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Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs - 04/04/2012 - Language learning in Indigenous communities

BAARDA, Mr Frank, Private capacity

EGAN, Mr Matthew Jampijinpa, Private capacity

RICE, Mr Donovan Jampijinpa, Literary worker, Bilingual Resources Development Unit, Yuendumu Community

CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you very much for coming this afternoon. Would anyone like to make a brief introductory statement? These are the formal proceedings of parliament. Anything you say must be factual and honest. It is a serious matter to mislead the committee, not that we think you will tell us untruths today. Please feel free to tell us how you feel about Indigenous language and the benefits of it and what your experience has been.

Mr Baarda : Have I got permission to read out a long statement rather than a brief one?

CHAIR: Yes. We will let you do that.

Mr Baarda : I made these notes last night. This is on behalf of myself but it is relevant to all of us at Yuendumu. One thing that I should mention is that I have lived in Yuendumu with my family for almost four decades, so we are stayer. I will read what I prepared last night. Ken Hale was one of the greatest polyglot linguists that ever lived. Ken, known as Jabanungga to the Warlpiri people who knew him, used the Warlpiri language in his Dutch lectures at the university of Nijmegen to explain and illustrate some grammatical principles to his students. Jabanungga loved the Warlpiri language. He became so fluent in Warlpiri that he raised his sons, Ezra and Caleb, to speak Warlpiri after his return from Australia to the United States. At his funeral in 2001, Ezra delivered the eulogy for his father in Warlpiri. I am telling you all this to help dispel the myth that Aboriginal languages are anachronistic relics that only serve to hold Aborigines back and have no intrinsic value in the modern world.

In my submission to this inquiry, which you would have there, I did not mention that I had the great fortune to grow up multilingual. I learnt to read and write in my second language, and English is my third language. There are a great many Aboriginal people who are multilingual. Far fewer of them are multiliterate. Anyone with the great fortune to know more than one language can tell you how this has enriched their life and so much more if they are multiliterate. The Australian nation does not have the right to deny multilingualism and multiliteracy to Aboriginal children, yet that is what current policies from the federal government and the NT government are doing, either by intent or out of ignorance.

Aboriginal languages are perceived as an impediment to scholastic, social and economic achievement rather than celebrated and valued as part of Australia's society's rich and diverse multicultural heritage. It makes me think of the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi: 'You don't know what you've got till it's gone.' That will do as an introduction.

CHAIR: Matthew and Donovan, would you like to make a statement?

Mr Egan : Yes. As a Warlpiri man, I learnt both Warlpiri and English in the 80s. In our Walpiri schools in Yuendumu we learnt Lajamanu and Nyirripi. We had bilingual programs in Yuendumu which started in 1974. Everyone was happy for their children to learn in our own language and to learn to read and write in Walpiri. It was easy for all the little children to start in Walpiri. And, as they went up through the grades learned more and more English, easily. Everyone in this community who went through bilingual programs speaks English quite well—for instance, me. I speak and write in Walpiri and I also read and write in English. Both languages are really important but we really want our children to keep up their Walpiri language and to learn and read in Walpiri first. There are lots of words and there is lots of grammar and knowledge in Walpiri books that we want them to learn in Walpiri first. Otherwise, English starts to take over in their minds. That is why they have Kriol. We want our Walpiri people to speak Walpiri and English.

We have so much Walpiri knowledge about our country, plants, animals, water, soakages and our Dreaming, which we need to pass onto our children. When they learn mainly in English, their Walpiri gets weaker; they do not understand all the people talking. It makes us sad and it makes them feel sad and lost.

CHAIR: Thank you, Matthew. Donovan?

Mr Rice : I grew up in Yuendumu, learning both in Walpiri and English. I work in the language centre in Yuendumu, and my main work is translating and recording stories for new books. I have brought some of them here for you to maybe check out later. They are in language. When I was growing up, since I was in preschool, there were two teachers, a European and a Yapa—an Aboriginal—and they both helped, in my opinion, in my education. I think Walpiri language is a vehicle to move me further towards where I need to go, even in learning different languages such as English. Language keeps me grounded, it gives me identity and a sense of belonging, because I know where I stand, and it gives me a strong sense of pride.

I had the opportunity to pick up the English language as I was growing up in the school. I learned both ways, English and Walpiri. I can read and write in both English and Walpiri both, so it helps me to learn both ways, to fit into both cultures, English and Walpiri. I think it helps. I think it is important, especially in younger children because they soak up knowledge very quickly. Especially when they have English coming in and they do not know much about this new language, they have to be slowly fed knowledge. I think the Walpiri language is the way to help them learn about with English—using both as a way of gaining knowledge, growing up strong and grounded. It helps them get to where they want to go in life. So I think it is important that we keep both languages. That is what we had when I was growing up in Yuendumu.

CHAIR: Thanks. Can I pick up something that both Frank and Donovan talked about. You can both answer if you wish. You talked about the link, the positive advantages, between English competency and the other thinking, reasoning and skills that come with learning Indigenous languages. Could you talk about the linkages there?

Mr Baarda : Worldwide there have been lots of studies that indicate all sorts of advantages to being multilingual. I had the great fortune of actually growing up that way. To deny multilingualism to anyone in the world when the possibility exists to give that blessing to a child then it is an absolute crime or a missed opportunity or whatever you want to call it. When it comes to trying to tell bureaucrats or politicians that this is important, they say, 'But there are so many languages. Where are you going to get the teachers and where are you going to get the linguists from?' That is always there.

When the bilingual education program started in Yuendumu in 1974, they did not have any qualified bilingual teachers. One very important principle that has to be kept in mind is that an unqualified vernacular speaker is far more able to impart knowledge to a child than a very qualified foreigner. That to me is so simple and yet bureaucrats will not accept that. When it comes to, for instance, employing Aboriginal teachers, they put the bar up more and more. Now to become a qualified teacher in the Northern Territory you have to firstly be very proficient in English. There are very few Warlpiri people at Yuendumu that have gone through secondary education, which is a prerequisite if you want to do a university teaching degree. If only they had seen the sensible thing: these people can speak the language the children can understand so that has got to be worth something. That has got to be worth a hell of a lot more than these alternatives.

Very recently the Northern Territory government announced they were going to allow people to teach in Northern Territory schools and all they need is a university degree. They will not even have to be qualified as teachers. In a place like Yuendumu, is a university degree qualified person that has never taught in this life more capable of imparting knowledge to these children? Another argument keeps popping up from people right at the top of the Northern Territory education department. They say things like, 'They can learn Warlpiri at home.' Hang on, what does this mean? Learn Warlpiri at home? No.

If I may indulge myself, I would like to give you a hypothetical example. It goes like this: just imagine that in the Second World War the Japanese had won. There is a little school of Australian English-speaking children in western Victoria, in Casterton, and the Japanese have taken over the education system. In walks Matsumotosan. He has got all these little children lined up on their first day of school. They have been hunted to school because if they do not go, their parents are going to lose their entitlements to Centrelink. So then this guy walks in and says [Japanese language not transcribed]. These little children have not got a clue what he said and all he said was, 'My name is Matsumoto.' Then he proceeds to give them a lesson in phonics—reading and writing. Those kids are going to go home at night and their mothers and fathers are going to say, 'How did you go at school today?' They are going to say, 'Not all that crash hot. We didn't have a clue what the teacher was saying.'

When I tell people this, they come up with this business of: 'But that's not the same.' I say to them, 'No, think about it. It's exactly the same as what's happening to these little Warlpiri kids out at Yuendumu.' They pick up English fairly quickly. They have got the television, they have got the shop keepers, they have got the police. Everybody there talks English at them. So, lo and behold, by the time they are about eight years old their English is good enough to start to understand what Professor Matsumoto is talking to them about, but they have lost two valuable years of schooling. Their scholastic and intellectual development has been held up for those two years. Only the really bright ones are ever going to catch up. They have been handicapped right from the word go.

Then in grade 3, what happens? Along comes the NAPLAN test. You have heard of NAPLAN testing, right? The third grade kids at Yuendumu fail dismally. Now, I am telling you that, if I went to Brunswick in Victoria and started asking a whole bunch of kids in Brunswick East Primary School questions in Walpiri, they would fail dismally, absolutely. They would get us absolutely nowhere. But it is not so much the failing. What is even worse—and this is something that I put in my submission—is that it is bloody cruel. These kids fail. They go home and they have failed. They have been told that they are pretty dumb. They cannot answer the questions. The next day, they do not feel like going to school. You see, the irony right now in Yuendumu is that those kids who are not going to school actually are starting to talk better Warlpiri than the kids that are and the kids that are are not learning to read and write, because they are still catching up with trying to understand what the teacher is talking about.

It is not just the language. It is not just the words. It is the context. This classroom is a completely alien environment. When we had the rapporteur for Indigenous rights from the United Nations visit Yuendumu, I was with the little party that went around. We walked into the classroom where there were all these little Warlpiri kids. This was not long after the 'four hours English-only' policy was instituted. There were these little Warlpiri kids, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kids, with the white teacher. On the screen was this interactive modern thing. We never had those when we were kids, but there it is—flash. Happy Little Dolphin, for goodness sakes. These kids had no hope of knowing what a dolphin was, for starters. If had it had been the happy little yinalingi, the echidna, their attention might have been a bit more like: 'Yes, wow. We know about yinalingis, yes.' But, no, it was Happy Little Dolphin, all in English. These kids managed to turn around and say, 'Good morning,' to the special rapporteur. But, hey; hang on. Were these kids getting full value? Were they being educated? Were they learning things?

Then whenever people talk about this they say, 'But they have to learn English.' Nobody is arguing against 'but they have to learn English.' Politicians go up to Warlpiri people and say, 'Do you want your kids to talk English and to learn English?' The answer is always: 'Yes, absolutely.' But that is the wrong question. 'Do you want to learn English at the expense of your Warlpiri?' would have been a question that might get a slightly different—

CHAIR: It is not either/or. It is and/and.

Mr Baarda : Absolutely.

Dr STONE: That is the nature of our inquiry.

CHAIR: That is the nature of our inquiry.

Dr STONE: You are teaching to the converted. That is what the inquiry is all about.

CHAIR: We agree.

Mr Baarda : No, I am not preaching. I am getting this into Hansard. That is what I am going to.

CHAIR: We get you, Frank.

Mr HAASE: There are too many questions. I just think your point is well made and should be well taken and the inherent negatives or hurdles thrown up by bureaucrats that you mention are spot on the money. The question is constantly asked and the argument is constantly made—and I am guilty of it personally, and I am not bilingual of course. I think we have resources and if we are going to deploy those resources for the best possible outcome, we ought to teach English, and language ought to be taught at home. That is a natural monolingual thinking person's view, and you illustrate the wrongness of that very well, I think.

Mr Barda : When you talk about funding, I have got some other little notes about that very same thing—but I want to let the others have a go as well.

Mr HAASE: $1,200 will buy a lingual system, I imagine.

Mr Egan : Yes. All we ask is for the government to give us back our bilingual. The government wants to work together with Aboriginal people to close the gap. I have worked as the liaison officer for the government, with FaHCSIA, for a year. I was the first Aboriginal worker in Yuendumu and I was a translator also. If the Aboriginal people and the government in the communities want to work together, all we ask is for them to give us back our bilingual.

Mr Rice : As you were saying, I think our language is important and should be recognised. It is part of who we are and only by recognition can we work together. As Warlpiri, like I said before, for our children growing up we are sort of in a foreign concept of a classroom. We would not know what to do unless we had a Warlpiri person standing there showing us what to do and what the European person is saying. Warlpiri is like a vehicle to learn a new language and I think only then if we can work together on that one part of what we are aiming for. I think that the proper recognition of our identity and language makes us strong and grown-up, knowing English and Warlpiri together. I think that the Indigenous language can assist in many ways such as in translation, because that is what I grew up on, especially the experience in the classroom of always having two people, a Kardiya—a European—and a Yapa—an Aboriginal person, a Warlpiri person. They were both there for me to make sure that I got the proper education in both ways. That has been an important thing in my growing up in both worlds, Warlpiri and English.

Dr STONE: Matthew, I hear what you have said a couple of times: bring back the multilingual regime or policy and that will be a good thing. But there are other elements as well that I would like you to comment on, such as the churn of teachers who come out to remote areas and do not typically stay very long, the difficulties with lots of the kids being on the outstations or the home stations and a long way from where there might be enough kids to be put together a secondary or primary school and the lack of preschool, and the lack of a balance between men and women teachers, whether they are teachers' aides or fully qualified teachers. As you know, at a certain age, boys are better to be taught by the men with the link in the cultural sensitivities. Could you comment on all of those elements as well? How are those overcome by the bilingual policy?

Mr Egan : I think that is why we need more Aboriginal teachers in our schools, so they can work together as assistant teachers. I have worked as an assistant teacher in a school in Yuendumu, and I have taught them with books like these ones I am showing the committee.

Dr STONE: They are vocabulary books?

Mr Egan : Yes, with pictures and all of that.

Dr STONE: When you say 'teacher's assistant', I think that is an excellent thing, but we also want as many Indigenous teachers as well as teachers' assistants, don't we? That is the point Frank was making about the Northern Territory changing its policy to that where you do not have to have a teaching qualification, just a degree. I think you made that point very well, Frank, but I am thinking about all of those other elements. What is your view about English ESL or TSL qualifications? Do you see those as an important adjunct to any new teacher coming to our remote areas to teach?

Mr Egan : Yes.

Dr STONE: Can you see an advantage if they have ESL or TSL training?

Mr Egan : I see it as very important for kids to learn English, but I would rather they learn Warlpiri first.

Dr STONE: So you have the kids when they come first to preschool or the first grade. They would be beginning in their home country language. Sometimes, if there are three or four different languages in the classroom, oops, they will have to manage that.

Mr Egan : Also, in preschool, they have assistant teachers.

Dr STONE: Yes, so it starts right back in preschool—

Mr Egan : Yes, from preschool.

Dr STONE: They are learning in their first language, which means that we have to have more of those sorts of books, doesn't it. We are going to have to do a lot more codifying or production of language into written form so the kids get the idea about the written.

Mr Egan : Yes. I went through it in the eighties. Then, after three or four years of schooling in Yuendumu, I came here to a boarding school, Yirara College.

Dr STONE: In your first couple of years before you went to boarding school, you were taught in Warlpiri?

Mr Egan : In Walpiri.

Dr STONE: Was that by Walpiri teachers' aides?

Mr Egan : Yes, by the teachers' aides, and English.

Dr STONE: Was that by a white teacher?

Mr Egan : Yes. It was a white, Canadian teacher.

Dr STONE: Canadian? Okay.

Mr Egan : Yes. It was in the eighties.

Mr Baarda : Was that the one that talked about how in hockey they use a puck instead of a ball?

Mr Egan : Yes, that was the one.

Mr Baarda : And then the whole class burst out laughing.

Mr Egan : Mr Weir.

Mr Baarda : Oh, no, that was another one. I was thinking of the Californian guy.

CHAIR: Frank, you pointed out how your son is multilingual and that he attributed his success in his computer skills—and now he is working for Google—to the advantages of being multilingual. Can you explore that. I know it is hearsay evidence, but what did he say?

Mr Baarda : You will be interested to know that my eldest son is called Donovan and that he is a contemporary of this Donovan here. I think he is a year older than you, isn't he?

Mr Rice : Yes.

Mr Baarda : They went to school together. My son eventually ended up at RMIT doing computer science and working for British Aerospace and all that sort of thing. Eventually he was recruited by Google because he had a website which was a wiki, or a swiki, in the days when nobody had heard of wikis or swikis. He was way out at the cutting edge and has stayed there. One time we were discussing this very thing and the fact that he grew up bilingually with Walpiri as a second language. In that sense, he parallels my own background in that I grew up with a second language and so on, and went to school and learned to read and write. He learned to read and write at a school where they had a bilingual program going and at that stage I think he was the only white kid in the class. So he learned Warlpiri by what they called immersion. When I discussed it with him at one stage he said, 'I think I have no problem with computer languages because I grew up with two vastly different languages.' In some ways that is what Donovan, here, has been saying: he grew up with both those languages and that has given him the confidence and so on, and that is why he is working in the school, the printery and all that. As a white kid my son had more opportunities than the average Yuendumu kid has. On the other hand they are both very comfortable with themselves. Multilingualism gives you an ability to think outside the box. Like I say, we multilinguals are very happy that we are, and we think it is very unfair that people should be denied that opportunity. That is a point I make all the time.

When it comes to the funding thing, which always pops up, not long ago Peter Garrett announced that they are setting aside $85 million to enforce the new school attendance regulations. That is a lot of money for a student who is not going to school. That kind of money could be spent on re-employing linguists at the school, for instance, and not having the printery at Yuendumu running out of funding every now and again—which it does. It is now funded, I believe, by WETT; it is funded by Aboriginal royalty money. Then you get other things: a hundred new houses for teachers in remote Aboriginal Australia. It just so happens that the Northern Territory department of education does not provide housing to locally recruited staff. That is all very well because that is an Australia-wide policy.

There is a big difference, though, if you happen to be in Casterton. I keep picking on Casterton because that is where my wife comes from. If you are in Casterton, you get posted to that place, where Mr Mutsumoto would have gone if Japan had won the war, and what do you do? You go to a real estate agent and you can choose between 20 and 30 houses that you can rent or buy, or whatever. In Yuendumu that choice does not exist. So this little furphy of 'Oh, no, we don't provide housing for local recruits' is just a cop-out.

It has just been announced that under the Stronger Futures initiative we are going to get 100 more residences for teachers. That means 100 more white teachers. Those houses are going to cost about 400 grand a piece, so that is $400,000 by 100. You work it out; it is so many million. There is $85 million to fund the school police to hunt kids to school. Whatever is being taught in the school, never mind. There is that business about: 'We haven't got the funding.' Hang on—linguists and resources for language centres are peanuts compared with the amount of money they spend on policing.

CHAIR: It is a matter of priorities.

Mr Baarda : Absolutely. It is not just about priorities; it is about understanding how terrific these languages are.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for coming such a long distance. We appreciate that very much. A copy of your evidence, a transcript of it, will be on the committee's website. If there are any inaccuracies there, or things that need to be changed, please let us know.

Mr Baarda : Things that I wish I had said!

CHAIR: Put it in writing and send it to us!

Dr STONE: And if t you feel that your submission—

CHAIR: You can make an addendum to your submission.

Dr STONE: Yes, you can do that.

CHAIR: We will now suspend the committee.

Mr Baarda : There is something that I would like to ask. This is a submission that was made by a group of Yuendumu people, 71 of them in fact. It has all their signatures. They submitted this to the Senate inquiry on the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill. It deals almost exclusively with the language theme. The committee have ignored it; there is nothing in the Senate report that indicates they have taken any notice at all. The Stronger Futures legislation does not have the term 'Aboriginal language' in it, by the way—I did a search and I could not find the term—though it often mentions alcohol and whatever else. If I could resubmit the submission to your guys—

CHAIR: Yes, that would be fine.

Mr Baarda : Can I say one more thing?


Mr Baarda : I believe the Menzies School of Health did a study. One of the things that was in that little study was that Aboriginal youth who still spoke their own languages were far less likely to become dependent on alcohol and drugs. How that works, do not ask me. But I think it is an important thing to take into consideration.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I declare the meeting suspended.

Pr oceedings suspended from 14 : 52 to 15 : 07