Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bilingual Education in Aboriginal communities by Saskia Marina Hewitt

Linguistics 3307 Major Essay

This essay will discuss some of the issues which arise in bilingual education in the Aboriginal Australian context, when decisions are being made as to what exactly the education program should look like. I will go briefly over some of the goals of bilingual education. Then, with these goals in mind, I will discuss some of the major issues which have come up for people designing and implementing bilingual education programs. What have actual education programs tended to look like in regard to some of these issues? Why is this?
Much of the literature and examples I will use come from the Northern Territory - bilingual programs in other states are not as old or as well documented.

Definition and Aims of Bilingual Education
Bilingual education is a system of schooling where two languages are used to teach the curriculum content. In the context of this essay, one of the languages is English, and the other is an Aboriginal language, where that Aboriginal language is the mother tongue of at least some of the students in the school. A bilingual program typically also provides education about the history and culture associated with the Aboriginal language (Watts, McGrath and Tandy, 1975:7).
This is a very broad definition to which most of the bilingual education systems in Australia adhere. However there is also the possibility in Australia of language revival programs, where an Aboriginal language that is no longer the first language of the children in the community is taught as part of the curriculum (Parliament of the Commonwealth, 1976:1). This scenario will be discussed briefly where appropriate throughout the essay. The focus, however, will be upon bilingual programs of the basic type given above.

John Mills (1992) gives four different types of bilingual education systems (p9). Each of these has its own aims. Australian programs encompass two of these four types (p42-3).
Most programs are what Mills terms partial. These aim for "language maintenance with some maintenance, and even development, of culture." The aim of the school which has instituted the program is for the children to become fluent and literate in English and their native language. The majority of bilingual programs in Australia fall into this type.
Some programs, however, use a language for which an orthography has not yet been developed (usually because it has not been analysed by linguists). In these cases the program is what Mills calls mono-literate. In these programs, the aim is language maintenance, but a shift to English as the child's main language of communication. Rhyddwen (1996:21) points out that although there are no official bilingual programs of this latter type (at least in the NT), any school which employs an Aboriginal teaching assistant is essentially operating a bilingual (just not biliterate) education program.

The reasons why a bilingual program is instituted will have a big impact on the decisions made about specific aspects of the program. Various aims have been put forward for bilingual education in general, but for Australian schools implementing a program in a traditional language, the most important aims are the ones of the government and of the local Aboriginal community.
The chief aims of the government in supporting and instituting bilingual education programs are as follows:
1 To foster confidence and pride in the child's Aboriginality; and
2 To develop literacy skills in English such that the child is well equipped to live in Australian society when s/he leaves school.
(McKay, 1996:113-14)
And also:
3. To allow Aboriginal people to have greater control over their own education; and
4. To maintain the language and culture of Aboriginal communities.
(Rhyddwen 1996:25)

In the past aim number one was seen as more important, but in recent years the second aim of developing literacy has eclipsed the first (ibid. p21)

The Aboriginal community also has its own aims for supporting bilingual programs. The Aboriginal Consultative Group (1975:5-6) gives some objectives for Aboriginal education in general. These can be summarised as follows:
1 That Aboriginal children be brought up as fully functional members of their own culture and of the wider Australian culture;
2 That Aboriginal language, identity and values be "actively developed" in the education system; and
3 That Aboriginal children be given the highest quality education possible, to allow the same levels of choice and achievement available to any other Australian person.

So how do these aims affect how a bilingual program will look in real life? Here are some major issues involved in the running of a bilingual program and the ways which they have been or may appropriately be tackled.

What language should be taught?
Which language should be the second language in a bilingual education program? In areas where there is one language that has been well documented, the choice is clear. But what if the language has not been well documented and there are no resources with which to teach it? Should the program be entirely oral? Or should there be a literacy program based on another, nearby Aboriginal language?
It essentially depends on what you are trying to do. Recall that the main aim in governmental policy is that English literacy be developed. In this case, it wouldn't particularly matter if the children could not learn literacy in their own language, as long as they were being taught orally throughout their school years. Indeed, trying to teach a second Aboriginal language, though not as difficult as teaching English, would take up curriculum time (unless the children were already fluent in both traditional languages) and would therefore be undesirable.
But on the other hand, because of the similarity of Aboriginal languages in the same area, literacy in a non-native language may still be of use (Watts, McGrath and Tandy, 1975:15). Particularly, if the Aboriginal community believes that some literacy in a traditional language will foster a greater sense of pride in Aboriginal culture, then this may be an option.
Certainly, there would need to be consultation with the community to make sure that the language that was chosen was approved by the community (ibid.)
Or what if there are many languages spoken in the same area? Which of these should be taught? Again, this would come down to consultation with the community to decide which was the most appropriate. The dominant language would be an obvious option. The other obvious option would be the language having an orthography and written material already available. These two options may or may not coincide.
Watts, McGrath and Tandy, cited above, also mention that in some cases, such as where there are two languages spoken by a sizeable number of students in the community, the school may have to consider developing a program in more than one Aboriginal language. In more recent years, there have been a couple of schools which have taken this option in the Northern Territory, for example in Elcho Island where 15 clan languages are taught (McKay, 1996:118).

In the case of a revival program, it seems almost impossible to think that an Aboriginal community would want to revive a different language from their traditional one. So it would seem that the only choice in that case would be to either develop an orthography and written material, or teach the language entirely orally (a feat).

Finding and training teachers and other staff.
Clearly, parts of the curriculum which are taught in a traditional language should be taught by a person who speaks that language fluently, and preferably by an Aboriginal person in order to give more control of the system to the Aboriginal community (Aboriginal Consultative Group 1975:25). But where should these teachers come from and how much training should they have? Finding both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers is a common problem facing bilingual schools, and is not just a problem to begin with, but is ongoing due to the typically high staff turnover in remote Aboriginal schools (House of Representatives Committee 1985:110-11). The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia (1976) reports on a number of bilingual programs that had been running at the time, about half of which reported either a lack of teachers, or a lack of competency and preparedness in their teachers.
To combat this problem, the School of Australian Linguistics was founded in 1974 (ibid. p5) for the purpose of training Aboriginal people in linguistics and literacy work. Teacher and teacher assistant training for Aboriginals is available from Batchelor College (McKay, 1996:115). Training is available at various levels at Batchelor, and the first year of the course can also be brought into the local community so that people do not have to leave home to study (McGill 1980:3-31). Courses were also held in 1975 in such topics as teaching English as a second language and early childhood development. These were for anyone involved in bilingual education - both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal (Parliament of the Commonwealth 1976:6). Whether these kinds of courses have continued I am not sure but at the very least the two training institutions mentioned above are continuing to run, although the latter has since subsumed the former (Rhyddwen 1996:24).
The Summer Institute of Linguistics has also played a role in giving advice and training to teachers and teacher assistants. It runs an intensive summer course every year, which provides training at three levels. (McGill 1980:31). SIL has also been the source of many linguists working in an advisory capacity in schools (Watts, McGrath and Tandy, 1975:27).
However, training can only take you so far in situations like this - the willingness of teachers and people from the Aboriginal community to participate is paramount. So in order to overcome problems of availability particularly, but also competency, you need to get people on board by pushing the benefits of bilingual education.
Also, what if there are dialect groups in the region that, although speaking essentially the same language, see themselves as very distinct? Although it may not seem to make a difference to people from outside the community, there may be political issues to take into account when hiring and training teachers.

What percentage of the course should be taught in each language, and for how long?
The idea of a bilingual program is that some of the course is taught in English and some in a traditional language. But how much should be taught in the native tongue, for how long? This is strongly affected by the goals you have in mind when designing the program. In Australia the objectives of bilingual programs are balanced between maintaining the native Aboriginal language and culture of the children, and training them in oral and literate English in order to prepare them for life in wider society. Presumably which was more important to the Aboriginal community would be affected by the situation of the community and their attitudes. For example, an extremely remote Aboriginal community may not see the point of large amounts of teaching in English and so may want most of the course taught in the traditional language. On the other hand, the governmental goals, as we saw earlier, prioritise literacy in English in recognition that this is a vital survival skill in modern Australia.
Two main models are given by Watts, McGrath and Tandy (1975:11-12), and similarly by McGill (1980:17-18). Both models start off dominated by the traditional language, which is then increasingly replaced by English as the language of instruction until English is used for all but the study of Aboriginal language, art, and culture.
This makes sense in terms of making the student a fully functional member of wider Australian society but nevertheless seems to devalue the traditional language somewhat. However, if the language was being used by the students at home then school would be the only place for them to learn English and so it would make sense for the schooling process to be dominated by English.
It all depends on what the situation of the community is, and of course discussion with the community would need to take place before decisions were made.
The discussion of this issue brings us to the next topic.

What subjects should be taught in which language?
In more recent years the "domains debate" has arisen among people involved in bilingual education. The domain of a language in a bilingual society is the range of situations in which that language will be spoken (Rhyddwen 1996:23). This idea has been transferred into the design of bilingual programs in terms of what language should be used to teach which subjects. Stephen Harris, quoted in Rhyddwen (cited above), says that organising the curriculum content into domains would prevent teachers "unwittingly imposing onto one culture a world view which is appropriate to another." So the idea is that the use of the Aboriginal language is restricted to instruction in topics related to Aboriginal life, art, culture and language. Conversely, the use of English is restricted to instruction in western subjects (science, maths, history, etc.).
There has been some debate about whether this is a good idea, but both sides are essentially aiming for language maintenance. The pro-domains side says that in order to survive, both languages must be used in separate domains, because if the domains of use were identical in both languages then the less dominant (traditional) language would simply stop being spoken. However, others point out that in Aboriginal society the use of different languages (or dialects) in the same domain is quite common. There is also the issue that since most of the curriculum comprises western material, the Aboriginal language will be highly restricted in its use, which is not conducive to its survival (McKay 1996:116). So in this case the difference in the two approaches is not so much a variance of goal but a variance in opinion as to how to achieve that goal: is language maintenance best achieved by dividing up the curriculum into domains, or by taking a more holistic approach?

As discussed above, both models given for Australian bilingual education feature a successive dropping out of the use of the Aboriginal language, so that by primary school the only subjects taught in it are those having to do with topics related to Aboriginal culture and the rest. So whether knowingly or not, it looks as though all formal bilingual programs in Australia have gone with the domains theory. Also balanced in with this is the other major goal of training Aboriginal students to have just as many choices and abilities to cope in Australian society. Part of this, surely, means making sure they have the ability to make themselves understood in all domains in the majority language. So this would pull the balance toward a greater amount of subjects being taught in English.
It seems to me that a good compromise might be to have some parts of the western curriculum still taught some of the time in language - depending on the wishes of the community and on the available resources.

Non-Aboriginal children in a bilingual school.
From the very beginning, in the initial report by Watts, McGrath and Tandy in 1975, the fact of children in majority Aboriginal schools whose first language is English was identified as a potential issue (p31). Obviously this would not be so much of a problem in higher school levels where the amount of Aboriginal language used is lower, and sometimes is only used in particular electives. But in lower school years quite a significant amount of the curriculum is taught using Aboriginal language. As the report by Watts et al. points out, it is important that children whose native language is English are not overlooked and are able to learn as effectively as the bilingual children. But it is also important that the two groups are able to interact for their mutual benefit.
The school would need to be organised in such a way as to accommodate everyone's needs and not disadvantage anyone. This would take a sensitive head teacher and would raise a need for extra teachers. Given that it is hard enough to find teachers as it is in remote schools, that may prove difficult, but it does not seem to have raised any larger issue than finding and keeping staff generally.

What materials to use and where to get them.
One last area I want to discuss is the production of materials in the Aboriginal language to use in teaching. This requires people to produce them and also facilities to print them. Some schools also run more than one bilingual program, and this means making doubles of all the resources (McKay 1996:118).
There are a number of different types of resources to produce, for example, basic materials such as word lists, primers, classroom materials such as charts and posters, illustrated story books and dictionaries. (McGill 1980:36-38). This necessitates the work of a number of people: linguists, Aboriginal story tellers, writers and illustrators, for example (House of Representatives Committee 1985:111). The making of materials can also be a teaching opportunity. Robert Hoogenraad (2002:12) relates that young and old Aboriginal people were enlisted to help produce picture dictionaries in the Western/Central Anmatyerr community in the Northern Territory. As a result, the literacy of the young people increased.
There are a number of institutions that employ people to develop materials and that have printing resources. There are about ten literature production centres in the Northern Territory (House of Representatives Committee 1985:111), and some schools have their own centres (McKay 1996:127). Additionally, institutions like the Summer Institute of Linguistics provide a lot of material. Many local community groups produce their own charts, games, picture books and other activity materials (Parliament of the Commonwealth 1976:11).
It is preferable if resources can be produced for a large area encompassing a number of schools; or at least templates for resources so that communities of different languages can have access to them (Hoogenraad, 2002:12). It is also important that the style of literature be close to the actual way people talk, especially at first when literacy is first being developed. This means being careful to follow actual discourse structure and idiomatic expressions used in the spoken language (McGill 1980:35-6).

This essay has discussed briefly some of the goals and aims of bilingual education in Australia. I then looked at some of the things which, historically and currently, have been issues when implementing a bilingual program. Many of the decisions made about these issues have depended on the priorities given to different goals for the program. In some cases, we have seen that different parties (for example the government and the Aboriginal community) may potentially disagree on what the bilingual program should look like. In these cases discussion must be entered into, and care must be taken not to take too much control away from the Aboriginal people.


At 8:16 PM, Blogger Sharna said...

I am currently writing a paper on the same topic and found your article to be of great use. I also beleive that the government bodies are trying to maintain too much control of education programs and disempowering Aboriginal people.
Thank you.


Post a Comment

<< Home