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

OLAWSKY, Dr Knut J, Senior Linguist and Manager, Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre

Evidence was taken via teleconference—


CHAIR: Welcome. Would you like to make a brief introductory statement before we proceed to questions and discussion.

Dr Olawsky : Let me summarise the work of the language centre here. The language program started roughly 40 years ago. It was incorporated in 1986 and the actual centre was built in 1991, so we look back at roughly two decades of language work here. The language centre was an initiative of Miriwoong and Gajirrabeng elders and had very strong community support.

In terms of language teaching we follow a number of different strategies to facilitate language learning. We aim to target different age groups starting with the youngest, where we support a playgroup organisation for children with a language session. We run weekly classes for girls in combination with the youth centre and the Kununurra District High School. We also run weekly classes with boys through the Clontarf program. We have a language teaching activity called the Language and Culture Learning Program which targets teenagers at risk. We have a class for young adults which focuses on Miriwoong and Gajirrawoong rangers in combination with the DEC, the Department of Environment and Conservation. We also teach Indigenous adults through a variety of activities. One of the activities I would like to highlight here is the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program. We also have a public language class aimed at the wider public and those who work with Miriwoong people who want to learn Miriwoong. We just had a request from the Catholic school to resume the Miriwoong language classes that came to a halt several years ago. So that is a bit about our involvement in language teaching. We also work on language documentation, on raising public awareness and, of course, we train Indigenous people, which is an important part of our work.

CHAIR: Can you talk a bit more about that master-apprentice program, which you have said you are involved with, and talk about the benefits of that program that you have seen.

Dr Olawsky : That is a good question because I think we are probably the first program in Australia to run this model on a larger scale. We started this program with the MG Ord Enhancement Scheme as a funding body about two years ago. It is based on a North American model which aims to expose people to language immersion by setting up small teams—usually teams of just two including a fluent speaker who is called the master and a partial speaker of the traditional language who is called the apprentice. These people spend time together and have to spend this time completely using the traditional language, which may seem difficult at first if you are only a partial speaker or only have a passive knowledge of the language, but the team is supported through a variety of activities and weekly meetings to facilitate that. It is probably one of the most successful strategies that we have used so far. I have been here for seven years and we have implemented some assessment strategies to measure progress in the various teams. Within a period of nine months we have seen significant progress in some younger learners who have just started to learn the language using this model. These young people had pretty much only a passive understanding of the language and are now able to produce simple sentences in the language.

CHAIR: You talk about the at-risk youth program and the classes you are doing there. Tell us about those: what you do in those classes, what age you are talking about and what has been the benefit of those classes.

Dr Olawsky : These are actually not formal language classes. It is an alternative approach to language teaching where we send boys or girls, usually teenagers, out with elders on extended bush trips. As a group they go out of town and spend time together. The good part about this is that the youth will not get distracted. There is no mobile phone reception and there are no shops. There are no distractions whatsoever. They are exposed to the example of the elders. We usually have a theme for such a trip, which could be focusing on language or on language and culture. For example, if the young boys go out to make spears or boomerangs with the elders, they would have to go through the entire process of finding the right wood, of learning how to work the wood, and of turning it into a usable tool, which will then also be used. These are usually overnight trips. They can be even longer than two days. I think it has been successful in that the youngsters cannot run away. The youth that we take are usually not easy to handle but we have seen that with offering them an interesting activity they will often get into the language. Unfortunately it is a very time and cost extensive way of language teaching both has been successful.

CHAIR: My final question is that you have the schools involved in these classes. I notice that there were two weekly classes separated by gender and then you refer in your submission to mixed classes. Can you tell us why they were separated and what advantages or otherwise mixed or separated gender classes achieve? Why do you do it?

Dr Olawsky : Sorry, I did not make myself clear about it. Learning trips are separated by gender based on the traditional male culture that boys and girls from a certain age should not be taught together.

CHAIR: The point I was making is that in your submission you do refer to mixed classes, KDHS. Which ones of those were more successful: the mixed classes or the gender separated classes? What happened as a result of the mixed classes?

Dr Olawsky : I am not sure what mixed classes you refer to. The class we run with KDHS is virtually a Clontarf one which is purely male. The girls' classes are with KDHS and the youth centre.

CHAIR: You make reference to elders being invited informally to mixed classes to teach as well. That is fine, don't worry about it.

Dr STONE: We have a number of objectives with this inquiry. One is how to revitalise and retain traditional Indigenous languages. Another is how to make sure that while that is happening we still have Indigenous students becoming fully confident in standard Australian English so they are not disadvantaged in the economy or in their lives. Have you been able to relate any of your success with teaching children the traditional languages to their facility in speaking standard English in schools?

Dr Olawsky : I am not sure if I can answer this question. The classes we offer at the moment are quite limited in length and frequency and I do not think I am in a position to answer the question whether this had any impact on their English. I do not know the students well enough for that.

Dr STONE: You have been running these courses for almost 40 years, which is very commendable. You talk about being short of funding, excessive living costs and staff shortages. That all points to a bigger budget, of course. Are there any other problems in you being able to achieve your outcomes, for example in having ESL teacher training or having your own staff access training? Is there anything else that you need to make your program as good as it can be, or is it all about funding? How does funding limit you?

Dr Olawsky : I was distracted by people talking in the background. Could you repeat the last part of the question, please?

Dr STONE: You identify some of the constraints on your program as limited funding, excessive living costs and staff shortages. You say with increased resources the program could be significantly expanded. What would you spend those increased resources on if you magically got double or triple the budget? Is it just a matter of employing more staff or putting their salaries up or buying more homes? Can you tease out for us what it is that your program lacks at the moment that money can buy?

Dr Olawsky : I think what we really need at the moment is more staff. The situation in this region is that we all wish for Indigenous governance and Indigenous employment, but it is still a work in progress; to see Indigenous people take over a language centre and manage it successfully is not something that will happen in the language sector over the next few years. With this as a long-term goal, we still need the support of non-Indigenous qualified staff to get Indigenous people on the way. For example, I am the manager and the senior linguist here at the language centre; I have been here for seven years. For most of that time I have pretty much worked two jobs trying to manage the language centre, including staff, employment, training and everything. At the same time, I have tried to do the linguistic work and support language learning programs, such as the one mentioned before.

For us to have more qualified staff, and that includes non-Indigenous staff, would mean that we could do a lot more to motivate people because motivation to learn languages is another very important aspect and it does not always come naturally. We could actually focus more strongly on developing teaching materials and also language classes. When we had the request from the Catholic school last week to resume language classes, we said, 'Yes, of course we will do it, but let's look at our schedule because we only have four people here that are able to teach. We are already running all these other classes, so let's see how we can implement it.' It is obviously something that we cannot afford to knock back, but it really stretches our resources. What we need is more qualified native speakers to teach those classes, but they do not qualify by themselves; they need the support of non-Indigenous staff over a number of years as well.

Dr STONE: We have taken a lot of evidence that the business of who owns the language and who teaches it is important—that in fact Indigenous staff teach the traditional language in schools as part of enhancing cultural understanding and engaging elders and so on, but you are stressing non-Indigenous staff. Is that in order to train Indigenous staff in pedagogy in the actual mechanics of linguistics or in teaching? Why are you stressing non-Indigenous staff be recruited?

Dr Olawsky : As a linguist, I recognise and understand the structure of the language but I do not feel it is my responsibility to teach the language. The community sees it the same way. But what I can do as a non-Indigenous person is give Indigenous people the right tools to teach, because being a speaker does not mean that you are automatically qualified to teach. It also does not mean that you are able to understand the structure of your language. It does not mean that you are able to develop all the teaching resources you need. These are the aspects where I think we will need non-Indigenous staff as well.

Ms GRIERSON: Firstly, have you developed any resources to support your work in these classes and activities?

Dr Olawsky : It is, of course, an ongoing process.

Ms GRIERSON: Resources that are actually in Indigenous languages, local languages?

Dr Olawsky : Yes.

Ms GRIERSON: Could you tell us something about those?

Dr Olawsky : The formal language class teaching relies upon slide shows where we have a wide range of different slide shows on a variety of topics. We are in the process of printing some materials that are bilingual—they are in the traditional language and in English. It is an ongoing process. In the past we have engaged volunteers to help us with that. It is definitely ongoing.

Ms GRIERSON: We saw the use of sign language—signing and gestures—a lot in Utopia, particularly among the younger people. Does that occur where you are as well?

Dr Olawsky : Not that I am aware of. I do not make it a means of communication.

Ms GRIERSON: I am told it is not here either. You said it was a race against time. You also said that some of the things you would like to achieve in the future included the transfer of traditional languages into the public domain such as through the media. Do you see that as a luxury? How do you see that fitting in?

Dr Olawsky : No, it is definitely not a luxury. I have recently written an article about this but it would take too long to explain in detail. Basically, somebody would assume that you would have to revitalise the language from the bottom up, and I do not disagree with that. But it is wrong to say that doing some things from the top down cannot enhance language revitalisation. What I mean by that is if we use traditional languages in higher domains, let's say on public signage for example or in the media, it will help to strengthen the Indigenous identity and will encourage people to learn the language. The situation we are in right now sees young people who do not see what value their language has. It is difficult to see that value if a language is not used somewhere in public. But if they happen to hear their language on the radio or they happen to see it on a public site they will start to understand how important it is to keep that language alive.

Ms GRIERSON: So one day we might see Indigenous languages as subtitles on popular movies or television programs or whatever? Is that a possibility?

Dr Olawsky : I do not know how that would work for small local languages but I imagine that would be a possibility for the larger languages in Australia. If there are documentaries about certain languages then obviously, yes, we would want that.

Ms GRIERSON: I want to ask Patrick about the involvement of the Ord Enhancement Scheme and their funding of the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program. Could you explain in more detail how that happens and how it came about?

Dr Olawsky : Patrick Fagan is not here at the moment but I was here when the program was set up so I can probably explain. The Ord Enhancement Scheme is compensation for the irrigation area for rural land that is now used as an irrigation area for agriculture. The Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program came into existence after I had spent some time in North America talking to a Californian Indian. Talking to him, I became aware how similar the situation is between them and Aboriginal people here.

Ms GRIERSON: We have had a lot of evidence about the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program and its history. Was it you that convinced the Ord Enhancement Scheme? Who decided to devote funds to this program?

Dr Olawsky : It came pretty much through my initiative. Obviously we talked to our directors and the Miriwoong community about it first. Everybody thought it would be a good idea because it is something that we had not tried before. We then took this proposal to the Ord Enhancement Scheme, which treated it favourably. We have a limited run time but we probably have another two years to run this program.

Ms GRIERSON: So they do fund it for a long enough period for you to be able to implement it properly and make some judgments about it. Is that right?

Dr Olawsky : By all means, yes. We have seen the success that I described before and we keep developing new assessment strategies to make sure we can measure any progress.

Ms GRIERSON: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Olawsky, for your evidence today. A copy of the transcript will be on the website for you to have a look at and to make any changes to if you wish to.