Language education initiatives in the Katherine region suffer due to Government policy changes PDF Print E-mail

Language education
Sisters Angelina George and Betty Roberts (right), teach pupils Marra Language at Ngukurr School.
WHILE initiatives to support Indigenous languages in Australia are being taken by Governments in NSW and Queensland, programs already in place in the NT, where Indigenous languages are still being spoken, have been severely threatened in recent years, especially in the Katherine Region.

The NT Education Department over a number of decades has recognised the importance of Indigenous languages in schools where there are a majority of Indigenous students, by supporting bi-lingual education programs and the IESIP funded Aboriginal Languages in Schools Programs. Both of these programs have been severely reduced in the Katherine Region.

In 2000, the Bob Collins' `Learning Lessons' report revealed the parlous state of Aboriginal education in the NT. At the same time, there was an attempt by the Education Department to dismantle the bi-lingual programs. The resultant outcry led to these schools becoming labelled Two Way Learning Schools, a catch-all phrase which has yet to be satisfactorily defined. This lack of definition allows for broad interpretation, so broad in some cases that Principals so inclined are able to avoid any real commitment to Indigenous language concerns in their communities.

Language education
Annie Packsoddle teaches numbers in Ngarinyman to her granddaughter Rosita Saddler
In 2003, the NT Education Department changed its policy in regard to the IESIP funds used to deliver Aboriginal Languages in the schools. Prior to 2003, the funds identified for the programs were distributed by a submission process: Those Principals supporting the programs applied for the funds and in the Katherine Region, were assisted by the Aboriginal Language Centre. In 2003 the policy for the distribution of funds was changed. A reduced funding bucket made up of IESIP, SAISO and CAP program dollars was distributed on a per capita basis calculated on Indigenous enrolment numbers with none of it specifically identified for Indigenous languages.

A policy which was meant to distribute funds more equitably has in fact resulted in such a thin distribution in the Katherine region that no specific language programs can be run. Where IESIP funded programs were running in schools in ten communities throughout the region, some for up to ten years and involving the teaching of up to ten languages, all endangered, there are now no language programs. Where there were two bi-lingual schools in the region, there is now only one Two Way Learning School. Lajamanu is the last remnant of Indigenous language learning in the entire region, with over 32 Indigenous languages, most spoken only by the elders.

The NT Education Department claims to have recognised the importance of Aboriginal culture by developing an Indigenous Language and Culture section of the curriculum.This is indeed an encouraging development. However, this remains the only section of the curriculum which is not compulsory. This is a giving with one hand and a taking away with the other and has reduced the initiative to nothing more than a token gesture, as any Principal can choose to ignore this section, especially if there is insufficient funding to run an effective program.


Improving literacy and numeracy skills should not be done at the expense of Indigenous languages in the schools. Improved performances can be achieved by developing better strategies rather than allocating more time in the timetable at the expense of other subjects.

Schools were the only place where the NT Government showed any support for Indigenous languages. But decisions in regard to Indigenous Language and Culture need to be enshrined in Government policy across the board and supported by genuine strategies and initiatives backed up by realistic funding. A start would be to reinstate the few initiatives that did exist in the schools.

Robin Hodgson
Coordinator Diwurruwurru-jaru Aborigjnal Corporation (Katherine Regional Aboriginal Language Centre)