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Bilingual Education: comparing the Territories

By emd - 16 September 2009 24

[First filed: September 16, 2009 @ 06:34]

I’ve just been watching Four Corners on ABC TV, and they had a very interesting story about bilingual education in Northern Territory public schools. You can check out the details here.

In short, English literacy tests showed that some NT public schools had poor results. The NT government decided that bilingual teaching – where students learn in both their local indigenous language and in English – was the cause of the problem, and mandated a minimum four hours per day (and school is only a 6 hour day with an hour or more of lunch breaks) in English. This was despite evidence that some schools in NT where teaching is predominantly in English also had poor results. Teachers talked about the cultural importance of preserving indigenous language, and the schools role in community and culture.

Here in Canberra, we have public primary schools with popular bilingual programsTelopea’s French, Yarralumla’s Italian (used to be at Lyons), and Mawson’s Chinese programs for example. It is considered to be a sign of greater language ability and a useful life skill to have children speaking more than one language fluently.

So how did we end up with a country where at one end, children are seen to be smarter for going to a school where they learn in two languages, while at the other end of the country children are no longer allowed to learn bilingually even though the indigenous language is used by nearly everyone else in their local community?


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24 Responses to
Bilingual Education: comparing the Territories
bd84 10:15 pm 16 Sep 09

Granny said :

That is outrageous. They must let them learn in their own languages – anything else is technically genocide. Haven’t we done enough to these nations?

Did you see all the teachers lining up to teach the students in the indigenous language? I don’t remember seeing any. Sure, it’s great for the children to learn their own language, this is likely to come from the elders who are unlikely to have any teaching qualifications. I think something like should be made available for all children in that community if available, but in conjunction with other more traditional teaching.

Atthe end of the day, this is an english speaking country and to have the same or better opportunities (as opposed to the “disadvantaged tag they’re normally plastered with), the children are going to need to be able to speak, read and write english at a proficient level. English as a second language similar to the courses run in a lot of mainstream schools would be a great course to have available for these children, however finding the teachers is probably a fairly big hurdle.

Anyway, back to Canberra. From my experience most Canberra schools do run a compulsory “LOTE” or choice of in high schools. I learnt a number of different languages in the various schools here and interstate. I scored straight “A”s for 4 years in one language and I’d be lucky to speak more than a few words/sentences in it now. Even so, I think it is beneficial for kids to learn (or attempt to) another language, mostly as it allows them to learn about and understand other cultures.

Granny 3:49 pm 16 Sep 09

“Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”

Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (Wash., D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), p. 79.

[Emphasis added]

nyssa76 2:35 pm 16 Sep 09

barking toad, and you know this how? With what degree of certainty can you make that statement?

As a teacher I have taught my students to spell, write sentences, then paragraphs and then esssays. I have taught them to use critical literacy skills and to write in various text types as well as how to infer meaning from text.

You’d be surprise what a student can achieve, especially in low SES areas around Canberra, given the right teacher.

ACTing like a Mama 2:12 pm 16 Sep 09

The issue I saw from watching this documentary was not so much that bilingual teaching was failing the students specifically at this school – but that the teachers were not trained to teach english as a second language – which is what this school was requesting.

As the primary language of the community was an indigenous one – these kids had very little grasp on the english language until they attended school – if they attended school (another issue in itself). I think it is then unfair to look at the statistics of this school against schools around Australia where children are brought up as English as their first, or primary language. The comparison then, with the Canberra schools where the primary language is English and the secondary, bilingual language is French, Italian etc – would show very different statistics (as I am sure the results are on based on an english literacy and numeracy capacity?)

PigDog 2:09 pm 16 Sep 09

Only 4 posts until Godwin’s law is invoked? A new record for the RiotACT?

Two comments on this post.

Firstly, I agree that nothing good can come out of destroying these children’s already wonderful lives by teaching them the language spoken by the 19 million or so people around them. A deep and complex understanding of (for example) Murrinh-patha will certainly help these children achieve long and fulfilling lives and open numerous doors to opportunity for them in the future. Even the most brief glance at Career-one and Seek shows that these sites are overflowing with interesting, high paid jobs for people with only a basic grasp of English! Why, oh why would the NT Government be working against all this?

barking toad 1:26 pm 16 Sep 09

With the Evil one #5 – schools haven’t taught English for a long time. Especially English Expression (ie how to write and spell)

Hells_Bells74 12:09 pm 16 Sep 09

Clown Killer said :

Its probably worth noting that there’s a diference between a bilingual school and a school that teaches other languages. Bilingual schools will teach all subjects bilingually – so on one day the Australian history will be presented in English and the next day in Italian, same with the other subjects.

I know kids that attend the italian primary school in Canberra. Some do OK others not so.

Thanks Clown, my thinking was a bit off.. Interesting topic still.

Clown Killer 12:08 pm 16 Sep 09

The most dispassionate and even handed thing I could say about the NT Government is that by any objective measure they’re incapable of organising a fcuk in a brothel. This isn’t about bilingual education, its about an education system that’s gone south of the s-bend.

rosebud 11:59 am 16 Sep 09

It’s a very confused message that is being given to us from up on high. On the one hand bilingual teaching in Chinese, Indonesian or a European language equals good quality education, while bilingual teaching in a native Indigenous language equals poor quality. How can that be? We should all be taught some indigenous language from the areas the schools are located in – if it still survives (how shameful that many don’t).

Clown Killer 11:51 am 16 Sep 09

Its probably worth noting that there’s a diference between a bilingual school and a school that teaches other languages. Bilingual schools will teach all subjects bilingually – so on one day the Australian history will be presented in English and the next day in Italian, same with the other subjects.

I know kids that attend the italian primary school in Canberra. Some do OK others not so.

Mr Evil 11:28 am 16 Sep 09

Do kids actually learn English at school now anyway; or has gansta/homie/niggaz/text-talk replaced it?

Granny 11:25 am 16 Sep 09

That is outrageous. They must let them learn in their own languages – anything else is technically genocide. Haven’t we done enough to these nations?

Hells_Bells74 10:28 am 16 Sep 09

At Merici in the mid 80’s they made it compulsory to take one term each in year 7 of Italian, German & French. I went onto do a little more German. But barely remember a word and lucky to count to ten in anything bar French.

My son’s dad is half French, half German (speaks mostly English/French) and it is wonderful that Miles Franklin school are teaching my son French in kindergarten. Soon enough he may be able to ring his (ignorant to him) father and greet him and such in French. He is so looking forward to his learning of it. Comes home and speaks some French to me, it’s truly a blessing for my boy, who is missing his father and the chance to learn his roots.

I wish I had been taught a different language or two from the get go.

I wasn’t even aware till recently that they still used native tongue so widely/much, our indigenous community. Forgive me on that but they need a good mix of both, you really wouldn’t get far trying to leave the NT with fluent native language and choppy english and no grammer etc but to not leave your own roots in high priority too leads to feeling lost or wrong. Just in my opinion.

neanderthalsis 8:53 am 16 Sep 09

Having spent some time working in a multi-lingual (one where seven different indigenous languages were taught) school in FNQ training local adults to become language tutors in the school, I can honestly say that it is not the teaching of the local languages that is the issue here.

Poor attendance, lack of resources and a curriculum that is task focussed instead of concentrating on early literacy development are more to blame that teaching in indigenous languages. At the risk of starting another lengthy ideological debate, the reintroduction of phonics for struggling students in some schools has greatly improved literacy results.

astrojax 8:50 am 16 Sep 09

the islamic school currently looking for a new home (and the subject of another thread here) also teaches arabic, so is also bi-lingual.

i’m astounded the curriculum across the country didn’t demand this 30 years ago when it was becoming very clear the world was shrinking and we’d need to be able to communicate with the rest of it, soon… that would have provided a stronger bilingual mindset to approach the issue of saving indigenous languages.

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