July 30, 2008

i'm a bit excited

I'm a bit excited. I have a new job which I'm enjoying quite a bit. It's only my fourth week, but all signs are good. When I started, I had to go to Alice Springs where I had a week of teaching the basics of phonology to 12 Indigenous students from all over Qld and NSW. It was daunting, challenging, exciting, exhausting and best of all - it went well. Since then, I've been settling into my new office in Katherine and preparing for a semester of teaching. I'll be running weeklong workshops about every second week to different groups, but the training I'll be delivering is not too different from what I used to do at Ngukurr - a lot of Indigenous Language Literacy training. Which I enjoy a lot.

And I'm excited for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm excited because I get to deliver workshops at Ngukurr with all the language mob I used to work with there. It will be so nice going back and it will be so nice to work with that mob while I'm all fresh-faced and energised.

Secondly, I'm excited because I also get to work with different mobs and different languages. Next week I have a week in Beswick where I'll be working with students who speak Rembarrnga, Dalabon and Mayali. Rembarrnga I'm comfortable with, but I know very little Mayali and even less Dalabon. What fun! The students will be learning sounds and spelling and basic teaching and learning strategies. I'll have them whipped up into the deadliest language workers in no time. And I'm sure they'll whip me into shape too. I fear I've been in town too long and need to be reminded what life is like for people living in communities.

July 10, 2008

A conference, language policy and Aboriginal languages in Federal Parliament

The other day, I was priveleged in attending a TESOL symposium about 'Keeping Language Diversity Alive'. One of the speakers, Joseph Lo Bianco was excellent and discussed Language Policy. He gave a handout at one of his sessions that I'm going to type out in full here, because it was a real eye-opener. It's from the Official Hansard of the Federal Parliament from a debate that happened on 10/12/98. Here's how it went:

Mr SNOWDON: My question is to the Prime Minister. Is the Prime Minister aware of the decision by the Northern Territory government to phase out bilingual education in Aboriginal schools? Is the Prime Minister also aware that his government funds bilingual education programs in Papua New Guinea and Vietnam? Prime Minister, given that article 26(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children, will you take a direct approach to the Northern Territory government, asking them to ensure that bilingual education continues to be available in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory?
Dr KEMP: I find it incredible that a question about literacy amongst indigenous Australian should be raised by the Labor Party.
Opposition membes interjecting -
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Fowler, the member for Kingsford-Smith and the member for the Northern Territory will exercise a great deal more restraint or I will be forced to warn them.
Mr SNOWDON: Mr Speaker, on a point of relevance: bilingual programs are about cultural maintenance as well as literacy. That is something this minister does not appreciate. He knows nothing about Aboriginal education or employment.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Northern Territory has been warned.
Mr Adams interjecting
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Lyons will exercise some restraint as well. The minister has been on his feet for 11 seconds. I will not tolerate this level of interjection and noise. Let that be understood by those on both sides of the House. The minister has the call.
Dr KEMP: As I said in my first 11 seconds, I find it incredible that the Labor Party would raise a question concerning literacy amongst indigenous young people. After their 13 years in office, we have now discovered that 70 per cent of indigenous students are below the national standard.
Mr LEE: Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. You have admonished members of the House not to use scorn and ridicule and that is the very thing which this minister is doing. When are you going to take some action about it?
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Dobell will resume his seat. I have also been admonished by the House for commenting, but allow me to say to the member for Dobell that if I were to run a scorn and derision meter on comments made by the members for Batman or Hotham, or members on the government front bench, it would be running neck and neck.
Mr MARTIN FERGUSON: Why don't you name them?
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Batman makes a quite inappropriate interjection. The minister has the call.
Dr KEMP: It is the coalition government which has been forced to address a problem which was totally ignored and neglected for 13 years. This question shows the blindness of the Labor Party when it comes to matters of educational equity.
Mr SNOWDON: Mr Speaker, on a point of relevance: this question related particularly to the issue of bilingual education. The minister has not even mentioned those words in his reply so far. It is also about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for the Northern Territory will resume his seat. The minister has the call. The minister has been perfectly relevant to the question asked and he has the call.
Dr KEMP: I was referring to the blindness of the Labor Party when it comes to fundamental issues of educational equity. The question asked about a Northern Territory bilingual program concerned with literacy education amongst young Northern Territorians. It has been up to this government to finally address the issue, not only amongst all young Australians, but amongst indigenous young Australians.
Dr THEOPHANOUS: Mr Speaker, on a point of relevance: there is a distinction between literacy and bilingual education, which has to do with education in Aboriginal languages. That is the issue. The issue is not the literacy issue; it has to do with-
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Calwell will resume his seat.
Dr THEOPHANOUS: Why don't you permit me-
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Calwell will resume his seat.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Barker will exercise some restraint. The minister has the call.
Dr KEMP: As the members of the Labor Party well know, one of the major reasons for these bilingual programs concerns the literacy skills of young people, and I am addressing that aspect of the question. Last week, I announced that the government would be putting in place a national literacy program for indigenous Australians. That program will be an effective program because, for the first time, we will have a program focused on outcomes, not rhetoric, not feel-good feelings in the stomach which we have had from the rhetoric-
Mr SPEAKER: The minister will resume his seat.
Dr KEMP: of the previous government for the last 13 years-
Mr SPEAKER: The minister will resume his seat. I will not tolerate ministers overriding the chair. I call the Leader of the Opposition.
Mr BEAZLEY: Mr Speaker, I take a point of order on relevance. It is the case that bilingual education is fundamental to the establishment of literacy. There is not a single commentator on literacy, as far as the Aboriginal community is concerned, that does not recognise that. Therefore, the question was directed not to the intentions of this government, but to the intentions of the government in relation to the action by the Northern Territory government, which is a direct attack on literacy in the Aboriginal community. What is he going to do about it?
Mr SPEAKER: The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat.
Dr KEMP: I didn't hear you, Mr Speaker, and I apologise for appearing to ignore you.
Mr SPEAKER: The minister will come to the question and deal with the question of bilingual education.
Dr KEMP: I announced last week that the government would be working with the states and territories, including the Northern Territory, to put in place for the first time a program for the education of indigenous young people, which will be focused on the actual outcomes of those programs. This government has already lifted spending on indigenous education. it is a government which is now putting more resources into outcomes focused programs.
Mr SNOWDON: Mr Speaker, I take a point of order on relevance. The question was whether the Prime Minister would approach the Northern Territory government about what they are going to do about bilingual education. The minster has not answered that question.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for the Northern Territory will resume his seat.
Mr Snowdon interjecting
Mr SPEAKER: I have no choice. The member for the Northern Territory is actually asking me to discharge him from the service of the House under standing order 304A - and I ask all members of the House to exercise, in this last question time, a little more restraint.
The honourable member for the Northern Territory thereupon withdrew from the chamber.
Mr MELHAM: I take a point of order, Mr Speaker. I draw your attention to standing order 99, 'Proceedings on question of order', which states: "Upon a question of order being raised, the Member called to order shall resume his or her seat, and after the question of order has been stated to the Speaker by the Member rising to the question of order, the Speaker shall give a ruling thereon." Mr Speaker, it is implicit in the standing orders that the member raising the point of order is entitled, as of right, to state their point of order before it is ruled on by you. Mr Speaker, I submit that you have overstated the position when you suspend him under the standing order for raising the point of order, when you have not given him his time to state the question.
Mr SPEAKER: I have a great deal of respect for the member for Banks.
Government members: Oh!
Mr SPEAKER: Order, members on my right! The member for Banks, given his logistical position in the chamber, may not have been aware of the fact that the member for the Northern Territory had stated his point of order and was, in fact, discharged from the service of the House for subsequent interjections.
Mr MELHAM: On a further point of order, Mr Speaker - in discharging him, you did not rule on his point of order in relation to relevance, and I ask you to do so.
Mr SPEAKER: I had, in fact, determined that the minister was being relevant, and it could scarcely be claimed, when he was dealing with education, particularly with literacy in the Northern Territory, that he was irrelevant to the question.
Dr KEMP: The government has also introduced, for the first time, intensive English as a second language courses for young indigenous students who do not have English as their first language. This is proving to be an exceptionally effective way of addressing the literacy needs of young people who are native speakers of a vernacular language. The government is very proud of the fact that it has faced up to these fundamental issues of educational equity in the Northern Territory and throughout Australia and we will continue to work with the Northern Territory government to achieve better outcomes.
Mr SPEAKER: The minister will resume his seat. I call the member for Denison on a point of order.
Government members: He has finished.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Denison is still entitled to his point of order.
Mr KERR: Thank you, Mr Speaker. My point of order is again on relevance, because the question was about whether education is to be conducted in a single language or in two languages, and the human rights that are entailed. He has avoided it.
Mr SPEAKER: The member for Denison will resume his seat. The minster had, in fact, dealt with the relationship he was having with the Northern Territory government and was, in that sense, fully relevant.


Goodness me. To me, there is so much wrong with that. Firstly, the dismissal of Human Rights and then the lack of knowledge about bilingual education. During the session, Joseph Lo Bianco asked the audience, 'After reading that, how do you rate the chances of language diversity surviving in Australia: high, medium, low or no chance'. The reply was a resounding 'no chance'.

And the killer punchline. The above extract is actually the ONLY time Aboriginal languages have been discussed in the Federal Parliament in the last twenty years.

Goodness me. Time for some action and policy methinks!

July 01, 2008

Showing people that the message isn't quite getting through

The other day an interesting message came through the Australian Linguistic Society email server. It's from Gavan Breen and talks about the problem of miscommunication between Aboriginal people who have English as a second language and English speakers, especially public servants. It's a huge problem that I'm well aware of and Gavan is talking about getting the issue out there or doing some research. Here's a copy of Gavan's post:

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)?