Call to save bilingual education

By Stuart Rintoul - The Australian

Australian governments suffer from a "deep monolingualism" that has discriminated against teaching in Aboriginal languages, according to a new report criticising the dismantling of bilingual education in the Northern Territory.

In an assault on the territory's decision last year to teach the first four hours of the school day in English, the report's authors say the decision "could spell the death of the remaining endangered indigenous languages in Australia" and marked a return to the "English-only" approach of the assimilationist era of the1950s.

The authors, Jane Simpson, Jo Caffery and Patrick McConvell, all of whom have long experience in Aboriginal linguistics, say bilingualism in remote NT schools was ditched "without apparent regard for the evidence from research on how monolingual children learn a second language, or on the positive value of bilingual education, or the language rights of indigenous peoples, or the evidence from schools which had abandoned bilingual education".

They say English has been given preference over mother tongues in an atmosphere of "myths and confusion", even though in many remote NT communities teachers need to be trained to teach English as a foreign language.

In their paper, "Gaps in Australia's indigenous language policy: dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory", published by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, they say that where bilingualism has failed in Aboriginal communities, it has been a failure of implementation, or the result of inadequate resources.

They say that since colonisation Australia has been governed by a monolingual people and "the deep monolingualism of Australian governments has created some myths and confusions which cause serious problems for indigenous people who speak other languages".

The authors say multilingualism in Aboriginal communities is being "rapidly eroded" but that Aboriginal languages are not being replaced by standard Australian English but English-based creole or mixed languages and students "very often do not understand what English-speaking teachers say to them".

Despite Aboriginal community support for bilingual programs, there was also a "desperate shortage" of trained indigenous teachers and teaching assistants able to speak traditional languages.

Arguing that indigenous language rights should be protected by constitutional recognition, the report's authors are critical of former NT education minister Marion Scrymgour, saying it was "deeply worrying" that she could axe the programs with so little evidence to support the decision.

Stuart Rintoul | July 02, 2009 | The Australian