I and some others here at the Institute for Aboriginal Development think there is a need for a study to be done of how well Aboriginal English speakers, especially those who speak it as a second or later language, understand the English of whitefellows, especially public servants and politicians and the like. The latest inspiration for this is a news item: Report finds NT Aboriginal group doesn't understand legal terms
However, there was an earlier discussion of this sort of thing, related to the inability of public servants to explain aspects of the "intervention" to people in Aboriginal communities.
An obvious aspect of the problem is the use of words that people don't know; 'equity' is one that was mentioned as an example a couple of times in the recent exchange of emails, and it's one that I have only a vague understanding of myself.
A less obvious aspect, and so one that is not so easy for government officials and other offenders to appreciate, is, in my opinion at least, the fact that Aboriginal English speakers are not familiar with the extended meanings of words and the idioms that educated native speakers use. For example, 'We have to decide where X (a community) is going'; meaning, of course, how it is to develop, not where it being moved to.
I heard a story recently about a small group of teenage students who had been chosen to attend something (educational, I forget what) and were being interviewed by a reporter (in the presence, fortunately, of their teacher). One was asked 'What do you hope to get out of this?' and she didn't answer; obviously confused, she had a whispered conversation with the teacher that solved the problem. The problem was, she was looking forward to the thing, she wanted to do it, she didn't want to get out of it.
Other examples of usages that are perfectly familiar to us are the various figurative uses of 'heart' in English, the use of 'today' and 'tomorrow' to mean 'nowadays' and 'some time in the future', and the specification of location relative to the body (on the left, right, front, back) rather than to the world (north, south, east, west). There are probably hundreds of expressions that we use that teachers in Aboriginal schools would take for granted and never think of teaching.
I suggest that an institution that wants to look into this topic find a student who would be interested and amass enough data to convince the decision makers that there is a need for education, both of Aboriginal people and of those who deal with them, to improve the quality of communication.
Apparently, a few of us agreed with Gavan and sent him replies. Here's my pocket of shrappie:
I was very interested to read the bit from Gavan Breen about miscommunication between black and white, especially here in the NT with the Intervention. I see this sort of basic miscommunication happening everyday here in Katherine and also when I was living in Ngukurr in Southern Arnhem Land.
I've done a little bit of Kriol interpreting and I listen to the language of public servants and shake my head at the lack of consideration that is given to their choice of words (the problem is compounded because many public servants are given directives about the approved wording they are supposed to use). I remember last year at Ngukurr an Intervention meeting involving a public servant talking about the 'cessation' of CDEP. I'm guessing the word 'cessation' was chosen carefully as approved wording but unfortunately just wasn't understood by the vast majority of the Kriol speaking audience. Another example of incomprehensible approved wording from that meeting was 'transitioning', ie. 'transitioning' people from CDEP employment to Centrelink benefits. It was appalling. This meeting was essentially the government telling the community that 180 jobs will soon be gone and everyone will then have to go back on Centrelink payments but the 'approved wording' meant that people barely realised this was what they were being told.
Then there are more subtle examples. Interpreting at Centrelink last week, I heard some Centrelink staff constantly using unnecessarily difficult words when dealing with Kriol speaking ESL-customers. Examples are words like 'verify' and 'confirm' (I suggested 'make sure'), 'currently' and 'at present' (I suggested 'at the moment' or 'right now') and 'entitled to' (I suggested 'can get'). By merely speaking in plainer English, communication difficulties can be reduced significantly. And if public servants don't have time to think about the English they use, they can just get an interpreter, but this doesn't happen very much either!
Sadly, it seems that Aboriginal people with English as a Second Language are used to not understanding public servants properly. It's the norm and to a certain degree 'just the way it is'. Some of us are here trying to make a difference and the more exposure the issue can get, the better. Importantly, the education needs to be both ways. In my opinion, not only do whitepeople/public servants need to realise the extent of communication breakdown but Aboriginal people who are ESL also need to be educated or shown that the way things are now aren't necessarily the way things have to or should be.
How do we give this issue exposure? A research project would be great, but I don't think we need to wait until research is done before we can plainly show that miscommunication is occurring.
One idea would be some media activity, especially from someone who is media-savvy. How about regular press releases which give an obvious example of miscommunication, similar to the examples Gavan's already given and then suggestions for better ways to communicate. Does anyone have any other suggestions on how we get this issue out there? I'd be happy to give the cause a bit of time if there is support and ideas out there.
A big issue no? Anyone have any bright ideas about what we can do inform the public (black and white)?