Monday, 24 September 2012

bilingualism for Aboriginal Australians

When I went to the Royal Melbourne Show today - great fun - I was given a free copy of the Herald Sun newspaper. When I read it, I was quite surprised to read an article by Andrew Bolt criticising the push to maintain indigenous languages through a bilingual approach to language education. He suggested that such a system would result in Aboriginal people who could speak only their 'native tongue'. Among other things, he said:

For them [young Aborigines out bush], no English means no future...[English is] the one language they need to save themselves from a life on welfare...

Firstly, it isn't self-evident that not speaking English means a person has no future. Secondly, bilingual education should result in people who speak two languages well.

It's strange, but Mr Bolt didn't seem to acknowledge the meaning of the prefix bi-. My understanding is that it means two. So an efficient education system would teach two languages, not just one.

The Macquarie Online Dictionary defines bilingual:
adjective 1. able to speak two languages with approximately equal facility.

Later in the article Bolt said:
In particular, the committee [the federal Parliament's standing committee on indigenous affairs] want bilingual education for Aboriginal children, in the teary-eyed hope that somehow finding competent teachers who can teach, say, maths in Pitjantjatjara or Pintupi will help children learn better English, too.
Just how such unusually qualified and effective teachers could be found, no one really knows.
This is a strange misunderstanding of how bilingual education works. It's not necessary that the speakers of each language teach every subject area. My sister worked in two different bilingual programs in suburban Melbourne. She doesn't speak either of the non-English languages. It was her job to teach in English, and she focused on certain subjects - for instance, one year she taught English, science, social studies and Physical Education. In other words, she taught half the curriculum.

Mr Bolt's not an educator, so perhaps he is unaware of the body of research that shows bilingual education usually results in more competence in both languages. One language is not learned at the expense of the other.


proud womon said...

it's hard to make sense of most of bolt's dribble!!

parlance said...

proud womon, you'll have noticed that I did get the paper free at the Show, so I didn't contribute anything to their coffers.

Anonymous said...

Hi great you can see the realitys beyond bolts sensationalism, one point I would like to add, Aboriginal people are naturally bilingual, before settlement/invasion all Aboriginal people spoke at least 3 languages, some spoke up to 6 or 7, it was a requirement to know the language next door as all Aboriginal people travelled across another nations/peoples/language groups land to complete their cultural requirements, Aborignial children who still speak their languages are already bilingual, most know mulitple aborignal languages and english, the difference is Aborignials dont have swear words or words for rape and abuse and all the other words that envisage what western culture is really about. sorry had to add a little more than my original point, alot of what bolt and the media regurgitate shows why we need real Australian history taught to our children, would like to see non Aboriginal (aussie) children learn another language

parlance said...

Hi, anonymous!
Like many Australians, I was amazingly ignorant about pre-settlement civilisation, but one day last year I went to a talk by Dr Rachel Nordlinger about indigenous languages and heard about the typical bilingualism in this country. I think she said it was in part a result of the necessity to marry out of the tribal group.
I did blog about it:

Every time bilingualism comes up in casual conversation with my friends - surprisingly often, which tells you the sort of things my friends and I like to talk about - I jump in with 'Did you know that children here were routinely multi-lingual up to a couple of hundred years ago?' They are always surprised but interested, as I was.

Here's hoping we can reconnect with this rich resource, not only children of indigenous heritage, but also children of people who have chosen to come here over the last few centuries.