT in particular – especially following the decision in October 2008 by the then NT Education Minister Marion Scrymgour to require that the first four hours of each day in NT schools be taught in English. Initially this was to commence from the first day of school in 2009 and it has been given effect in most of the nine bilingual schools in the NT, with official rollout scheduled for 2010.

Late last year Miliwanga spoke at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference: Education 2008 in Melbourne to a tearful and emotional standing ovation – tomorrow she’ll be in a cold Canberra with a number of educators and fellow community members from the NT to speak at the “Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory: Principles, policy and practice” seminar conducted by AIATSIS and to be held at the National Museum.

That seminar will examine bilingual education policy in the NT:

At the start of the 2010 school year, the number of hours of bilingual teaching in Northern Territory Two-Way schools is set to decrease by more than half. The public debate that followed the announcement of this policy change revealed a need for further research on the models, achievements and challenges of bilingual education in Indigenous communities. Acknowledging this research gap and recognising that the new policy represents a significant shift in educational practice, AIATSIS will hold a one day symposium to debate and discuss the policy change and its implications. Issues to be discussed include: the historical role of bilingual education; the status of research into its efficacy and practice; implications of the policy change; and bilingualism and language rights.

The symposium will bring together Australia’s leading experts in bilingual education and practitioners in Northern Territory Indigenous schools. Bilingual educators, linguists, educationalists, policy makers and prominent Indigenous specialists will be invited to discuss this recent policy initiative thus providing a timely forum for debate.

Late last week I was at Wugularr to speak to Milwanga and others about my book project on Australian Aboriginal bird knowledge. Miliwanga and  I spent some time talking about her own bird knowledge from her Rembarrnga language and her country in central Arnhem land to the north of Wugularr.

But over a big pannikin of hot, sweet tea it became clear that Miliwanga still had strong views about the Federal government’s NT Intervention and the NT government policies on bilingual education.

Miliwanga agreed to an interview and here follows some excerpts from our discussion – mainly on the AIATSIS conference and bilingual education – I’ll have a closer look at Miliwanga’s concerns about the NT Intervention and other policies she has strong views about soon.

TNM – You’ve been a strong fighter for people’s language and culture rights.

Miliwanga Sandy – Yes – I was the first woman chair of the AAPA (Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority) – for a long time it was all men – right back from the seventies – it is very important to have women on that board. Nellie (Cam Foo) she was vice-chair for a long time.

I went to Melbourne for that indigenous education world conference and I spoke there about the issues with the bilingual education here in the NT and the decision by the NT Education Minister that all schools in the NT have mandatory 4 hours of English education every morning.

And here at Beswick we got left out – we only had two hours a week – before she announced that policy – of language education every week – and all the rest – we didn’t have any language program – everything was in English.

TNM – Most of these children here – English would be their second, third or fourth langugae?

MS – Well, these kids here – they would have Miaili, Rembarrnga, Ritarrngu, Ngalakgan, Dalabon, Jawoyn, some people speak Mara and Alawa – and all children – all people – we would speak language on our mothers side and on our father’s side as well – and grandmothers and grandfathers side as well.

TNM – And then there is Kriol…

MS – And Kriol is spoken differently – we have different dialects of Kriol – we would speak different Kriol to people at Ngukurr, and over west at Halls Creek in Western Australia is different again and at Torres Strait in Queensland is different too.

TNM – So when a kid comes to school at Beswick, how many languages might he already have?

MS – That kid might have three or four Aboriginal languages already – but when he goes to school his teacher is only speaking in English. Well, we know that education is important and you need to understand English to understand the subjects they teach like Maths and Science – and whatever they have there. That is only in English at the school – but at home – that children and their family only speak in their Aboriginal language. Now, what we want is both-way teaching in the school – not only for two hours a week but everyday there should be both-way teaching. That would be much better – they could pick up English very well and they could do their work and study a really good way.

TNM – Is that policy they have here – do you think it is the right way or the wrong way?

MS – That policy of speaking English only at school is the wrong thing – it is not good for our children, because if they put, if the children are only taught in English – they will forget their language.

TNM – And their language is their culture?

MS – Yes – it is part of their culture – it is a part of their life.

TNM – Are you worried that if your children here lose their language that they lose their culture?

MS – Yes, and they will lose their identity. They won’t know who they are.

TNM – Some people have said that this new policy is the right way to go because it is really up to parents to teach their children their language at home. Other people have said – “Look, you don’t understand – if our children are at school all day – then that is the right place to teach their language along with English.” The NT Education Minister said that “If people want their children to speak their language they should do it at their home.”

MS – No, thats not right. Our languages should be in all all different places – in Centrelink, in all Government agencies, like the Hospital, and Legal Aid and in the school, in the shop – that both-way teaching. There are people that go in the shop that can’t read English, and for example we should put up pictures beside the healthy food so that the ones who do not read English they can tell by the pictures – because our way of teaching has always been by observing – and in our art forms and dancing and singing. So pictures put up in the shop would tell that right message.

TNM – Many Australians – most really, only speak and read English – it is hard for them to appreciate how rich people’s knowledge is – they might think that people are silly or ignorant because they don’t speak a high level of English…they don’t realise that people might have two or three languages that they speak and others that they can hear – understand. How many languages do you know?

MS – I can speak Rembarrnga, and Miaili – my version of Miaili – a different dialect, it is called Gurrubih – spoken in central Arnhem Land, and Dalabon – and I can understand Burrara – my grandmothers and grandfather’s language – and Gunwinku – spoken at Oenpelli – and Djambarpungu – and English – yes, I forgot English (laughs) and Kriol as well.

TNM – And a lot of people hear and speak many languages…

MS – Yes. And Ian Thorpe’s Foundation for Youth has been a good help to me and other people supporting our fight for the rights of us Aboriginal people and our children to our language. I met him when I was living at Manyallaluk (Eva Valley) – he came out there and we taught him everything. We shared a whole day teaching him all our cultural activities and he bought one of my paintings – and he never knew, you know – about us and our people and our culture and how strong it is and that we still kept it with us to this day. He never knew about all that until he came there and when he saw it and knew about and heard about it he was amazed. And he himself saw it “I didn’t know that I could be so naive about thinking about all these things.” And it was there that we taught him about our languages and cultures and ever since he has been involved with us now. And when I moved to Beswick – he has helped support our local art & craft centre (Djilpin arts) and his foundation has helped to pay the travel and accommodation for us to travel to this conference in Canberra next week at AIATSIS on bilingual teaching and education.

TNM – And is this an important conference? Will it be just about bilingual education in Australia? And you will be going to speak there?

MS – Yes, yes – I’m going to go and speak on behalf of our schools – that we should have a full bilingual program – first of all when I was teaching at Barunga School, we first started our bilingual program there – that was in the Kriol language – but a lot of people – particularly in the education – they didn’t agree that Kriol was a language. And people like Margaret Sharpe and John Sandefur – two linguists – they showed that Kriol was a real language.

BG – One test surely is that you can put your whole world in a language…

MS – Yes, see, when they first put all the different language groups together in these settlements around here – they didn’t understand each other – and they put together these English words together and they came up with another language – that became Kriol – so that all the different language groups could communicate with each other. And they started speaking one another’s languages too. Kriol is a language that came about because of the colonisation of this country here. And if the white folks say that Kriol “Oh, that is not a language” – they should know that Kriol has half of that English language and also parts of our traditional languages as well. And Kriol now is a link between our traditional languages and English – and it is all over, where the white people started up all these settlements.

I’ll follow up with Miliwanga and others who will be speaking at the AIATSIS seminar over the next few weeks – stay tuned.

And if you have a comment about bilingual education or any of the other issues Miliwanga raises please feel free to leave a comment.