An article for Queensland Teachers Union Professional Magazine, November 2008. By Denise Angelo & Baressa Frazer, Far North Queensland – Indigenous Schooling Support Unit.

Teaching is all about communication and that is precisely what languages are for: Languages encode meanings, transmit cultures, express identities, recognise rights, confer justice and word history.

In Queensland schools, only one language variety is “sanctioned” for classrooms and this is Standard Australian English [SAE]. This variety is used for teacher education courses, for school enrolment forms, for year 3, 5, 7 tests. But many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families do not use SAE at home. So many Indigenous students come to school thinking and speaking with other language varieties. Language difference becomes a language gap when teachers are not appropriately equipped to meet these students’ language learning needs.

Language in the Classroom

Language has a central place in every classroom: Teachers use it to communicate ideas, to put questions to their students, to process their answers, to provide feedback, to elaborate… Students use it to comprehend, to follow instructions, to convey their ideas, to relate to others, to demonstrate their understandings… When teachers and their students do not share the same language, this core mechanism for communication is disrupted.

Languages are complex systems which can be thought of as interacting layers. Each spoken language (as opposed to signed languages used by the deaf) has a unique set of sounds

  • which compose a unique set of words (vocabulary)
  • with a unique set of meanings and functions
  • which combine with a unique set of word building devices (prefixes, suffixes, inflections),
  • which are placed in a unique set of structures (phrases, clauses, sentences),
  • which are arranged into a unique set of text types for specific purposes (genres).

Students who are learning SAE are placed in a difficult situation in an SAE-speaking classroom: They are expected to learn and demonstrate new ideas through a linguistic medium which they cannot yet use proficiently. In many schools, Indigenous students who are learners of SAE comprise the majority of the student cohort, so they are not immersed in SAE. In fact, these students are learning English in an environment that would be more akin to learning a foreign language. (However, if you learnt a LOTE at school, you would not be required to learn new concepts through your beginner LOTE, nor would you be required to do your year 3, 5, 7, 9 tests in your beginner LOTE, nor would you have to explain yourself to your principal in your beginner LOTE etc)

Indeed, just this year we seen two pivotal DETA publications on English as a Second Language [ESL] which have included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners.

Language for ESL Learners is a map of typical ESL learner progress through different levels of development in their acquisition of SAE in the macro-skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. They assist teachers to assess the language support necessary for ESL learners to access the intended curriculum.

Curriculum Guidelines for English as a Second Language Learners which provide useful guidance for all teachers of ESL learners with implementing the p-12 curriculum guidelines.

Language Awareness
Within many families and communities, language shift from recognised traditional language varieties over to less recognised, non-standard and less valued varieties has occurred. It is therefore critical that teachers be aware of their Indigenous students’ language backgrounds, so that they can understand that their students are language learners:

– Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students – particularly those from the top western islands in the Torres Strait and from areas on western Cape York – speak traditional languages as their first language. However, language shift is occurring in these areas with creoles becoming stronger due to their role as a lingua franca in most regions.

– Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students speak creoles, varieties that have arisen from languages coming into contact, causing pidgins to spread and expand to become new, full languages used by entire speech communities. In Queensland, creoles are spoken in many areas, including the Torres Strait, right across the north including Cape York, as well as in former government settlements and missions. Many urban Indigenous communities have a creole as the community language.

– Some Aboriginal students speak dialects, varieties that have arisen through language contact processes similar to creoles, but differences have been “levelled” by constant interaction with Standard Australian English so as to become mutually comprehensible.

If teachers are not aware of
– their students’ language backgrounds
– the complexity of languages
– the difficulty of learning through a beginning or developing language,
then they could misconstrue their students’ learning needs.

Indigenous students who speak creoles are particularly at risk of a “misdiagnosis” because their SAE-speaking teachers will recognise some words in their speech. Teachers without an awareness of Indigenous students’ language situation are unlikely to know that creoles may have taken a high percentage of vocabulary from a colonial language such as English in Australia. (Due to historical reasons, Australian creoles have a percentage of English vocabulary, whereas Mauritian creole has French vocabulary). In spite of the common historical origins of such words, these “same” words will contain different sounds, have different meanings, take different endings, go in different structures and be organised differently for different usages. Unfortunately, teachers who are unaware of these kinds of languages coulds assume that students really do speak English – just somewhat incorrectly.

Language is history
The language situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is a reflection of our history: The historical processes of invasion, colonisation, assimilation and self-determination are mirrored in the linguistic processes of language contact, language shift, language loss and language revival.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their families and communities, language is inextricably tied to land and to culture. At an individual level, a student’s first language is an expression of personal identity as it is the means by which relationships are established, concepts are acquired and stories are told.

Recognition of languages is an indication of equality within our society – or the lack of it. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language varieties – traditional, creoles, dialects – have historically been accorded little or no recognised place in our schooling system or in our general society. At the very least this is an indicator of whether Indigenous Australians have equal rights.

For individuals, families and communities speaking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages other than English (traditional or creole varieties) language recognition is also an issue of social justice. What services are available to speakers of Indigenous languages? Where are the interpreters and translators in Indigenous languages? Where is the training for these careers? Where are the language courses at school? or TAFE? or university? Where is the training for teachers prior to entering communities? Where are the bilingual support staff?

There is always a positive and productive place for Indigenous languages in the classroom. In the first instance, discussions about Indigenous languages represented in the local community can increase respectful contact between a school and Indigenous community members. Understanding the local language situation involves understanding the history of the community and of individual families. Encouraging Language Awareness can create a culture of tolerance and respect for difference amongst staff and students alike. These are all outcomes supported by Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives.

Closing the Language Gap

The causes of educational disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in our school system are complex. Language plays a significant – but not solo – part in poor student outcomes. As teachers we need to change our approach to classroom planning and teaching, add to our professional knowledge about languages and how they are constructed and to work cooperatively and sensitively with our Indigenous students to improve their learning.

– Recognition of students’ everyday spoken language varieties (vernaculars), is a step towards accepting who they are.

– Recognition of students’ language-land-culture background is a step towards recognising their Indigenous identities.

– Recognition of students’ language situation is another step towards acknowledging their history as Indigenous Australians: Students’ languages are a direct result of their families’ histories.

– Recognition of students’ traditional languages in the school curriculum is a step towards granting equal rights with regard to language and cultural maintenance or revival.

– Recognition of community language varieties is a step towards providing equal access to mainstream services and a measure of social justice.

As teachers, recognition of our students’ language backgrounds gives us the starting point we need for becoming informed about our students’ language learning needs in our classrooms.

Baressa Frazer is an Aboriginal woman and a member of the Puuch Clan from Aurukun in Western Cape York. She is a primary school teacher, but is currently undertaking a contract position as a Project Officer for the Far North Queensland Indigenous Schooling Support Unit. Denise Angelo currently works as a a Language Project Officer at the Far North Queensland Indigenous Schooling Support Unit with an ESL team.