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«Read003 Aug 2007 Englishes and literacies: Indigenous Australian contexts Penny Tripcony Paper presented to the ACTA/QATESOL (Australian Council of ...»

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Aboriginal Kriol There are also Aboriginal Kriols spoken widely throughout northern Australia (mainly in the Northern Territory). These are not dialects of english. People who speak Kriol often do not speak Aboriginal english, thus requiring interpreters to communicate effectively with speakers of Standard english. (For information on the linguistic features of Kriol, see “A sketch on the structure of Kriol” by John Sandefur in Language in Australia, edited by Suzanne Romaine, Cambridge University Press 199l, pp. 204–212.) Literacy: an Indigenous view Kaye Price (1990) described literacy as a common form of art and ideas. While in modern mainstream Australia, literate societies are considered to be those which preserve and develop their history and culture in written form, Price perceives “traditional” Aboriginal literacy as the enshrining of history, heritage and cultures in paintings on bark, on bodies, on cave walls, and in sand, as well as in dance and song: a literacy that was privileged information depending on one’s wisdom or maturity. Although many researchers have reported that traditionally Australian Aborigines did not write their languages, Jennifer Biddle (1996) supports Price’s assertion, adding a comment from Jimmy Jampijimpa

Robertson (1990):

When some other Yapa community come and have a look at your painting there, they just talk that one, they read that one. They know which way it started and where it finished and which one is sacred site.

Same as paper again. Kardiya (European, non-Aboriginal, whitefella) can’t read it. No. (Laughing) They got to look that paper. They got to read from a book, not from a painting.

This comment demonstrates the different ways of being in the world, and helps us to see that for each of us, our literacy abilities depend very much upon how we have been socialised at home, our experiences outside of the home, and the context in which we are expected to use our skills of reading, viewing, listening, comprehending, analysing, verbalising, writing, etc.

Queensland Studies Authority Ground floor, 295 Ann Street Brisbane. PO Box 307 Spring Hill Qld 4004 Phone: (07) 3864 0299 | Fax: (07) 3221 2553 | Email: office@qsa.qld.edu.au | Website: www.qsa.qld.edu.au Page 6 of 12

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Another form of literacy is “reading” non-verbal language — a traditional skill passed on through generations and frequently used by Indigenous Australians today. (Enemburu, 1989.) Differences between Aboriginal english and Standard Australian english Standard Australian english is a derivative of Standard english, itself a derivative of an english dialect used in some parts of London and south-east England. It is one dialectal form of a language among many others, that is used by those in power. The question of what becomes a “standard” language is often more a matter of politics and relative power than it is of linguistics (DEET [undated], p. 14).

In some areas — particularly the Northern Territory, Western Australia, northern South Australia and far north Queensland — where traditional languages are in continued use by both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, english is obviously a second (or third, or fourth, etc.) language, requiring second language teaching techniques for english literacy acquisition. Not so obvious is the need for second language teaching of Indigenous Australian students whose daily communication is in a form of Aboriginal english.

The differences between Aboriginal englishes and Standard Australian english are found

in every area of language:

• pronunciation

• grammar

• vocabulary

• meaning

• use and style.

It is not only the structure and vocabulary of Aboriginal englishes that are perceived to be problematic, but (as with all languages) the less obvious values embedded in them. When Standard Australian english (SAe) is the language of instruction for all areas of curriculum and skills development, there are serious implications for both teachers and Indigenous learners.

Aboriginal english can be described as the “home language” … It is the language of their home, family and community and it is through their language that many Aboriginal children will learn about most of the more important aspects of life, especially their Aboriginality (NSW Department of School Education, 1989).

Links between english literacy competence and employment?

The message implicit in policies developed for all learners is that literacy in SAe will give access to power and status in the mainstream. This is particularly so in those policies and strategies aimed at the so-called “equity target groups” (students of language backgrounds other than english, low socioeconomic students, Indigenous students, students with disabilities, rural and isolated students, etc.). Many Indigenous Australians interpret this as to become literate is to become educated, but this is sometimes viewed (by others) as sacrificing all or part of their identity. Mainstream education is seen to Queensland Studies Authority Ground floor, 295 Ann Street Brisbane. PO Box 307 Spring Hill Qld 4004 Phone: (07) 3864 0299 | Fax: (07) 3221 2553 | Email: office@qsa.qld.edu.au | Website: www.qsa.qld.edu.au Page 7 of 12

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involve the adoption of patterns of thought and study that are essentially not Indigenous.

Therefore to become literate and educated is sometimes perceived to become less Indigenous. Many Indigenous people both consciously and unconsciously reject this kind of mainstream society pressure. Many of those targeted by specific literacy policies also ask (and rightly so), Will becoming literate in english lead to employment? Will I be able to keep a job? Do I really want to work where I’ll be constantly subjected to racism and prejudice … where I’ll be both invisible and inaudible when it comes to things that matter?

These are issues to be resolved if we are to achieve both education and employment equity.

Are teachers adequately prepared to teach Indigenous students?

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1989–1991) found that school based education systems have been either unable or unwilling to accommodate many of the values, attitudes, codes and institutions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation and achievement in education, as defined by the wider Australian society, has been limited and this has in turn limited the real choices available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian society (1992, p. 40).

This finding echoes earlier statements by the National Aboriginal Education Committee which, since its inception in 1976, had called for cultural understandings and relevant skills to be incorporated into teacher education. Indeed, similar statements have consistently featured in Indigenous education conference proceedings and Aboriginal Reconciliation documents.

To demonstrate the inadequacy of teacher education, a survey of teachers undertaken in

a Queensland region in 1995, comprising:

• 5 sample schools (2 high; 3 primary, one of which was situated within an Aboriginal community) • 110 teacher responses, out of a total of 154 teachers (22% aged 29 or under. Median age group = 35–39 year olds. Average teaching experience 11.8 years.) … … revealed that 8 out of 110 (7%) teachers indicated that they were competent and wellprepared to teach Aboriginal students; however, this competence was gained mostly from experience.

From written survey responses, teachers’ comments relevant to this discussion included:

I treat all kids the same.

I don’t believe in Aboriginal English. It’s just a bastardised form of the proper English that they have to learn.

The kids here all speak English. Bad English of course, lazy English, but English.

I ban “language” (i.e. home languages) in the classroom. That’s not why they are here. I also think they often use it just to make fun of me because they know I don’t speak it.

Queensland Studies Authority Ground floor, 295 Ann Street Brisbane. PO Box 307 Spring Hill Qld 4004 Phone: (07) 3864 0299 | Fax: (07) 3221 2553 | Email: office@qsa.qld.edu.au | Website: www.qsa.qld.edu.au Page 8 of 12

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The evidence strongly suggests that teacher education includes neither the background information nor the tools for teachers to understand Indigenous students and guide them towards achievement in the years of schooling.

Yet, there are numerous writings and experienced individuals available to inform teacher education. For example, a favourite quote of mine in relation to the connection between Indigenous use of English language and teacher assumptions is the work of John Dwyer, who in 1989 reflected on his first encounter with an Indigenous student at Cherbourg

many years previously:

“What name you call?” I turned to find my questioner was Norman, a six-year old Aboriginal boy, all smiling eyes and white teeth. “He looks bright enough”, I thought, “what a pity he can’t speak properly.” On the basis of this snippet of speech, I had already made a judgement about Norman’s language development and, probably without being aware of it, I had linked this language judgement to a further one about his general ability and intelligence.

… If, as teachers, we see these differences as a “problem”, then our response will be to remediate and compensate, to try to stamp out and replace undesirable language. For the Aboriginal child the end result is likely to be lowered self-esteem.

On the other hand if we see these differences as a resource on which further teaching and learning can be built, our teaching response will be to seek to extend the skills that children already have. We will see ourselves as helping children to further successful learning, rather than as attempting to remediate past failure. If they fail to learn, we will question our strategies rather than blame their weaknesses. We will acknowledge past successes and build in expectations of future success.

As a result the children will know their language is valued and, therefore, that they are valued. They will grow as people and as learners.

How to change … From an exploration of successful english language acquisition programs, in the DEET publication, Langwij comes to school, the following steps are recommended to teachers

preparing to work with Indigenous students:

Awareness of

1. the variety of languages

2. the way languages and cultures interact to develop an understanding of the world;

3. the way particular characteristics of language are used to define social circumstances, identity, position and power.

Acknowledgment Accepting the language children bring to school and using that to build competence in SAE is the key to improving the performance of Indigenous students.

Queensland Studies Authority Ground floor, 295 Ann Street Brisbane. PO Box 307 Spring Hill Qld 4004 Phone: (07) 3864 0299 | Fax: (07) 3221 2553 | Email: office@qsa.qld.edu.au | Website: www.qsa.qld.edu.au Page 9 of 12

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1. working with community (Indigenous education workers, parents, etc.)

2. planning

3. parents/carers/community members, teachers and students must be active participants in learning negotiation.

These steps incorporate five major principles involved in teaching SAE literacy to Indigenous students, based on the research of Eagleson, Kaldor and Malcolm (1982).

A child’s mother tongue embodies all his or her early life experiences and ingrained language habits. The mother tongue is always a cohesive linguistic system with its own grammatical/semantic properties. It allows the child to communicate, and function comfortably. It channels his or her thought processes prior to starting school.

School should be an extension of early childhood experience: there should not be a sharp break between the early childhood language experienced and language experienced at school.

Teaching is most effective when there is no conflict between home and school. Conflict can be avoided if schools respect every child’s mother tongue. No language should be branded as inferior.

Schooling can be effective only when there is successful two-way communication between teacher and child — when the teacher and child listen to and understand one another.

Every Aboriginal child, as well as every other Australian child, needs to be given optimal opportunities for developing competence in Standard Australian english, which is the medium of higher education and official communication in Australia.


I would like to leave you with the following thoughts:

• An effective education must be founded on the security and confidence engendered by an acceptance of social and cultural identity as an individual, a member of a

community and as part of a nation (Bicentennial Australian Studies Schools Project:

An Australian Curriculum Bulletin 4, p. 15).

• To achieve regular school attendance by Indigenous students … requires us to understand the needs in the classroom … to understand how they view the world … if needs are not met then they are somewhere else doing something else — being disempowered. If a school community is not committed to change, then we will never achieve this objective (Dr David Kemp, Federal Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, speaking on the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, 16 June 2000, Melbourne).

Queensland Studies Authority Ground floor, 295 Ann Street Brisbane. PO Box 307 Spring Hill Qld 4004 Phone: (07) 3864 0299 | Fax: (07) 3221 2553 | Email: office@qsa.qld.edu.au | Website: www.qsa.qld.edu.au Page 10 of 12

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• It is poor educational practice as well as morally indefensible to make a child feel ashamed of his or her parents or friends because of the way they speak (Malcolm 1982, p. 18).

• … and from the writer, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (also known as Kath Walker):

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References Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: Overview of the response by governments to the Royal Commission 1992, AGPS, Canberra.

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