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

HUDSON, Ms Joyce, Private capacity

MILLAR, Mrs Annette Joan, Private capacity


CHAIR: Welcome, Ms Hudson and Mrs Millar.

Mrs Millar : I am a language and literacy consultant in Kriol, Aboriginal English, Standard Australian English and English as a second additional language and dialect.

Ms Hudson : I am a linguist. I have been in the Kimberley a long time—for 40 years.

CHAIR: Both of you have been here for a very long time. Would you like to make a brief, introductory statement before we proceed to questions.

Ms Hudson : I want to make the point that Kriol, which is often so much denigrated as a language, is an Indigenous language and so should be considered in your information along with the other Indigenous languages. It is very different; it is a very different situation. It is important to know that.

In the time that I have been here Kriol has developed and strengthened and has become much more prominent over those years. It also still has the stigma. A lot of people still consider it an inadequate, bastardised—all those adjectives—sort of a language. And that includes the Aboriginal community. That is important to know. But linguistically we have shown it is an Indigenous language. Many people speak it as their first language, but they will identify back to that traditional language. If you ask someone, 'What's your language?' They might say, 'I'm Kija,' or 'I'm Bunuba,' but they only ever speak Kriol with words from those languages. But they do retain the identity and the culture from the traditional language.

Some of us locally have been trying to change the attitude across the Kimberley. We have had a little bit of success. We have worked with teachers on PD, trying to get teachers to understand that when they have trouble with the children communicating it is partly because they are coming to school without English. The education seems to focus on English, assuming that you speak English. Kriol is very significant and important in this, even though it is a very low-status language still.

Mrs Millar : I have been involved in education in the Kimberley for nearly 30 years. I have worked for different lengths of time in every government school in the Kimberley except one and I have also worked in independent schools. The majority of Aboriginal students in the Kimberley by far speak Kriol or Aboriginal English as their first language.

The optimum would be to teach the children to become literate in their first language. I did that at Ngalapita Remote Community School, where we taught, with the Aboriginal educators, the children to become literate in Kriol first before they transferred to Standard Australian English. That was successful. We were awarded the School of the Year by the WA Premier, but no policy change happened within the department following that.

Kriol and Aboriginal English speakers are learning English as an additional language or dialect. But you ask teachers to put your hand up if you have been trained to teach in this way when you come to the Kimberley, 'No.' They tell me after three years, 'and yet, I finally get it. I finally get what I am meant to do.' And I am thrilled that they do but I am sad for the children that missed out learning Standard Australian English. It is the language of power in this country, SAE, so children and parents want their children to learn it, but it is just another language; it is not the language. So for children who speak Kriol and Aboriginal English they need to understand that that is not Standard Australian English, and a lot of parents even of the children do not recognise that. They say, 'we talk English.' But, no, they are not; they are talking Kriol or Aboriginal English. So children in a classroom with a trained teacher need to be able to separate those languages and know that their first language is different to Standard Australian English—not a deficit, different. So you acknowledge, you bridge as much as you can from what they know in their first language and culture and you are teaching them that they are learning another language and another culture. The more you empower them that way the stronger they will become in SAE—but only when they need it, because they will not go home and speak Standard Australian English. A child learning SAE in a classroom goes home speaking it will be punished, will be hit, will be chastised. It is not the language that carries their culture. So I am really strong, after 30 years: why aren't teachers coming to the Kimberley trained to acknowledge the children's first language and culture and then to add this other language of power so that they can use it when they need it?

CHAIR: That leads me to the question I was going to ask you, Annette. With 30 years experience, if we could you make you the Western Australian minister for education for the day—

Mrs Millar : Yes, I was just saying that!

CHAIR: or the federal education minister—

Mrs Millar : Yes.

CHAIR: We can chuck out Peter Garrett for a minute and put you in. What would you do, if you had absolute power over education, to the language learning and education, particularly in communities you have taught in?

Mrs Millar : If I could wave a magic wand and have every child in the Kimberley speaking a traditional language, I would, but that is not the reality. As Joyce said, that is their language of who they belong to, but they speak Kriol or Aboriginal English, and they are both valid languages. They have grammatical rules. When Aboriginal educators get that, that their own language—Kriol or Aboriginal English—has rules and a grammar, they get so excited: 'We didn't know we had a grammar in our language; we just talk it.' When they realise that it is a valid language, they just stand 10 feet tall and they go into that classroom. We wear wristbands, a red one for Kriol and a black one for standard Australian English, and they will say, 'I'm going to talk to you in this language now, but now I want you to switch to that one.' That is power. If you have both, you have power. What was your question, sorry?

CHAIR: I have made you the Western Australian education minister for the day. What would you do?

Mrs Millar : I would say: why are new arrivals given trained teachers in intensive English centres when Kimberley students who do not speak standard Australian English as their first language are not given the same privileges? I would change that. I would cause every teacher who is coming here to be trained as an EALD teacher and to have those strategies—not after three years when they get it; on day one—helping the children to separate their languages, acknowledging their first language and culture, and teaching, not just teaching in, standard Australian English. That is what they do. They teach in it; they do not actually teach it. They teach like they are in mainstream Cottesloe: 'Come on children, sit down, dah-dah, dah-dah,' and the children are supposed to understand. They are not talking that language; it is not in their head. They are supposed to read a book in that language. It is not in their head. They are supposed to write it. It is not in their head. You have got to put it in their head first before you read it and you write it.

You talked about TAFE before to the previous people. Joyce and I have done some work with the TAFE lecturers. They just say, 'Why hasn't anyone told us this before?' They have got students who cannot get to that level III because it has to be written SAE, so they cannot. There are Aboriginal students who want to go into further training and education. They cannot because they do not have standard Australian English. What they write is still being influenced from their Kriol and their Aboriginal English, because no-one has helped them separate it and no-one has taught them SAE. So, if I were the minister for education, I would give the justice to Aboriginal kids, as you do to new arrivals—in a nutshell.

CHAIR: Joyce, I will ask you this before I pass on to my colleagues. We have had a lot of evidence about putting Kriol down. In many ways, from what you are saying to us—and it is a fancy way for me to say it—you are almost a linguistic heretic by making those comments compared to what other people have said. People have been very disparaging in our inquiry about Kriol: it is some sort of bastardised language and it is way below. But you are tilting at windmills and saying that it is not; you should recognise it. Can you talk about the development of Kriol in this area—you have been here for a long time—and why you really believe we should recognise Kriol and we should make recommendations in our report about Kriol as well?

Ms Hudson : I did my master's degree studying Kriol. The aim of that study—that was back in 1980, when it was not cool to do it even as a linguist—

CHAIR: You were tilting at windmills 30-something years ago as well, were you?

Ms Hudson : Well, I went to find out. I was living amongst it and I wanted to know: is it English or not? What is it? I could feel the similarities to Walmajarri, which I was already learning. During that time, I had to find evidence of the system of Kriol, and in that I found that Kriol is—it has the case system of Indigenous languages; it has the pronoun system of Indigenous languages; and things like that. So that is why I am quite sure it is a different language. You cannot just fix it up and turn it into English. It really is a language in its own right. I would be very interested to know who these people were who were so disparaging, because it is mostly a matter of lack of knowledge. It is an emotive thing. Aboriginal people often are so unhappy with it because they see it as hindering English and they want their children to learn English. They see Kriol as a hindrance. At some points we have had a school where we have got the staff to say, 'Yes, we will acknowledge Kriol,' and the parents are up in arms, saying, 'No, we don't want that Kriol in the class.'

We are not saying teach Kriol. We are saying: if you do not acknowledge Kriol, you cannot as well teach English. I think what gets in the way is the fact that people say, 'We want English, and Kriol is hindering it'—which it is, of course. I remember a fair while back when I was in Fitzroy Crossing. I would be talking to some of the older people. We would be having a conversation. Children would come up and speak, and the adult would switch to what was to them pidgin English—they were not really talking Kriol—and talk pidgin or Kriol to the child. I would say, 'Why aren't you talking Walmajarri?' This was back in the seventies. 'Oh, because we want them to know English.' But all they were doing was hindering their English because they were teaching them Kriol. They were not teaching them English at all.

Dr STONE: What you are saying is music to my ears entirely. The recognition of Kriol as a stand-alone language with all the richness, dimensions and structures of other languages has been a thread through our inquiry, but I think there is another element to this, isn't there? It is about recognising Kriol, which is spoken all through the Torres Strait—they have their own word for their own creole there—and all through Northern Australia, where there are different creoles spoken as major languages by Indigenous people. But then there is the other dimension of the traditional precontact languages, which a lot of Indigenous people believe hold the greatest cultural value. It is what describes the land. It is the religion. It is something very special that the elders have that people want to retain. So I think it is almost two separate issues. I think we have to acknowledge Kriol in the classroom if the children are going to be taught adequately about codifying language, about the status of their own language they speak as being absolutely as legitimate as standard Australian English. You start with the kids who are speaking Kriol, from that point using ESL techniques, but I think there is also a place for traditional language revival—if it needs to be revived—or retention for other cultural reasons than pure communication. Kriol is a contact language, and the traditional languages are precontact, so I think it is important to understand those two dimensions; otherwise, there are a lot of very frail and elderly Indigenous people who are being nurtured, loved and looked after and who have that traditional language. It is the most precious gift they have to pass on to the next generation, and it will get wiped out if we just say, 'It's Kriol now, boys and girls, and forget that old stuff.'

So we have these different dimensions going on. But I think we have to look at what you are saying about learning—that business of kids marching to school with different languages. I have a lot of refugees in my electorate besides Kooris, and the refugees get a great go with ESL in the schools because they mostly speak Arabic, an African language or whatever. But our Koori kids, who speak non-standard English, do not get a go at all and then cannot get employed in the public service or anywhere else because they do not speak standard English. So this is very complex business and there is great potential to step on people's toes on the way through unless the understanding is that one is about communication and the legitimacy of the language you learn and the other is about cultural retention and making sure cultural connections are not lost. Do you want to comment on all of that? I know that is my diatribe, but I was an anthropologist in my earlier life, so I am interested.

CHAIR: In Dr Stone's sermons on this particular topic we sort of phase out!

Ms Hudson : First let me say that I have spent, say, 50 per cent of my time championing Kriol and trying to get it acknowledged in schools. The other 50 per cent of my time I have spent trying to get the traditional languages going.

Dr STONE: Good.

Ms Hudson : I have worked in various ways with that. You are right, and I agree wholeheartedly. The point is that Kriol is there. One of those years way back I remember being aware that people were saying, 'If we just ignore it, it'll go away'—but it will not. I can assure you it will not. It is becoming an identity language. So, even through you say the culture is held in those old languages, as long as people are not learning them and talking them, they use Kriol to do it. There is also the reality versus what people want to believe.

Dr STONE: Yes, but there are also different purposes for language. Pure communication? Kriol and on the way to learning standard Australian English so no-one is disadvantaged. Traditional language is for knowing about your culture and where you came from, understanding better your religion, eugenics and all of the other things that made Indigenous Australia survive all those hundreds and thousands of years.

Mrs Millar : I agree with Joyce. If there are three generations of people only speaking Kriol, that carries the culture. If they do not have the traditional language, it does not mean they do not have their Aboriginal culture.

Dr STONE: No, but I guess you have to wonder about the Armenians around Turkey. It is not unique to Australia. You have Gaelic being revived in the British Isles and so on. Why? Because people see their traditional culture as also having language attached to it. So I do not think one rules out the other.

Mrs Millar : Yes. I am just saying children I have taught are very much Aboriginal kids with culture. Their world view is very different from mine, and they speak Kriol. It is not like when you speak Kriol you change who you are, your culture or anything.

Ms Hudson : It is very hard to revive a language. It has been interesting for me to watch Walmajarri, because that is the language I worked in. When I came in 1967, the children were coming to school speaking Walmajarri. By the time they got to the end of their primary school, they had flicked over to Kriol and would not talk any Walmajarri to me at all. They would say, 'No, I don't know that.' Then they grow a bit older, become adults and gradually more and more Walmajarri comes in. So I see it going in a bit of a circle. People are speaking it a lot more. But that is a big language; the smaller ones do not have that benefit, because there are not as many people around talking it for them to listen.

Ms GRIERSON: Kriol is a contact language and it is evolving. A Kimberley Kriol here obviously is expedient for many people. Does its grammatical structure resemble particular Indigenous languages, English language or a mixture of everything?

Ms Hudson : I do not like thinking of it as a mixture, but it does have—I learned this term a long time ago, and it is a very good one—'features' of English and 'features' of the Indigenous languages. It has both.

Ms GRIERSON: And who uses it most in this wide community?

Ms Hudson : You mean the Kimberley?

Ms GRIERSON: Yes. It is a generational thing?

Ms Hudson : Generational. If you go across the Kimberley, it changes too. In some communities you will find people in their 30s.

Ms GRIERSON: In which communities is it strongest then?

Ms Hudson : I would say the Fitzroy valley and up Halls Creek.

Ms GRIERSON: We will test that out tomorrow. It is fascinating. We are learning that everything is local and it is very different everywhere. You mentioned Fostering English Language In Kimberley Schools as a teacher induction course. Is that a good model? Has it been successful? Is it worthy of rolling out more widely? If so, who would do that or already does it?

Ms Hudson : As I co-authored it, of course it's good! We did it back in the early 1990s. The teachers resource book is called Making the Jump. That is still being sold.

Ms GRIERSON: Would you revise it in any way?

Ms Hudson : You probably could do a bit of revising, but it would not be much. The first thing I would do is change the orthography to the current Kimberley orthography, but that is fairly minor. It just still applies, which is very satisfying.

Ms GRIERSON: So it does assist teachers who had no training in teaching English as a second language?

Ms Hudson : It works as an underlying knowledge base for teachers. So they have that. Half of the book is ideas on how to address the teaching of English as a second dialect. It is an underlying understanding that it gives them. When we do the PD, the first thing we do is talk about the languages and get that clear. Then we go on to talk about how it applies to the classroom. So, as a professional development, yes, it still works.

Ms GRIERSON: We observed good principals. We met one who I thought was a good principal in that she showed respect for what the children had. I asked if you had to seek permission to be teaching from Indigenous language, and she said no. She just knows that the best foundation for people to learn is from the language that they have when they have been to school. Is that still the case? Is there much acceptance or rejection amongst schools? Does it vary from place to place? Is there any movement to force people not to respect Indigenous languages in young students and learners?

Ms Hudson : I do not think there is any intentional effort to force it, but if teachers come in ignorant of the situation by virtue of just assuming that they are English-speaking kids, they are forcing that.

Ms GRIERSON: That is an honest answer. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence. A copy of it will made available on the internet for your consideration. Please make any changes you want if we have inaccurately recorded it. Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 15 : 07 to 15 : 15