Learning with First Nations’ languages

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23 March 2023

There’s a groundswell of support for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages across the country, but career pathways and community-based teacher training opportunities are vital to ensure strong student outcomes and preserve language.

Anangu is a Pitjantjatjara word meaning “people” and aptly describes the collective, community-based approach to language and learning Kenmore Park Anangu School in Yunyarinyi, in the APY (Anangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankuntjatjara) Lands 1400 kilometres north of Adelaide.

The school’s 12 Aboriginal students take daily lessons in language and culture from Pitjantjatjara Elder Marianne Fraser, her niece Mary Fraser and nephew Aaron Fraser, who spend time on Country as part of their learning each week.

Principal Wilbur Klein (known to locals as Charlie) says the school has a community agreement that it will promote reading, writing and literacy in both Pitjantjatjara and English, with Pitjantjatjara as the dominant language and a strong focus on Country, led by the community.

This focus on local language and community connection improves student engagement, and their ability to learn. “Our belief and experience are that when kids learn their own language it improves their ability to learn English, and it supports their identity and wellbeing,” Klein says.

“We can see that it makes kids happy; and in watching Marianne and Aaron and Mary, we can see that not only are students learning to read competently in Pitjantjatjara, but that their confidence and success are transferring to their ability to read and learn English.”

Legacy of language

The other major benefit of teaching local languages is being able to preserve language for future generations.

“Pitjantjatjara is one of only 12 languages considered to still be intact across the country and these languages are predominantly in central Australia and the NT. Our group of schools are working towards the retention and development of those languages,” Klein says.

As a child growing up in the 1970s Fraser was taught English in school and learned Pitjantjatjara by listening to her father. Her immersive culture and language program includes a phonics program that teaches Pitjantjatjara sounds based on character representations, which she developed based on English-language phonics education methods. “A lot of it is simply reading, writing and talking with me and Aaron and Mary,” she says.

Klein says the results of the program, – which is based on the Two-way Science model developed by the CSIRO, which supports bilingual education, lessons on Country, and formative assessment – are overwhelmingly positive.

“The Two-way Science model uses Anangu knowledge on Country to start the teaching of science and excite the students. They become connected and gain confidence and interest in learning. We then use that on-Country science to teach more science back in the classroom and it becomes part of a whole-curriculum approach.

“While subjects like reading English and learning maths are not left behind across our group of schools, there is an emphasis on teaching our students both ways of learning,” Klein says. Our agreement with the local Aboriginal community quite clearly states that the number-one values are Country, culture and language.”

“We know that when kids are on Country they’re happier. And when I go into the classroom and Marianne is teaching with Mary and Aaron, I can see that the kids are engaged and their learning is exceptional.

“It’s a different dynamic to when they are learning English and it connects them. There’s a group who have become more advanced in their writing and are further along with their phonics and vocabulary and they want to learn more.”

Loss and revival

Language revival and teacher qualifications are key at Eidsvold P-12 State School in east-central Queensland, where the program is a model in the region.

Principal Preston Parter, from the Birri Gubba language group, says the school’s Wakka Wakka Yumbin language reclamation program has been running for almost six years. Despite being from a different language group, Parter has returned to the classroom to support the school’s dance and language teacher aide Corey Appo from the local Wakka Wakka language group.

Yumbin means “all of us” or “everyone” in Wakka Wakka and Appo and the 117 students at Eidsvold School are working in partnership with a local language advisory group to develop their language program. Sixty-five per cent of students identify as Aboriginal, and 35 per cent hail from the local community and surrounding properties.

“Aunty Doris (Wakka Wakka Elder Doris Beezley) plays a massive part in the community work through meetings and consultation,” says Parter. “We are beginning to more confidently put sentences and grammatical structure together, which is an important step forward in the revival of Wakka Wakka and this has been possible because of the extensive support from (linguist) Daniel Majchrzak as there are no fluent speakers left.

“Families are telling us that is why they want their children to attend our school,” says Parter. “Our student numbers are growing and that’s directly because of our offering of the Wakka Wakka language and culture program.”

Pathways and opportunities

The Arrernte Secondary Project at Alice Springs Language Centre in the Northern Territory is creating pathways for Aboriginal language teachers during their secondary school education. Its programs teach students the Arrernte language and other local dialects and support them to apply for language-based work.

Jannette McCormack, from the Arrernte language group and an educator who has spent more than 30 years teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Alice Springs public schools, heads the innovative program, which has helped students to become more engaged with school and increased attendance rates. It also offers opportunities for students to incorporate their own language in further study and employment. The students are encouraged to pursue Certificate II and III in Applied Language in Arrernte or their own language and some have gone on to complete Stage 2 Australian Languages.

“Over the years, I’ve found Aboriginal students are natural language learners because they grow up learning to speak both their mother tongue and English,” McCormack says. “Our students want to learn their language because they can see that it will offer them jobs in the future. Then they want to share what they have learned with the younger ones.”

McCormack has supported five school-based trainees to become Arrernte educators and they now work in Alice Springs schools. She has also supported a Pertame student (Southern Arrernte) to begin working as an apprentice at Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education in the Northern Territory. Some of the trainees are also completing formal teacher training while working in the school’s language program.

Language into the future

Beau Williams, the chief executive officer of First Languages Australia, who is from the Murrawarri language group in north-west New South Wales, says the federal government’s commitment to spend $14 million to employ 60 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators and expand first languages’ education in primary schools across the country reflects an increased community awareness of the value and place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

“For many years community language teachers have worked hard to share their language and culture with younger generations, despite inadequate pay and conditions. We are now seeing greater recognition of the importance of our languages,” he says.

“For our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, learning language is a source of pride and connection to their culture. For non-Indigenous children, it’s a fantastic introduction to the richness of Australia’s linguistic and cultural history. Teaching language in schools will increase understanding and respect.”

Williams says that while language teaching is an integral part of the truth and reconciliation process, schools must be mindful of history and remain constantly aware that generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were denied the right to speak their languages.

“That’s why language teaching needs to be community driven, and community led. Because if a school starts teaching language and the community aren’t ready for it, it will cause upset and further trauma,” he says.

Williams says the government’s commitment to hire more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators is “a great step in the right direction”. However, he says appropriate career pathways and training opportunities are needed for success.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. The best results will be achieved through multiple education and training pathways.”

Leanne Tolra

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Summer 2022