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Bilingual Education: comparing the Territories

emd 28 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
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Hells_Bells74 7:21 pm 18 Sep 09

Hadn’t even stopped to think of it quite like that Granny.

That’s very strong and I am a little surprised no one stopped to listen to that yet, basically what Djuwalpi Marika said and what you have been saying in other words that is.

Granny 3:36 pm 18 Sep 09

I’m glad it worked out so well for you and your family, Fishbat. However, the story highlights the fact that not everybody feels this way:

Yirrkala is a community in north east Arnhem Land with a long cultural tradition and a strong view about preserving its language. The community has produced some of the country’s best known Aboriginal leaders, including well known musician Mandawuy Yunupingu who oversaw bilingual education as a former principal at the school. There the community simply told Four Corners they wouldn’t be taking any notice of the minister’s directive.

“They want to westernise Yolngu people, they want to leave us in the mainstream culture like a whiteman. We don’t want to live like that.” Djuwalpi Marika

I simply think it should be up to the community, that’s all, and that ideally at least some of the teachers would come from within the community itself.

Fishbat 2:31 pm 18 Sep 09

My second language was learnt at home despite attending an all english speaking public school. Allthough I have no relatives here, I was fortunate enough to have a family unit that cared about our heritage and maintained an integrated approach of our historical culture to that of mainstram english Australia.
To have done otherwise would have been neglect to my siblings and I. had there been greater focus on tangental cultural learning, we would not have been allowed to integrate and participate in the broader Australian community as there is no real application for this knowledge to the general public. We all have jobs, homes and pay our taxes and are raising the future taxpayers as well.
My second language continues to be passed on by my parents, siblings and I outside of school time – its fun learning our culture of times past and if they want to get serious about it they can take intesive study later in life on their own bat.
Our family heritage is assured without sanitised intervention.

ACTing like a Mama 12:58 pm 18 Sep 09

From my understanding of the show, it didn’t seem a problem in getting teachers into the community – it was keeping them. Apparently the average stint at the particular community in question was anywhere from 1 term – 8months. The one teacher that had been there for a few years, said that the teachers (for whatever reason) do not stay long enought to develop relationships between both the children and the community itself (leading to inconsistent education etc). So, more to the point of trying to get teachers to come in, the education department in consultation with the community need to look at ways to have these teachers want to stay and contribute.

Granny 8:17 pm 17 Sep 09

Anything is possible if there is a political will for it to happen, Addison.

Addison 7:17 pm 17 Sep 09

Nice ideas granny, but I’m not sure of the practicalities in terms of program support and funding.

That said, something needs to be done to break the cycle that some of the kids are born into.

Granny 4:25 pm 17 Sep 09

bd84 said :

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.

Obviously the government should make teaching scholarships available to interested Aboriginal community members. This must also include one on one coaching support and training to remedy any educational gaps that would be a hindrance in their study or the performance of their duties.

The Aboriginal community should also be consulted on the curriculum they wish their children to learn and the most appropriate pedagogies for their children.

Any system should be flexible enough to provide the freedom that Aboriginal people require within a structure that they can integrate and accept.

Pandanus 2:34 pm 17 Sep 09

If the school in question is teaching these kids in their native language then isn’t it english that should be taught as the second language rather than the primary language and the bilingual program structured to reflect the community it is set in?

My kids attend the bilingual stream at Yarralumla public school and until about year 4 there is an understanding that they may be behind non bilingual schools in english. This is probably to be expected as they only have half their subject time in English. However as time progresses it has been shown that kids who learn in a bilingual situation will develop a far stronger grasp of grammer and will be on par with kids who learn only in english.

trevar 7:43 am 17 Sep 09

Now, I want to say right up front that I’m not agreeing with Barking Toad. It’s not in my nature to do so, BUT (yes, it’s a big but), he has made a vaguely reasonable point, even if it is directed at the wrong sector of education.

As a teacher of English, there has been no point since I completed year 8 at which anyone has tested my use of spelling, punctuation or grammar. I am fully qualified, and could walk back into teaching whenever I like, and no one would even think to find out whether I actually knew the differences between “the dog’s leash”, “the dogs’ leash” and “the Doggs Leash”, or even “their”, “there” and “they’re”. Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether our teachers can spell, punctuate or assemble words into a sentence; only whether the kids can. I know a majority (a small majority, but a majority nonetheless) of teachers have excellent literacy, but I am of the opinion that every teacher (yes, even PE teachers) should know their dashes from their hyphens and their parentheses from their subjunctive clauses.

So although Barking Toad is barking up the wrong tree, at least he’s barking. I think it’s atrocious that we expect teachers to teach literacy, but we never test whether they’re literate before we shove thirty kids at them and expect them to develop their literacy.

And to relate this directly back to the original topic, I don’t think it matters whether the language being used for this education is English or the language of the local community. Teachers should be tested to ensure that they’re competent and fluent in the language they use to teach. Then there’ll be hope for student literacy.

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?

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