Divided by Language

The Northern Territory axes bilingual education for Aborigines, sparking charges of cultural neglect

Outside a demountable classroom beside the tropical waters of the Gove Peninsula, a gaggle of Aboriginal first graders sit cross-legged listening to elders tell stories of their totems. They chatter in the local Dhuwaya language and paint sharks and stingrays on bark canvases; later they file into class and sing alphabet songs in English. Here at Yirrkala, a former Uniting Church mission in northeastern Arnhem Land, Aboriginal and western cultures converge in an educational truce. “Children should know their own culture is alive,” says teacher-linguist Raymattja Marika. “Bilingual education works well for us.”

But not well enough for the Northern Territory government, which has decided to scrap its 26-year-old bilingual education program in favor of English instruction. The system, it says, has failed to boost literacy among indigenous children in remote areas, who are up to seven years behind other Australian children. N.T. Education Minister Peter Adamson argues that since English is the language of employment, teaching it better can only empower Aborigines. Critics say discarding bilingual education will hasten the demise of fragile Aboriginal languages and the culture they underpin. “It’s assimilation born again,” says 1993 Australian of the Year and former Yirrkala school principal Mandawuy Yunupingu. “It takes away from our people the power to do the empowering.”

When the Whitlam Labor government introduced bilingual education in 1973, cultural maintenance was a welcome side effect but not the main aim; then federal education minister Kim Beazley Sr. says the “universal educational theory” of the day held that children should learn first in their mother tongue, then switch to English. In remote Aboriginal communities today, literacy rates at both bilingual and non-bilingual schools are pitiful, and school leavers all but unemployable. Citing recent government research, Darwin-based former Labor senator Bob Collins says: “The sad truth is that a 15- or 16-year-old Aborigine leaving a rural school has the literary ability of a 6- or 7-year-old kid.”

Bilingual education is “very good in theory,” says N.T. Principals Association president Don Zoellner, “but it didn’t work.” Some bilingual teachers disagree. The territory’s former head of bilingual education, Christine Nicholls, says English is a foreign language in isolated areas, so total immersion in it only alienates children and encourages truancy: “The kids are just spruiked at in English, and I think it switches most kids off.”

The N.T. government is not convinced. Adamson says he will phase out bilingual programs, which operate at 17 of the 91 remote Aboriginal schools and cost $ A3.7 million to run, and replace them with more cost-effective English instruction. The U.S. has also seen a strong push against bilingual education, whose opponents argue that it produces an illiterate underclass. In the Californian elections last June, 60% of voters supported the dismantling of English-Spanish classes.

In Australia, supporters of bilingualism appear less concerned with educational issues than with cultural ones. Ron Watt, who has worked in Aboriginal education for 20 years, says the programs, which employ Aboriginal teachers, forged a link between the community and the classroom. “It wasn’t just about translating The Three Little Pigs into an Aboriginal language. It was giving Aboriginal knowledge a place, celebrating it and putting it into the curriculum.”

Nor is the debate only about what happens in school. “It’s land rights, it’s identity, it’s having pride in your cultural heritage,” says Ysola Best, secretary of the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages. When 54-year-old Veronica Dobson went to a corrugated-iron Catholic mission school outside Alice Springs, she was slapped and sent to bed without dinner for speaking in her Arrernte language. “If you haven’t got language, you’re nobody,” she says. “You don’t fit in anywhere.”

At the time of white settlement there were 250 Aboriginal languages; now only 20 are strong–and just eight have more than 1,000 speakers. Says Dobson, a teacher-linguist at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs: “Children are not learning their mother tongue because their family’s drinking and the children are running wild. Somebody has to do something.” But Education Minister Adamson insists that “the custodians of a community’s culture have got to be the communities themselves.” Says Don Zoellner: “You must be able to function in the mainstream language if you’re ever going to break the dependency cycle. Sticking with a process that’s not producing the results is more open to criticism than this move, because it’s more insidious.”

Compromise seems a long way off, says Collins: “There is no common ground at the moment.” Next month, as head of an N.T. government inquiry into Aboriginal education, he will visit remote communities to tell parents how serious the problem is and ask what they would like done about it. Aborigines, he says, “utterly rely on non-Aboriginal people in key aspects of their own lives–and if English literacy is not dramatically improved that will be the situation for the next 50 years.” The question is whether a gain in economic independence will outweigh a possible loss of cultural wealth.

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