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Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
Language learning in Indigenous communities

JONES, Mrs Lola, Aboriginal Languages Coordinator-Curriculum Officer, Kimberley Education Office, Western Australian Department of Education


CHAIR: Welcome and you are also addressing another issue, the Cable Beach Primary School briefly. We understand you have to leave at 12:10.

Mrs Jones : I am from Carnarvon, which is Yinggarda country. I grew up speaking standard Australian English, Aboriginal English and some Wajarri, Noongar. I learned Walmajarri a little bit later. Now I speak Kriol and Wangkatja as well. I am also learning Yawuru. Thank you to the Yawuru people. I might just be one person sitting here but I sit with a lot of old people. It is our old people. Language is from your heart, and the old people keep us strong with language.

I have been employed for 17 years with the department as an Aboriginal languages officer and I am responsible for running the statewide Aboriginal languages teacher training, which Dianne, Coco and Dalia have been involved in. The training grew out of a need for Aboriginal people to be able to get a qualification within the department. People who have completed the training are recognised as teachers, have a limited authority to teach as a language teacher and are paid as teachers. It has provided a career pathway for Aboriginal people in WA education department.

It has also lead to revitalisation of languages like Yawuru, Noongar and Wajarri. There are lots of old people who are concerned about language but young people, because of a number of past government policies, did not speak their language. One of the things that we ran for Wajarri and Noongar in the past was intensive language courses where old people came and worked with young people to give them the confidence to learn to talk their language in public. Because even when I went to school, if we spoke language at school we would get in trouble, but then they wanted us to learn French. It was a bit of a slap to blackfellas that you cannot talk your own language but you should learn a foreign language.

For me, this work is not just about a job. This is our heart, like Michael said. This is what is in here for us. Having language in schools is such a small part of language revival, and in Western Australia it has been a small part but sometimes it has been the key to getting whole communities involved in language revival. We have come along the journey from when we first started—one of the biggest problems is resources for teaching language. We currently have 20 Aboriginal languages taught in 55 department schools in Western Australia, but you cannot go and buy a Walmajarri or a Yawuru set of resources. So resource production was one of our biggest areas as well as training people.

We started with handdrawn and handwritten materials, and then photocopiers came along and we had blackline masters and we thought we were really flash. Now we have digital images and we have digital resources and we can display our books and materials on interactive whiteboards. So we have really come from the draw-it-yourself and do-it-yourself age to the digital age. One of the others mentioned that they are working with the Lexique Pro dictionary, which is an interactive dictionary on the computer. We are running training for a couple of languages at the moment for teachers to input data into Lexique Pro dictionaries so that kids in school have more access to digital dictionaries.

That has been a little bit of our journey in terms of resources and training. The Aboriginal languages teacher training is an anomaly within the department now as all professional learning for the department is run through the Professional Learning Institute. There does not seem to be anybody else out there who can run the training, so at the moment I am still running the training. We are looking at universities to take on the training, which needs someone to teach the methodology aspect of language teaching, someone to teach the IT skills for making digital resources but you also need somebody who has the linguistics skills to support language speakers. It is one thing to talk your language at home and in the community, but teaching language in school is a really different environment.

CHAIR: With regard to the Kimberley region, and particularly you made reference to Cable Beach Primary School, what has been the main benefit in Indigenous language learning in terms of literacy, numeracy, English proficiency and school attendance in your observation?

Ms Jones : For Aboriginal kids, language is so important for identity and for self-esteem and if you believe in yourself as a learner and if what you see in the curriculum in your classroom relates to you, you only learn to read once. If you learn to read in your first language, it is so much easier because what you have got happening in your head is what is on the page. Like Coco said, most Aboriginal kids in the Kimberley who come to school do not speak standard Australian English as their first language, and so by having language in the classroom it is an affirmation that 'I can be strong and proud of my aboriginality.' You know that the Western education system values something that our languages and cultures bring to the classroom.

I cannot really talk about attendance data, but some principals have commented to me that 'We did nothing else last semester that was different. The only thing we did was introduce an Aboriginal language, and our suspensions have dropped and our attendance is up.' That is anecdotal but that is strong, and parents who say, 'I had a choice and I could enrol my kid at school A or school B but I enrolled in that school B because I know they teach an Aboriginal language. So even some non-Aboriginal parents do not want an Aboriginal language taught but they do not really know what it means to teach an Aboriginal language. It is the same if it was German or French. They say 'No, we don't want a language.' When you invite them to come to a language class, most non-Aboriginal parents say 'Why didn't we learn this as kids? Why didn't we learn about the country we are living in, the people who lived here, the seasons, the environment?'

CHAIR: So the non-Indigenous community as well?

Mrs Jones : There are really huge reconciliation benefits for non-Aboriginal kids, and also just the understanding about the community and the country where you are living. Broome is in Yawuru country and it is salt water and bush. If you go to Fitzroy Crossing, it is Bunuba and Gooniyandi on the river and Walmajarri people have come in from the desert, and every place has its own special thing that relates to country. You cannot separate language and country. Even non-Aboriginal kids are learning about that country where they are going to school.

Dr STONE: I am very interested in the teaching of Indigenous people as Aboriginal language teachers, and you have got quite a bit of material in your submission about that. In the past we had teacher's aides paid under CDEP, who have pretty much been second-class citizens in the school, and I think it was a very poor situation for the quality of the interaction that was going on. How do you make sure that those teachers with the two-year traineeship, paid at level 1, step 6—which is sort of the bottom of the heap—can articulate through and be seen as equally trained and as having equal status, perhaps picking up and going to the University of Notre Dame just across the road? Or do these teachers tend to be locked into being just language teachers and therefore being limited in their career options?

Mrs Jones : 'Just language teachers'—I see that they are the top of the heap, because you have to have not only all the skills of a teacher but also the language skills. Most of our language teachers only want to teach language; they are not interested in science and social studies and all those other things. There are lots of non-Aboriginal teachers who can teach that, or Aboriginal teachers who do not speak their language, who do not come from that area. Aboriginal teachers who graduate as language teachers have all the teaching and reporting responsibilities that other teachers have.

The department has just organised through one of the universities that, if language teachers decide to go on and do a full teaching degree, while they are on teaching prac their school gets teacher relief paid. While they do their block releases their school gets teacher relief. And it also means that they stay on salary while they are doing their study. A teacher at one of the high schools in the Goldfields is currently studying at Curtin University. When she goes away for five weeks of block release she still gets paid; her school gets a relief teacher provided. That is encouraging our language teachers to gain a full degree as a classroom teacher. But the problem we have then is that someone else wants them to go off and teach something else, and language teachers are really precious, because it is a double skill. I think language teachers should be paid more than classroom teachers, because they have got double skills. It is not just the teaching; you have also got the language component. Dalisa, Coco and Dianne—you might be the teacher standing up in front of the class but it is all those people who are behind you, it is all those old people, it is all that cultural referencing and going back and making sure that what you are teaching is culturally appropriate, that it is age appropriate and that it is linguistically correct. Old people were multilingual and they carried those languages, and we do not want to be messing them up now because we are saying it wrong. Sometimes when you are reviving a language it is really hard because the grammar of the language is very different from English. So you want to make sure you are getting it right, and that is a hard thing for our language teachers.

Dr STONE: Absolutely. Evidence we took in other states was that a teacher is surrounded by those elders and perhaps a linguist or—

Mrs Jones : Language nests.

Dr STONE: Language nests—that was the term that was used. Are you familiar with the experiments going on—they began in the US and Canada—that are now being adopted in some parts of Australia?

Mrs Jones : We have heard of language nests. Probably a good 10 or 12 years ago we looked at the New Zealand model of language nests, but mostly for the little kids, because it was about involving people with the kids. The model that we try to encourage our language teachers to use is the master-apprentice model. You might be the language teacher trainee and you might be the one who is at the PD and delivering the lessons, but we encourage you to have a mentor—at least one—who is either another language teacher or an elder or a language specialist, or it might be a whole group of them. You do not know it all. We need our old people, and our old people are the ones that we need to keep going back to. It might be three or four old people you have to go to. But it is very hard, because our old people are getting frail. In some communities people do not see the urgency because they say, 'Plenty of people talk language.' But the reality is for all of our languages that they really are endangered by English, Kriol and Aboriginal English.

Dr STONE: On another tack—and I am aware that your time is limited—you talked to us in your submission about the Western Australian Certificate of Education for tertiary entry where you have Aboriginal language as one of those courses. How many students have taken that through to year 12; and have they then been able to use that language in their university courses perhaps to train as teachers or in some other area of study?

Mrs Jones : We have currently got one school where they have got the year 11 and 12 course of study run through the curriculum council. I am not sure of the numbers that have gone right through, but we have got another school in the Goldfields that is currently bringing on year 10s and then next year they will extend that to the year 11s and 12s. I know of a couple of people who have been through the year 11 and 12 course of study who have actually then looked at becoming trainee language teachers—it is that full circle.

Anecdotally, we hear evidence of students who have gone through the primary school program and into the high school program who in their employment are able to use their Aboriginal language skills whether they are in a bank, a CES office or working in an old people's home.

Dr STONE: I think it is a brilliant initiative. I think of students who take Hebrew or Mandarin who get bonus scores in effect for those languages, particularly Hebrew, and who are very advantaged when in the competitive business of getting into universities, so we need to encourage that. Not only do students have that option of years 11 and 12, but there is a proper weighting of the language course when it comes to consideration for tertiary entrance.

Mr HAASE: Just to give me a sense of the resourcing behind you, what is your area of responsibility geographically?

Mrs Jones : I am responsible for statewide training, so it does not matter whether you are a Noongar person, a Wangatja person—

Mr HAASE: You have responsibility across the state for Indigenous language teaching.

Mrs Jones : Yes, and I support the Kimberley, Pilbara and Goldfields. If a teacher comes from the Kimberley, Pilbara or Goldfields to training—and we run the training in regional areas, depending on where the bulk of trainees come from—once you have been to training and go back to your school to teach language then I come out and I team teach with you. I observe your teaching. I provide you with in-school support and find out where your areas of need are.

Mr HAASE: That is good. Where is home for you?

Mrs Jones : I live in Broome.

Mr HAASE: What level of sophistication do you think we should use Aboriginal language for in schools: do you think we should just treat it as a language to be learned or do you think we should teach Aboriginal language terms for other subjects? Should we teach geography in an Aboriginal language?

Mrs Jones : That would be looking at an immersion program. For most department schools, Aboriginal languages are taught as a language, so it is for that one hour a week. We have always set our goals really high. Some people said they were unattainable in the beginning and 'You can't possibly go to classroom and only speak Noongar for 60 minutes with the kids.' But our goal has always been that when you walk into an Aboriginal language class you hear the language. They get the rest of the day to learn English, and we have always kept that goal as what we want people to go for—

Mr HAASE: But you are saying that it still should be taught as a language, not used as a language to teach other courses within the school.

Mrs Jones : It would be lovely if we had the people.

Mr HAASE: Is it something you would aspire to?

Mrs Jones : It would be, but we do not have the personnel.

Mr HAASE: How many teachers have you currently got working under you?

Mrs Jones : We have currently got 55 Aboriginal language teachers across the state and we have got eight elders who consistently work in schools on a regular basis.

Mr HAASE: Are they all on the payroll?

Mrs Jones : They are all on the payroll, but the thing is, if we had more, then we could teach geography.

Mr HAASE: Are they bunched in a particular area?

Mrs Jones : No.

Mr HAASE: They are spread widely.

CHAIR: Before I hand over to Sharon, what is your exact title?

Mrs Jones : Aboriginal Languages Curriculum Officer, although last year someone said, 'No, you are now called an Aboriginal Languages Coordinator'.

Ms GRIERSON: I seek your advice because the national government does not run education systems, and the best things we have seen have been language development that has started with Aboriginal people. It has been built up and has been so much more successful. It has captured the interest of officialdom and people have supported it, like you and Carmel and other individuals. Sharman has asked about standards and quality, and funding resources is always important, so what advice do you have to the government? If we get involved at a national level and try to systematise everything, it could be quite damaging. Do we just keep funding through community and cultural development programs? Or do we set up national institutes for the training and make it locally based? What do you think is a good framework for a national government to be respectful of the success that you have already had?

Mrs Jones : I would probably suggest a two-pronged approach, because supporting the things that are already successful and are working is going to provide that ongoing grassroots stuff, but I would also like to see long-term provision for some more of that systematic stuff. When I started Aboriginal languages teacher training 17 years ago, a throwaway comment was, 'We'll give them a bit of money because it won't last'. Well, they picked the wrong person and I got into the job. With Aboriginal languages teacher training there were four schools and now there are 55. It has grown because it has had continuity. It has grown because Aboriginal people are in control. One of the statements from one of the schools was: 'Lola, we want to have blackfellas running our own languages in school. We really want our language in the community, but school is such an important part because our kids spend so much time there.' So I think we should try to run both. That is what we are trying to look at now. If I want to retire or take a big long holiday, Aboriginal languages teacher training statewide needs to continue. We are talking to universities about taking it on, but at the moment the universities are saying, 'The numbers are too small to make it viable for us'.

Ms GRIERSON: That is where a national government could subsidise involvement at that tertiary level. That takes me to my last question. You said schools say, 'We want black people delivering this stuff'. It seems to me, having gone out to Utopia and other places as well in my time, that all service delivery would be better if it was enriched and delivered by local people with local language. We have had a top down model of delivering services in this country historically—you know, you train a doctor who goes out and tries to fit in and have an impact. But it did seem to me to be better when local Indigenous people were involved, as for example at the school at Utopia, where the kids want to work there in all these positions. They do not want to have to leave; they want the opportunity to be the service deliverers to their own people. How do we do that better, and will Indigenous languages help us?

Mrs Jones : I think it is a partnership. We know we need standard Australian English. We need that to be successful because it is the language of power and of government, but it should not come at the cost of your Aboriginal language. In the past it has been, 'You cannot have your language because you need to learn standard Australian English'. That is what it was when I went to school, but now we know that you can have both. I can be a standard Australian English speaker, but I can also speak my language and I can be strong, and that gives me the strength as a community person to be able to support and run things in my own community. So I think you can both. I do not think that it has to be either.

Ms GRIERSON: You would know this area very well. In this area is there commercial sponsorship from the big employers here for scholarships for young people, support for schools and the language centre? Is there any commercial sponsorship locally for those things?

Mrs Jones : I believe there is commercial sponsorship but, because I work with a government organisation, then I do not get involved. I know that there are a number of scholarships and things available from different mining companies and big businesses, but it is usually for standard Australian English education in terms of languages fellowship. People can get a scholarship to go to China and study Chinese. I have been lobbying to have some of our Aboriginal language teachers get a scholarship so that they can go bush and can stay with elders for an extended period of time and extend their language. But that is just beyond comprehension and I have got no further than square 1 with that.

Ms GRIERSON: Thank you for trying anyway.

Dr STONE: Going on from those questions Sharon was asking and your responses, have you observed at all, or is it possible to make any statement about, whether or not Indigenous kids who have their own traditional language learning occurring are improving their standard English as a consequence of acquiring a better understanding of how linguistics work and how language works?

Mrs Jones : I would say that it does. When I went to school I did not know that there were two languages. I would talk one way at home and then when I went to school they would say, 'Don't talk like that; you sound like a blackfella.' Then when I went home they would say, 'Don't talk like that; you sound like a whitefella.' I did not know that there was Aboriginal English and Kriol. I did not know that there was traditional language. I thought everybody's grandmother spoke to them in that language.

When it is explicit that this is one language and this is another, it becomes easy. You make a choice about what is the appropriate language for a particular situation. Kids can learn to code-switch and they can be proud that they speak Broome English or Walmajarri or Yawuru. It does help, because when you are teaching language and you are discussing verbs, and in Yawuru the verbs are really different and this is how they operate, straightaway that is something that kids can relate to their standard Australian English. We say, 'We are going to learn about adjectives or adverbs,' and kids straightaway get it: 'Oh, this is how it works in Yawuru.'

Sometimes when I have talked to classroom teachers I tell them that it is about intonation, the stress, and people say, 'No, we don't do that in English.' They do not understand because they only speak English. But when you have another language to compare it to, it actually helps your language learning skills in whichever language you are using, whether it is standard Australian English or whether it is Kriol or Walmajarri or Yawuru. Once you have a different language to compare it to, it makes it easier. It helps on a number of fronts, I suppose.

I just want to add for Dalisa Pigram-Ross, who is the Yawuru language teacher at Cable Beach Primary School who is currently overseas, that for her the work and support that she has had from the Yawuru Language Centre in the short time that it has been established has been like a weight off her shoulders. Previously she was the only Yawuru language teacher in Broome. It was as if she were the only person doing the job and if she went then what would happen to Yawuru? She feels so good that there is now this other support for Yawuru and she was very sad that she could not be here to have the opportunity to tell you that.

She is one of the real successes, I suppose, of the Aboriginal languages teaching training program. The respect that she shows for old people and for country and the way that she brings that into her classroom is wonderful. When I met with the principal and the deputy principal this week at Cable Beach Primary School, the deputy said to me, 'Dalisa is one of the best teachers I have ever seen. Don't worry about just language teachers—teachers. We need more people like her.' So I think that is a credit to her but also a credit to the support that she gets from the Yawuru Language Centre. So thank you for having me.

CHAIR: It sounds as though she could be your offsider at some stage in the future.

Mrs Jones : When I went on leave, she took my job for a year so that was good.

CHAIR: Thank you.