Northern territory government reinstates bilingual education PDF Print E-mail

AS part of the Minister's response during the Parliamentary discussion, he gave the following account of the vastly different educational experience that occurs for children from different language backgrounds. "I believe that there are compelling educational reasons to utilise bilingual programs in the early part of students' schooling.

If we take young Scott, 51/2 years old, he is off to Alawa School, Year I for the first time. He as done preschool, he has done transition. He goes along to his first class at Year I with Miss Smith, a teacher of some few years experience, a good quality teacher.

Scott has parents who read at home, he can read himself a little bit. He can write his name, he can do up his shoelaces, and he takes his place with these 28 other kids in his class.Miss Smith is able to recognise, with Scott and most of the others in the class, that they come from a similar socioeconomic background to herself.The school itself is not all that different to the school she went to as a 5-year-old some 28 years earlier.

Within a space of days, weeks - certainly within the month - she would have a pretty good background on each of those student's abilities. How much they can read. Can they count? Do they know their alphabet? What are their social abilities in terms of mixing and getting on with each other? How well have they socialised?She now has a benchmark from which to embark on further learning.

There is a big commonality here and a tool which is able to readily help her, as a teacher, understand those 28 kids. It is called language. Because they are all English-speaking kids in this 28-group classroom.They speak English at home, their parents read English, they read English a little themselves, they count in English - everything they do is in English.Away they go, hopefully, for a successful primary, secondary and, perhaps, even a tertiary education career.That is young Scott at Alawa Primary School, day one.

Then take Lulumburra from a remote homeland on the northern coast. It is his first day at school as well, and his teacher's name is Ms Smith. She is an experienced teacher, however she has not taught in the Yolngu community before and does not have any Yolngu Matha, or any local language. Young Lulumburra is in a class which has also 25 kids in it.What skills has he brought to that class in the same way that Scott brought? He does not speak English at home; his parents do not read; he has never picked up a book; he has never read a word; and he does not count. What has he been doing in the last few weeks before school started?They were at a major ceremony a week earlier. Many of the kids who are in the class that he is sitting in were at that ceremony. He knows, in his own mind, his relationship to each of those children, and he knows what relationship the parents of those kids are to him.At that ceremony, he danced, as a five year-old, quite an intricate ceremonial dance. It was a major funeral and there were people from everywhere - Galiwinku, Gapuwiyak, all over north-east Arnhem Land - and he knew the relationship that he and his family had to those people, even though he only sees them infrequently and they come from 300 km away.

What young Lulumburra had in his head was an intricate map, a spider web of the most intricate relationships. He knows where he stands in relation to every one of those people in that classroom; their family, their mother, their father, their uncle, their aunt, their grandmother, their grandfather, and so on. It is a quite complicated mathematical concept - a mathematical formula, indeed, and yet Lulumburra stays in that school with that English teacher through Years I, 2, 3, 4, and 5, and we cannot teach him maths. We struggle to teach young Lulumburra maths, yet, within his head, as I said, is this most intricate, complicated and complex mathematical formula. He went out fishing in the morning before he caught the bus to school; and he speared two salmon in the surf quite proficiently.

A five-year-old with a spear, and 3 kg or 4 kg salmon he has brought home to the household before he has even gone to school. Does Ms Smith know this? She does not. Does Ms Smith know how well this kid can dance? She does not know this. Does Ms Smith know that there are people in that classroom that Lulumburra ought not address, speak to, or look in the face? Ms Smith does not know this. How could she? She has never been to Yolngu community before and she does not understand all of their social wills, any of the customary behaviours and backgrounds and, most importantly, she has no idea.

In the classroom in Alawa, the teacher within days, knows the abilities of these kids and knows where to start teaching. Ms Smith, within weeks, gets further confused in Lulumburra's class because she cannot engage the kids as they are not proficient in English. They are not proficient in English and she is not proficient in their home language, so how would you break that down?

The theory is that you only learn to read and write once in your lifetime and, if you learn to read and write in your own language, it will be easier and faster. Once you have the skill you can apply it to any other language.That is clue No I .You are readily able to transfer reading and writing skills if you have mastered it in your own language first, you can simply transfer it to another language. Now, how might you do that? Ideally, you would have bilingual teachers so that your Yolngu trained, your local Yolngu person is a fully trained teacher who can take the kids through this, get them to English up to speed and off they go. Well, we do not.We do not have indigenous speaking language trained teachers all over the Territory. We used to have.We are losing them at a fast rate of knots, and we have not been training them.

In a bilingual program it might be at the Year I as much as 10% of the curriculum is in English; by Year 2, 20% in English; Year 3, 60%; Year 4, 80%; and Year 5, 100%. This is the model that was employed with voice of the land schools teaching in bilingual in the past.

More interestingly, how would they do at Year 5? Well the evidence is that they do much better. They do much better at Year 5 having going through the bilingual program than in English only program. Now, community people say to me: `I don't want kids to learn language, we talk it at home, they know all about our language, our culture. We want them to learn English'. And I try to explain, gently as I can, so do we. So do we, but the way to get there is to work in their own language first. I am going to get much better at explaining this, and I will have another go at it at another time, but that is why I believe what the member for Arnhem said- what the member for Greatorex touched on, about language being part of self, part of identity, is absolutely true." (This is an edited version of the Minister's speech.)