«Read003 Aug 2007 Englishes and literacies: Indigenous Australian contexts Penny Tripcony Paper presented to the ACTA/QATESOL (Australian Council of ...»
Englishes and literacies:
Indigenous Australian contexts
Paper presented to the ACTA/QATESOL (Australian Council of TESOL Associations / Queensland
Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Conference, Brisbane, 6 July
2000. Ms Tripcony was Manager, Oodgeroo Unit, Queensland University of Technology.
The author’s original capitalisation has been retained in the text. Reproduced with kind permission PLEASE NOTE: This paper is not an official publication of the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA) and, as such, ideas or sentiments contained in it may not reflect QSA views or policy. The views expressed in this paper are entirely the author’s own.
Abstract In recent years, in response to calls for improved competencies and english literacy skills within the current and future workforce, Australian governments have directed that overall literacy benchmarks be set by annual testing of school students, with a view to ascertaining targets for remedial action. Where does this testing place those students whose home languages are either not english, or not the form of english recognised by education systems and subsequent employers?
It is often expected that particular attention should be given to students who were (or whose parents were) born in non–english-speaking countries or, in the case of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, those who live in remote communities. However, there continues to be little recognition of the language and cultural needs of the many Indigenous Australian students who attend urban and rural schools and who are speakers of the various forms of english which have come to be known as “Aboriginal english”.
This presentation, based on experiences from community education programs, schools, vocational education and tertiary systems, focuses on Indigenous Australians — who they are; and their use of english language in both oral and written forms. In addition, some pointers are offered for educators working with Indigenous Australian students, their parents and communities.
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The National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy In March this year the Prime Minister, together with the Federal Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, launched the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, 2000–2004.
The strategy’s objective is:
To achieve English literacy, numeracy and attendance outcomes for indigenous students at levels comparable to those achieved by other Australians.
The strategy is, of course, aligned with other national directions. For example, those
outlined in the:
• National Goals for Schooling in Australia in the Twenty-First Century
• National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy
• National Literacy and Numeracy Goals, especially that every child leaving primary school should be numerate, and able to read, write and spell at an appropriate level …
every child commencing school from 1998 will achieve a minimum acceptable literacy and numeracy standard within four years.
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The six key elements of the strategy are:
1. achieving attendance
2. overcoming hearing, health and nutrition problems
3. preschooling experiences
4. getting good teachers
5. using the best teaching methods
6. measuring success, achieving accountability.
Why such a strategy?
The development of education policies, programs and strategies for specific social groups is not new. During the 1980s and 1990s we witnessed, firstly, the promotion of multiculturalism, which evolved into groups defined as, women and girls, low socioeconomic, migrant and multicultural, rural and isolated, disabled, gifted and talented and Aboriginal students; each of whom were targeted for the purpose of achieving equitable educational outcomes.
More recently, the introduction of literacy and numeracy testing has demonstrated serious gaps in the competency levels of groups of students. This is particularly so for Indigenous Australian students, whose results for those tests are considerably lower than those of other students.
It is not only politicians and educators who find this situation unacceptable: it is also Indigenous parents, who want their children to be competent in standard english language and literacy. Indigenous students, too, want to have the same educational and employment opportunities as other students.
Why is it that Indigenous Australian students are not achieving english language and literacy competencies?
I believe that the development of english language competency by Indigenous Australian students requires appropriate teacher education on Indigenous Australian cultures, identity, world views and language use; and, in the classroom, second language approaches to teaching. This I hope to demonstrate by presenting a brief background to traditional languages and current english language use by Indigenous people. In so doing, I draw heavily upon the work of Dr Diana Eades, who has researched and worked closely with Indigenous people in Queensland for many years; and of Professor Ian Malcolm and colleagues in Western Australia.
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Who are Indigenous students?
First, however, teachers must be able to recognise Indigenous students, and accept their Indigenous identity and the background and life experiences that they bring with them to the classroom.
Remote, tradition-oriented communities are distinct. Teachers taking up appointments in these areas expect to be teaching Indigenous students, and also expect that there will be differences in cultures and language use. But what of those Indigenous students in urban and rural settings? What are teachers’ expectations of Indigenous students who appear to have similar family structures and lifestyles as Anglo-Australians, and who use english language to communicate?
The formal Commonwealth government definition of an Indigenous Australian has three
(a) a person who is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, or of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent (b) who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (c) is accepted as such within their respective Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community.
This definition has been the basis of government policy relating to Indigenous people since the 1967 Constitutional referendum, and formalised by the High Court in 1983. It contains no reference to physical appearance or to geographic location or lifestyle. Yet, in educational settings we continue to hear statements such as, “They say they’re Aboriginal, but they don’t look it”; and “They’re not really Aboriginal — they live in a nice house; the parents have good jobs and drive nice cars; they’re just the same as any suburban family”; and “It’s only the ones in the desert and the north who are the true Aborigines (or Torres Strait Islanders).” To define “really Aboriginal” in terms of physical features, such as skin colour, or adherence to traditional practices, is inaccurate. It can also be grossly unjust. Perhaps one of the most basic and at the same time the most crucial, problems in the delivery of education, health services, and justice to many Aboriginal people today is the failure of many Australians, including those in professions, to recognise the former’s rightful claim to Aboriginality, and the cultural and linguistic differences which are involved (Eades 1992, p. 7).
It is often assumed that Indigenous people whose lifestyles are perceived to be the same as non-Indigenous Australians and who no longer speak traditional languages, must have “lost their culture”.
There are numerous academic discussions on the concept of culture. In an unpublished paper titled “What is this thing called ‘Culture’”, Groome (1996, p. 4), refers to many of these discussions and how they might relate to Aboriginal education. He writes, Faced with the evidence of the destructive effects of traditional understandings of the word “culture” many theorists over the last decade have advocated new interpretations of the term. There is now a range of concepts being discussed. All of these share one aspect in common. They have sought to move away from the concept of culture as a fixed entity, a complex of “concrete behaviour patterns, customs, usages, traditions, habit clusters” (Geertz 1973, p. 87). Instead they have sought to stress the role of individuals over and above that of groups in forming patterns of personal cultures.
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Thus, culture is seen as a construct, which is neither fixed nor measurable, but dynamic:
“… a living organism that is continually being constructed by individuals in the course of their day to day living” (Groome 1996, p. 5).
There is not now, nor has there ever been, such things as the Aboriginal culture, or the Torres Strait culture. Yet lists of Aboriginal learning styles or Aboriginal behaviours continue to be made available to teachers. Such lists are problematic, in that they reinforce what is termed “essentialism”, a notion which seeks to reduce Aboriginality to a few “essentials” or basic descriptors, usually based on traditional values. The lists are often then interpreted into practice as one of two approaches to teaching Indigenous students. Both approaches are dangerous. One approach denies urban Indigenous students any claims to having a characteristic identity; and the other approach proposes a generic Aboriginal culture or Torres Strait culture that anticipates certain behaviours of students. Both approaches result in Indigenous students being stereotyped and lumped together. Thus schooling becomes a disempowering process that hampers students’ potential to learn and progress through their years of formal education. All students need to be accepted as individuals, and provided with educational opportunities accordingly.
However, Eades (1992, p. 10) emphasises that:
Regardless of differences in lifestyle and socioeconomic situation, Aboriginal people in Australia today belong to overlapping kin-based networks sharing social life, responsibilities and rights, a common history and culture and experience of racism and ethnic consciousness.
Why is english literacy “a problem” for Indigenous students?
At the time of British settlement, it is estimated that there were around 250 language groups, each with sub-groups or dialects, thus a total of around 600 languages spoken.
While these languages were related, they were separate languages; in the same way that Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English today are four related but separate languages. Many of these languages had one or more dialects which were mutually intelligible with each other — that is, speakers of one dialect could understand speakers of another, as for example with Scottish English and Australian English today (Eades 1992, p. 15).
Languages were fully developed, with large vocabularies and complex grammars, as elaborate as those of Latin and ancient Greek. For example, the Guugu Yimithirr language of Cooktown had 11 cases, formed by adding different endings to nouns and pronouns, like the cases of Latin ( Eades 1992, p. 15).
Today most Aboriginal Australians speak Aboriginal englishes as their first language.
These are dialects of english that reflect, maintain and continually create Aboriginal cultures and identities. Eades estimates that in Queensland alone, at least 93 per cent of Aboriginal people use english, but the language used is not Standard english; rather, distinctly Aboriginal dialects of english.
These dialects are often classified along a continuum, ranging from light to heavy. Light forms of Aboriginal English are very close to SAE [Standard Australian English]. Heavy versions are closer to Kriol and are spoken in remote areas (DEET [undated] p. 13).
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Torres Strait Islander languages
In the Torres Strait, there are two major language groups:
(a) Western Language (Kala Lagaw Ya), estimated to have at least 3000 speakers (b) Eastern Language (Meriam Mir) — about 100 or so speakers.
In the latter half of the twentieth century this language, Torres Strait Creole (also known as Broken, Pizin, or Blaikman) developed. It is now the common language, spoken by approximately 3000 Torres Strait Islanders as a first language and up to 12 000–15 000 as a second language.
Anna Schnukal’s work, Broken — An Introduction to the Creole Language of the Torres Strait Islands (Pacific Linguistics, Series C, No 107, Canberra) provides further information on the linguistic features of Torres Strait Creole.