March 14, 2012

Government inquiry into Indigenous languages: update

I haven't posted about this much but I've been keenly keeping up with the House of Reps inquiry into Language Learning in Indigenous Communities. They're now well into the public hearings and the dates for NT have been set which I'll be very interested in. I just discovered the most recent transcript from the inquiry's public hearings which was with DEEWR - the federal department responsible for education. I found it quite riveting! Go here and it's the hearing from March 1.

In particular, my jaw dropped at the bit where Dr. Amanda Day, Acting Branch Manager, National Curriculum Branch, demonstrates that she adheres to the myth that good English outcomes and bilingual education are incompatible. Clearly, she doesn't get that bilingual education can and does produce excellent outcomes for English language learning:
CHAIR: All right. You mentioned in your report about the tension that exists between bilingual language learning and of course being fluent. There are two aspects to this inquiry: English language learning, of course, in Indigenous communities as well as the maintenance of and revitalisation of Indigenous languages. Can you comment about the tension that exists? In your submission you actually make the point on page 12.  
Dr Day:  Yes, thank you, Chair.  
CHAIR:  It is a point that has been made elsewhere, by the way—in other submissions. It has been commented upon frequently. I am interested in what DEEWR has to say about it.  
Dr Day:  We did say that there is a tension between maintaining the benefits of bilingual education with the need for all Australian students to have the opportunity to also speak, read and write in English so that they can interact across and within contemporary Australian society. The department is aware of models that exist across Australia of successful bilingual schools that offer students that opportunity to interact. 
The government's position on bilingual education is detailed in the submission. The government recognises the important role that Indigenous language learning currently plays in some schools, including bilingual schools, but there are issues in implementing it. A bilingual program is really a matter for individual jurisdictions to determine, as I outlined earlier, and there needs to be highly significant input from the local community. 
For any child proficiency in their home language is considered important to their identity, their self-esteem and their cultural connections to land and country, but it is equally important that young people are able to converse in English. That is where the tension exists—between the balance, I guess, of how to have young people who are English literate but also being able to speak in their home language. Families and communities for indisputable reasons want their children to speak their home language but also have a desire to have their children be able to be engaged in mainstream society and have life opportunities. There is a tension there. Strong language skills in English support the government's vision of a socially inclusive society, as well as being able to provide employability skills, and literacy and numeracy being a part of that skill set that all students need.
In the words of comedian Eddie Izzard who took the piss out of the monolingual mindset, Dr. Day clearly is one of those who would say: "Two languages in one head??!! No-one can live at that speed!! Good lord, you're asking the impossbile!"

On the plus side, the DEEWR mob did plainly acknowledge that they have no evidence to say that the "First Four Hours of English" policy is bringing any benefit:

Dr STONE:  Four hours and three is it, or four and two—whatever that new ratio is that they demand. Were you consulted and are you happy with that as a curriculum development or a development in pedagogy in those places?

Mr Goodwin:  Certainly the Northern Territory government makes decisions, as Dr Day intimated, abouthow it runs its schools. My area in the department was not consulted by the Northern Territory department, but I would not put any store in the lack of consultation there, because we do not tell jurisdictions how run their schools. I think that decision is actually a few years old now and was made by the Northern Territory government in 2008. No, my area, as I said, certainly was not consulted. I do not know whether the minister at the time was consulted. Sorry, what was the second part of your question? 

Dr STONE:  It was whether you felt that that was a good development. Is there any assessment or
evaluation yet which says, 'Yes, this is in fact leading to more children retaining home language and
learning English, retention rates of kids at schools, parent engagement in the schools and so on'? Is there any evidence yet of how that new regime is working? 

Mr Goodwin:  There is no evidence that I am aware of. There may well have been studies done, but certainly nothing has come across my desk.
I'm very much looking forward to seeing what comes out of the inquiry's public hearings that will be held in the NT in April and May. I'm especially looking forward to them getting a bit of media attention (which they better had!), because I think there will be a lot of questions asked about the NT Government's pathetic treatment of Indigenous languages.

1 comment:

Hamish said...

I'm dumbstruck by the ignorance shown by Dr Day, there are now several decades worth of research and empirical data on the benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism. It seems only speaking one language has limited Dr Day's intelligence.