The language of learning

A bilingual approach to Aboriginal education has spelt success.

October 25, 2004

The Age

Jill Jolliffe writes  in Arnhem Land

Daly River School, 200 kilometres from Darwin, was founded by Jesuits in the 19th century and is set on a bank of the deep-running river, from which the strange barking of crocodiles can be heard at night. The school is still Catholic but is now run by the Nauiyu Aboriginal community, and like most remote schools, few of its children speak English on admission. In the Northern Territory education system, it sits midway between  schools teaching in indigenous languages and those teaching only in English. Its curriculum highlights local culture and its teachers are mainly Aboriginal.  This day begins with a pep talk to a fractious class by principal Miriam Rose Baumann, a highly qualified pioneer of indigenous teaching. Students suffer low self-esteem so she chides gently. "You're all very clever," she tells them, "but you must work together. You follow the AFL mob so you should know a footballer can't play without the others." 

Helen McCarthy, a young Aboriginal teacher with an MA from Deakin University, supervises a first-grade painting class, in which "most speak Creole, some understand English, a few speak 'language' ". Five-year-old Milly Sambono-Diyini is the daughter of prominent Aboriginal artists. She colours her drawings carefully, then joins Ms Baumann's language and culture class in Ngangi Kurungurr, a language thousands of years old. The children learn new words and discuss the uses of local plants - the kapok tree for making canoes, and cashews and tamarinds for picking after morning dew sets in.  "Language is everything to us. A person who knows their language knows who they are," the principal says. 

Kathy McMahon began teaching 20 years ago in Arnhem Land. It was an Exciting time, after the Whitlam Labor government recognised indigenous children's right to learn in their mother tongue - and that they learnt better that way. 

Under the reforms, children were taught first in their own language, while also studying English. Indigenous literacy became a bridge to English literacy.  Linguists fluent in local languages were appointed and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers recruited. By 1994, more than 100 had graduated from Batchelor Institute, outside Darwin. 

The NT was administered then by the Commonwealth Government, but after self-government in 1978, the Country-Liberal Party (CLP) ruled. It eroded the bilingual system and challenged the "bridging" theory.

Ms McMahon admits that there were problems but claims critics measured success by narrow standards. 

"Education's not just about literacy, it's about cognitive development," she says, "and that's where first language is essential. That's why UN resolutions say kids should be able to learn in their mother tongue, because that's the language their brains are in. They should be able to develop that and learn what they need from outside cultures." In 1999 the NT government tried scrapping bilingual teaching for an  English-only system, but met a backlash. "The education minister arrived at Port Keats to find the whole community there," Ms McMahon recalls, "including old people  all painted up, wearing T-shirts saying, 'Bilingual Forever'." 

The idea was dropped and bilingualists won the day, in theory, but claim the government later killed the project by cutting funds. Disillusioned with the state system, Ms McMahon moved to Daly River School, which championed indigenous culture.  The election of the NT's first Labor government, in 2001, raised new Hope with Chief Minister Clare Martin declaring her commitment to bilingualism. 

Statistics remained grim. Of 50,785 indigenous NT residents counted by the  2001 census, only 4704 had completed years 11-12. And although they represented 25 per cent of the general population, only 5 per cent held university places  (21 per cent of the general population has tertiary education). 

 Under Minister Sid Stirling, the few remaining bilingual schools (cut from 21  to 12 under the CLP ) still lack resources, with the Government prioritising "accelerated literacy development" in English. It is also reinforcing secondary programs, with some success.  He defends these choices, saying there have been some outstanding results in the accelerated literacy drive.

 He told Education he supports the retention of language programs "where they still existed in 1999. We haven't walked away from bilingual teaching, we're still looking at it." (The Martin Government has its own "two-way program" version but several educators have described it as a "watered-down" version of original principles.)

Those educators who accuse Labor of failing Aboriginal education say its promise to leave the previous government bureaucracy intact was disastrous. "When Clare came in, she started to use the 'b' word - 'bilingual' - but we're still in the CLP mode," says Raymattja Marika, a senior teacher at Arnhem Land's Yirrkala Community Education Centre. Yirrkala is one of the few remaining schools teaching in indigenous languages. Principal Leon White arrived in the NT in 1969, a 19-year-old from Wycheproof who was trained in Geelong. It was the shock of his life to discover his students spoke no English. Yirrkala is the heartland of Arnhem Land culture, and painting and music are part of daily life. Musicians such as the Yothu Yindi band are role models, and the school has three bands, including one for girls. Mr White witnessed the Whitlam-era reforms and their decline. He feels that champions of the system didn't defend their ideas properly, paving the way for the CLP cuts. "We lost our way in terms of a robust discussion," he says. And, like Ms McMahon, he admits there were errors. "By the early '90s, people became concerned the kids weren't learning enough English, and a major, positive restructuring happened. We wanted two-way education but not at the expense of kids learning English, and the community reasserted its interest inclan languages."

He advocates bilingualism in a setting in which "schools have a big role to play in the way kids' self-esteem is developed - and resilience, inner strength, to be strong against drugs".

Raymattja Marika sees the project as a struggle for souls, against the lure of substance abuse, crime and despair.

 In the next two years, Yirrkala will have children studying for the Northern Territory Certificate of Education for the first time, thanks partly to Minister Stirling's boosting of secondary resources. They will be a are minority who have always studied in their own language as well as English. "They were definitely advantaged by being bilingual from primary," teacher Katrina Hudson says. "They have a precious asset-gains in community knowledge, self-esteem, and being comfortable to operate in both systems."

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