When Kevin Rudd came to power nearly a year ago, many of us linguists thought we might get a better deal for language in Australia. After all, it’s not every day that monolingual Australia elects a prime minister who is fluent in Mandarin. I think some of us assumed that Rudd’s sensitivity to multilingualism might transfer to more support for Australia’s Indigenous languages. We were deeply mistaken, it seems.
200 years ago, more than 250 languages were spoken in Australia, from 28 different language families. By way of comparison, Europe has roughly 200 languages from four families [Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and Basque]. These days, approximately 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are being learned by children, with another 60 spoken only by adults or old people. 90% of Australia’s Indigenous languages are reckoned as endangered.
There are 9 bilingual schools in the Northern Territory, and if plans go ahead, those schools will be forced to teach the first 4 hours of every school day in English, leaving between 60 and 90 minutes of class time per day for instruction in other languages.
Apparently the new policy was developed after below par test results for grades 3, 5 and 7 reading and maths. However, the government has repeatedly told researchers trying to access to school test data that test results are aggregated across schools. I take this to mean that the NT government doesn’t actually know if the bilingual schools are doing worse than the English-only schools.
I have a suggestion: mandate the content, don’t mandate the medium. Recognise that English is a second (or third or fourth) language for kids in these schools, employ a few ESL teachers, mandate 60-90 minutes of English as a Second/Foreign Language, and teach the rest of the curriculum in whatever language the kids know best. Trial it in Arnhem Land or a Warlpiri community where there are Indigenous teachers.
Until multilingual Aboriginal communities cease to be treated as ‘English monolingual failures’ there will be no sensible education policy for these areas.
We haven’t heard a peep out of Kevin Rudd. Given that the federal government technically controls 73 NT Aboriginal communities at present, one would have thought that the federal government’s opinion was relevant here.