Speaking up

Not so long ago, Aboriginal students received corporal punishment in schools for speaking their own language. Of the approximately 250 languages spoken before European invasion, all except 13 are considered critically endangered or extinct. Now the government and local Aboriginal communities are attempting to reverse this legacy of cultural suppression.

Journalist Alex Menyhart looks at strategies to revitalise Aboriginal languages through the school system, including the NSW Department of Education’s Connected Communities Strategy.

Australia released its first ever school curriculum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in 2015. But translating this curriculum for local contexts proves difficult.

Many Aboriginal communities have their own methods of passing on language. Government initiatives risk compromising this process.

In a government survey of Aboriginal communities, while 96% of respondents said that Aboriginal language should be taught in schools, 94% also said that this should be based on ‘flexible and locally driven designs’.

This is necessary to allow for differences between individual communities in terms of culture, teaching methods, strength of languages, availability of language teachers and the principles of decision makers in the community.

Aboriginal Language and Culture Nests is an initiative under the OCHRE (Opportunity, Choice, Healing, Responsibility, Empowerment) policy framework and is based on the successful Kohanga reo in New Zealand, which began in the 1980s as part of a Maori language revitalisation program.

This program culminated in a much deeper respect and proliferation of Maori language and culture in New Zealand than has been witnessed in Australia. Kohanga reo is where the concept of ‘language nests’ originated. This is an ‘immersion-based approach’to language learning and has been imitated in Hawaii and Canada for First Language tuition.

Learning and speaking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages should be promoted for their own sake, but studies show that it has manifold other benefits for students in their school and post school life. Aboriginal students who study their local language are more likely to pursue tertiary education, have greater employment outcomes and better mental health. The Northern Territory government’s 2014 - 2016 Suicide Prevention Plan listed “disconnection from culture” as a major factor in increased suicide risk.

In the Connected Communities Strategy implemented in NSW, the teaching of Aboriginal languages and culture aims to foster ‘community healing processes’ and the ‘brokering and strengthening of employment opportunities’. The program is currently run in 15 schools in NSW.

Teachers who apply to become Aboriginal language teachers participate in professional learning and actively engage with the local Aboriginal community. The emphasis is on ‘co-decision making’ with the community. Public schools can initiate their own Aboriginal language program in communication with the local Aboriginal community.

Other organisations, like Eora TAFE run independent language programs. TAFE NSW has developed Certificate I, II and III in Aboriginal Language/s and has played a large role in language revitalisation in NSW. These courses are free to enrol and are available in several Aboriginal languages including Wiradjuri, Bunjalung and Gamilaraay.

Is your school, college or centre running an Aboriginal language program? Get in touch at ieu@ieu.asn.au