Aboriginal Literacy easily oversimplified

The Australian 21 June, 2000

While I'm thoroughly in agreement with the thrust of Frank Devine's article (Illiteracy spells scandal, Opinion 15/6), I believe the issue of using local languages in schools is far more complex than he implies.

The evidence seems to suggest that the teaching of young children is best done in their first language, that introductions to the concepts of mathematics, social science and science are best done in the language in which the child is proficient and that parallel instruction should be given in the standard national language of the country, with the teaching medium gradually shifting into the national language as the child becomes more proficient in it.

However, there are a number of complications in the case of remote Aboriginal children. First, the classroom teachers are not proficient in the community language and, while they have teacher aides to help them, these people are not educated in the western sense to the level we expect of teachers of non-Aboriginal children in our country.

Second, languages reflect the preoccupations of the communities in which they have developed. The English-speaking world is fanatical about time and the complexity of our verb tenses is a result of this; we obsessively count and measure everything in our society and consequently have a great proliferation of mathematical language. Traditional Aboriginal society has different priorities: for example, interpersonal relationships are a dominant concern and result in amazing numbers of personal pronouns and corresponding verb forms which seem horrendously difficult to English speakers.

These intrinsic linguistic differences mean that one language cannot always readily explain the concepts imported from another culture.

So there is an intrinsic dilemma about which language to use as the teaching medium for young Aboriginal children in remote areas where standard Australian English is not the dominant language.

However, the problem is not Aboriginal language and traditional skills versus standard Australian English. Individual communities can decide whether they want the Aboriginal skills as part of their formal school system. Whatever decision is made, there must also be serious commitment by the education system, individual teachers and Aboriginal communities to the learning of the national language – speaking listening, reading and writing.

Without real proficiency in standard Australian English, Aboriginal children are cut off, not only from formal higher education and the professions of teaching, nursing, medicine and engineering, but also from the knowledge obtainable from books, the internet and TV documentaries. They are left in the cycle of ill-health, unemployment and poverty, a cycle which leads far too many to despair.