Aboriginal languages in the Northern Territory are presently under threat from the NT government’s dismantling of the bilingual education program.

Australia has suffered the largest and most rapid loss of languages ever known as a consequence of the ongoing violence, dislocation and dispossession inflicted upon Aboriginal people and communities. It is estimated that of the 500+ languages that were spoken in Australia prior to European invasion only 145 remain today, and 110 of those are “critically endangered”.[1]

This has provided strong incentive for communities to have their languages taught to children in school. Accordingly, bilingual education programs were created in Aboriginal communities in the 1970s in order to encourage language protection and revival.[2] Bilingual education programs involve the teaching of academic content in students’ first language as well as in English. There are currently nine such schools in the NT, operating in remote communities where the local Aboriginal language is spoken fluently.

However, the ban on bilingual teaching implemented in 2009  attempts to force these remaining remote area bilingual schools to conduct all classes in English for the first four hours of every school day.[3] This precludes teachers from teaching in language except for one hour in the afternoons. Given that 40% of Aboriginal students in the NT education system speak a language other than English in their community and home[4], this entails that hundreds of Indigenous Language-speaking students will be taught in a foreign language for most of the school day.

This attack on language is also an attack on culture and identity, since many creation stories, cultural laws and practices are connected to language. Having languages taught to children in school has been considered integral to maintaining language and retaining cultural identity and cultural heritage. Further, whereas bilingual education programs employ local Aboriginal staff, non-bilingual schools present the risk of becoming overly controlled by non-Aboriginal outsiders and providing forms of education that devalue students’ linguistic and cultural identities.
While the government has cited improving results as its aim, bilingual education does not hamper the learning of English. In fact, these bilingual schools have shown marginally better results in English than the English-only remote schools.[5] Thus, rather than shutting down bilingual programs and devaluing students’ first languages by reducing them to one hour of teaching at the end of the day, more remote schools should be resourced to run bilingual programs.

The announcement has come as a shock to remote area bilingual schools and the communities they service. Communities such as Areyonga have expressed anger at the plan to stop their kids from learning Pitjantjatjara. The teachers and the community are adamant that their children learn to read and write in Pitjantjatjara as well as English.[6] The Lajamanu community have also fiercely resisted the bilingual ban.

The following statements were made by teachers from the bilingual school in Lajamanu at a public meeting held about the ban.[7]

Julieanne Ross Nampinjimpa – education worker

The school is like a prison.

White teachers are asking me, “why is the community calling this a Kardiya (white person) school?” I say, “it’s because you are giving more jobs to Kardiya people than Yapa (Aboriginal person), making the Yapa go down”. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a certificate, they tell you to wait – they say they need a Kardiya to work.

They moved me out of my job and somebody else took over. They moved most of the Yapa out of their jobs. And we talk to them, “hey what about our role, what’s our role in the school?” The principal couldn’t even say anything. That’s the truth what is happening.

Yapa we need to wake up and be strong.

Steve Patrick Jampinjimpa – teacher (translation from Warlpiri to English by Martin Johnson)

I’ll make this short.

We’re sitting here and we don’t know what’s happening. Even me, I’m not praising myself. I’ve been to Africa, it’s a sad place and it frightened me. I’ve seen what it’s like – straight in my mind I thought this is the future for Yapa in Australia. Living in shanty-towns like this.

The old people have got to get up and pass the knowledge down. There is something from old stories that was taught – I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s a monster-like thing with many teeth, something that eats people. Something very dangerous is coming for us. Listen to the old stories and the old people. We can win the country back. With our own culture.

This is no mucking around. The school is stealing all our kids.
It’s like that man was saying before – it’s assimilation policies. But in a ‘nice’ quiet way. Make our children all coconuts, that’s what the school is doing. Yapa with a white man inside. We won’t think Yapa way anymore – nothing.

It’s like that man was saying before – it’s assimilation policies. But in a ‘nice’ quiet way. Make our children all coconuts, that’s what the school is doing. Yapa with a white man inside. We won’t think Yapa way anymore – nothing.

The school is like a detention camp.

We have to wake up Yapa – we have to win them back our own country.
The Kardiya have claimed this land without right. They continue to take. Captain Cook brought them there.

Before that, things were running in good order. We had our own law, own language, everything. We can win them back.
[1] www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/language
[2] www.abc.net.au/4corners/special_eds/20090914/language/chronology.htm
[3] www.det.nt.gov.au/about-us/policies/documents/schools/school-management/compulsory-teaching-in-english-for-the-first-four-hours-of-each-school-day
[4] www.ngapartji.org
[5] Jane Simpson, Jo Caffery, and Patrick McConvel, ‘Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory’ 2009
[6] Samanti de Silva (from the Areyonga community), ‘NT classrooms limit indigenous languages to 1 hour a day’, November 2008
[7] Statements made at a public meeting held in Lajamanu on April 18th 2010