March 25, 2012

Scrymgour's Bad Language

I don't mention it much here, but I've been doing occasional bits of writing elsewhere on the net. Mostly, for the language blog on Crikey, Fully (sic). (You can see my contributions here).

Last week I got a piece published by another website, New Matilda, which is quite a well-regarded independent news and analysis website. I was very pleased that New Matilda published my article. It's a reflection on Marion Scrymgour's time in politics, in particular with the role she played in canning bilingual education after a 34 year history in the NT. You can read my piece here.

I was inspired to write it because ABC News in Darwin ran a story about Marion leaving politics and discussed her legacy. Except they didn't mention a thing about her introducing one of the most ridiculous policies I've ever seen - the "Compulsory Teaching In English For The First Four Hours" policy. I'm glad my article was published to counter the glossier stories that came out about Marion.

The day after my article was published, Scrymgour appeared on 7:30NT and talked quite candidly about her time in politics and this time the ABC did bring up the bilingual education issue. Marion was quite frank, talked about her regrets and seemed somewhat apologetic about the whole affair. However, reading the transcript her ideas still seem muddled and she falls short of acknowledging that the policy she introduced wasn't a good one. Here's part of the interview:

7:30NT: You’ve said education is the key to delivering change in Indigenous communities and closing the gap, but you were in charge of education in the Territory in 2008. Do you concede that perhaps you played a part in the failure to deliver any change for Indigenous education?
Marion Scrymgour: Yeah, look, I… I… one of the biggest things, Louisa, and I-… one of the biggest regrets that I have is the way in which I communicated, at the time when I was the minister, the whole issue of bilingual in the Northern Territory. Now, it was never my intention – never – to remove Aboriginal languages from being used a tool for the instruction for English but I think that many people had misinterpreted that and I didn’t help that by communicating and saying that Aboriginal people shall only speak English for the first four hours which wasn’t true. Um, so do I have regrets? I certainly do, I think that, you know, in that instance it could have been done better and if I had my time over I probably would do it differently, however I don’t retreat from the fact that we-, that I thought that the debate we were having about languages was a red herring. That kids have got to get to school – that’s the big issue is the attendance.
I suppose it's easier to be honest when you are retiring and have less at stake. Pity that NT Labor and NT DET are still sticking by Marion's policy. God knows why. As you can see in the New Matilda article, it's been getting torn to shreds for 4 years now and has brought nothing positive.

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.

March 07, 2012

Rain is raining

I'm in the middle of another quick trip to Ngukurr and this afternoon, as I had some quiet time to work on my own, it started to rain. Immediately, a relevant Marra phrase sprang to mind:

Gubijiji jil-ajurlu!

It is another nice little example of what a lovely language it is. While boring old English has the noun 'rain' and lazily uses that to make the verb 'to rain'/'raining', Marra is cleverer. There is the noun, gubijiji, and a special verb, jil-ajurlu, which means 'it's raining'.

So if I wanted to translate gubijiji jil-ajurlu into English in a literal way, I'd end up with:

Rain is raining.

What a primitive language English is! :-P  The rain is lovely though...