Thursday, 26 August 2010

Indigenous languages in education and the attacks on Australian languages and culture

7.30pm 9 September 2010, Charles Darwin University
PHONE:  Phil Gasgow - 08 8931 3133

Languages other than English do not travel well in Australia.  Most support comes from people who have migrated to this country from elsewhere who gain recognition for their native languages through the curriculum.  In short, there are migrant communities who work to continue their native languages in a foreign land.  If you are an Australian who wants to learn French, German, Indonesian etc., this can depend upon where you live and the status of the high school you attend.  

But you would think we might take better care of Australian languages - wouldn't you?  We don't.  It has amazed me that whitefellas go to the Northern Territory to live and yet don't bother to explore the local Aboriginal language.  Yet I am quite certain that should the same people go to live for a year or two in Rome, Italy they would try to pick up, at the very least, a basic working knowledge of Italian!

Just as the migrant communities work to sustain their languages, so Aboriginal communities in the NT work, amidst controversy, to sustain their languages.  It was considered groundbreaking when bi-lingual education came into practice for Aboriginal students.  The topic of indigenous languages in the school room is, many years on, still controversial.  

I ask Networkers, particularly those of Celtic origin, to recall the intrinsic connection between language and culture.  I also ask that people consider what happens to language under the conqueror.  Scotland, Wales, and Ireland suffered greatly under the English policies of eradication of Gaelic in these countries.  Nationalist movements have revived Irish, Welsh, and Scottish languages - but this is not an easy task and much is lost, not only in language but in culture.

Do we want such language eradication to occur in Australia?  Over 250 Aboriginal languages were spoken in Australia prior to white settlement.  See here for details.  This number has dropped to 145 with 110 of those regarded as endangered.  Needless to say, more remote Aboriginal communities are more likely to have a vibrant language culture.  More details here.  

Please click on "Read more" below which will jump to extensive details of speakers and topics.  Particularly interesting, is the precis of  what Joseph Lo Bianco will have to say.

“Evidence? Achievement? Performance?
Official data from My Schools,
Government and NT Parliament on Model 1 (Step) bilingual programs”

Associate Professor, Bilingual Education & Applied Linguistics,
School of Education, Charles Darwin University

Rights? Closing the gap? Culture? Data?
What can break the deadlock on an Indigenous national language
policy for Australia?”

Professor of Language and Literacy Education, Associate Dean (Global Engagement) 
President, Australian Academy of the Humanities 
Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne

In different parts of the world Indigenous people have made greater language rights gains than we have achieved in Australia. In this talk I will be asking the question of why Australia has been so tardy, piecemeal, and reluctant in conceding language rights to Indigenous people. I will reflect on the discourses of language rights that have found traction in some countries, of educational and occupational equality, discussed today as
Closing the Gap, and pondering why and where equivalent discourses have made headway in other countries.  II will also look at some cases where a commitment to a distinctive and unique cultural heritage has been able to open doors and when it has not. Finally I will also reflect on research and data, i.e. the role of academic scholarship in policy making. Each circumstance is unique of course and Australian policy making will have to find its independent pathway to securing rights for Indigenous languages and their speakers, but there is a great deal we can learn by reflecting on past successes and current struggles in different settings around the world.

The Commonwealth Government established bilingual programs in some remote NT Schools in the mid 1970s. By 1980 bilingual education policy encompassed eight official aims, one of which was to teach vernacular literacy in addition to the important goals of promoting English language and numeracy skills. Model 1 programs incorporated reading and writing in
Aboriginal languages; Model 2 programs did not.

Since self government, NT Education authorities have, on several occasions, compared the performance of schools with bilingual programs against similar ‘non-bilingual’ ones. In 1980 the first attempt to do this, known as the accreditation exercise, produced publicly accessible, comparative information which did not justify any change of policy away from bilingual education. In 1998 the CLP Government then tried to phase out bilingual programs and cited three reasons for doing so, including the claim, based on data which were
not released, that students in bilingual programs were performing more poorly.

In November 2008 the Henderson Government tabled in parliament a data document which purported to demonstrate the inferior performance of NT students at schools with bilingual programs. The document was offered, a month after the event, as justification for the
announcement on October 14, 2008 that ‘Step’ bilingual programs would be discontinued. However, the sample chosen for comparison was invalid and half of the comparative
data analysis was withheld. Fortunately, the MY SCHOOL website now allows an independent
check on some of the claims in that Nov ‘08 document.

What this re-analysis suggests is that, in order to make its case against Model 1 (‘Step’) bilingual programs, the document’s authors had engaged in statistical ‘sleight of
hand’. In the interests of promoting a more transparent and accountable approach to policy formulation, this paper challenges such methods and explains why the evidence
supporting policy decisions not only needs to be reliable and valid; it also needs to be made more accessible and explicit. A new policy needs to be developed.

To that end a possible way forward is suggested; one that includes important stakeholders and takes account of the relevant evidence.

Further reading:

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