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

CAMPBELL, Ms April, Private capacity

CAREW, Ms Margaret, Project Officer, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education

[10:26]

CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for being so patient and for taking the time to come here today to give us evidence. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Campbell : I am an Anmatyerr woman. I am from the Ti Tree community. Ti Tree is about 200 kilometres north of Alice Springs. I work at the school as an assistant teacher. I am also a coordinator for the language and culture program at Ti Tree school.

CHAIR: Thank you, April. Margaret.

Ms Carew : I am a linguist by training, and my work at Batchelor has been in the language and linguistic section since 1997. Also, I currently work under an externally funded project, which is auspiced by Batchelor but is funded by the federal government's MILR program. It is a language documentation project. In that capacity, I work closely with April and other members of her community.

CHAIR: Before we proceed to questions, perhaps you would like to give us a bit of background. Margaret, you mentioned the MILR program. How have you have experienced that? April, we are also interested in how you got to where you are and what your experience has been. Perhaps we will start with you, April.

Ms Campbell : I was working at the school and I wanted to be a teacher to teach my kids in language and culture. I was working really hard to do this Anmatyerr dictionary for the kids because there were no written Anmatyerr words on paper. We use a little bit less words and so we got this Anmatyerr dictionary for the kids. We started teaching language culture at the school. We take them out to the bush. And then this new program came up and we decided to do that. It was really important to teach it to the kids. It is like hand signing, the iltyemiltyem program. We have got a lot of children in our schools who could not understand, so we are always using hand signs for them in the classroom and stuff like that—even out in the bush, when we are taking them out.

CHAIR: Why is it that they 'could not understand', to use your words?

Ms Campbell : English is not their language. They can only understand their own language, Anmatyerr. Some kids can understand and some cannot, so we use iltyemiltyem for them—that means hand signs—so they can understand. Also, it is important for them to learn hand signs because in their culture we have big sorry business too. When somebody passes away we cannot talk, so we use hand signs. That is why we are teaching the younger generation that too.

CHAIR: Thanks, April. Margaret, can you tell us about your experience and, particularly, comment on the MILR program?

Ms Carew : Where to start! I came to Alice Springs as someone very interested in languages. I came from a fairly Anglo, monolingual background and I had had an introduction to the richness of language in the more remote parts of Australia through my university studies. That is the path my life took. I was fortunate enough to get a job at the Batchelor Institute and I moved to Alice Springs and began teaching. I have taught in the higher ed programs in their various manifestations since then. I had a break from work and when I came back to work in 2006 we also had VET certificate I and certificate II in Own Language Work, which was designed for the training of people who were working in bilingual schools, particularly literacy workers, and also for people who worked in language centres on various language documentation projects, where they needed to have some understanding of a range of skills—some to do with the development of literacy in their first languages—and also resource production. I taught that program for a while.

The context for the training changed quite dramatically with the demise of bilingual education, the decreasing capacity for the effective delivery of bilingual education in many places over quite a period of time and, I guess, the decline in the activities of language centres as well—the change in focus of the work of a lot of language centres. We wrote a new course, which was accredited last year, which is called certificate I and certificate II in Indigenous Language and Knowledge Work. It attempts to place the training and skills development of language work as much more in a project mode, in a collaborative kind of space where people are focusing less on written language and literacy development and more on community based intergenerational media-rich and language-rich activities that result in some kind of resource. Parallel to the development of that course, my colleagues and I worked with a number of language workers—including April, but people from elsewhere also in Central Australia—to apply to the federal government for additional funding to fund that type of work because we had noted that the language centre in Alice Springs had really declined in its capacity to support that kind of work, particularly in the remote area. When I say 'remote', I mean outside Alice Springs township. After a couple of years of trying, we were successful in getting funding to do a publishing project based around women's songs at Utopia and also a hand sign or sign language documentation project, which is called iltyemiltyem, which is what April mentioned earlier. Iltyemiltyem is a Anmatyerr word which means hand signs. It refers to the very important communication practice of using hand signs, sometimes independently of speech but more often it is aligned with speech. The model for our project is very much based around working with community language teams, with a focus on resource development and a broad range of skills related to what is required to develop a resource. Our iltymiltyem project is going to have an online dictionary and resources based around hand signs. Another really important aspect of this project is that it links to the work of researchers based at universities.

We have a partnership with Dr Jenny Green, who is based at the University of Melbourne. She is a linguist who has worked in Central Australia since the early 70s. She compiled the Anmatyerr dictionary and was responsible for the development of the picture dictionary series through IAD. Since completing her PhD a couple of years ago, she has continued to undertake research into various aspects of language in Central Australia. We also have a link with Dr Myfany Turpin who is a linguist who has worked the Kaytetye language group to the north of Alice Springs. Her specialty at present is as an ethno-musicologist. She is documenting traditional songs from Central Australia. One of the areas that she works with is at Ntarrengeny with a group of ladies there. Our project is funded to produce a book and a film based around those songs.

CHAIR: Do you have numbers of children you teach who have also got hearing loss? Are the hand signals important for those children?

Ms Campbell : There are about six kids in Ti Tree School who could not understand.

Dr STONE: Because of their hearing loss?

Ms Campbell : Yes, their hearing loss. We used hand signs for them so that they could understand what we were saying to them.

Dr STONE: You are clearly endeavouring to continue to teach strong traditional language skills and culture, which is very commendable. We understand why you are saying that is so important. Is that going hand in glove with the same children becoming competent in English so that they can work in whatever area or whatever world or work cross-culturally if they choose?

Ms Campbell : Yes. Some kids learn through hand signs first and they feel confident to speak English. We have some kids who went to Sydney and did not know how to speak English, so we used to use hand signs in the classroom. Now they are really confident, and they went to a Sydney school. They are already doing year 12.

Dr STONE: So you build their own sense of self-worth and confidence through using their own language and that builds them to be able to speak English confidently. You are saying that one proceeds the other?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Dr STONE: In your course training, did you have TSL or ESL, English as a second language, type training as well?

Ms Campbell : Yes. I did training with Margaret and got a certificate for it.

Dr STONE: In TSL?

Ms Campbell : Yes. And for my own language course. I got a certificate for it too.

Dr STONE: Was that a useful course to do?

Ms Campbell : Yes, very useful and really helpful for me.

Dr STONE: Would you recommend all teachers and teachers' aides who work in communities where there is still strong traditional language to have that ESL or TSL background?

Ms Campbell : Yes. What is really important is that sometimes we gather at our big conference. We always encourage each other to show presentations about what we are doing in our schools. We help each other.

Dr STONE: Why do you think that men do not come forward as teachers' aides very often in schools, as Indigenous teachers' aides or teachers?

Ms Campbell : Sometimes we have a cultural background. If there are only girls working in the classes men feel shame and they are sometimes not confident.

Dr STONE: But then couldn't the men teacher aides or teachers work with the men or boy students?

Ms Campbell : Yes, they feel confident with working with young men and boys.

Dr STONE: But not with the girls.

Ms Campbell : Not with the girls.

Dr STONE: You are saying you really need about 50 per cent men, 50 per cent women teacher aides and teachers so they can work with both the boys and the girls in the classrooms. But we tend not to get the men coming through, do we?

Ms Campbell : No.

Dr STONE: Do you think that is a disadvantage then for some of the boy students, that they do not get their own community teachers coming through?

Ms Campbell : Yes, sometimes boys are missing out something important because we have not got a male teacher in our school. They still get it when we have language and culture, taking them out bush. We get men rangers. They feel confident and happy working with men.

Dr STONE: Right. Thank you, April.

CHAIR: It is a problem in other schools as well, particularly primary education, having enough male teachers.

Mr HAASE: Where did you first come into contact with English?

Ms Campbell : In 1979, I went to school in Ti Tree and it was only a caravan school. I learnt there. I was a bit ashamed to speak English, because I was really frightened in the school because it was not my language. I kept on going and my parents were just pushing me to go to school every day. Then I learnt English. I learned to feel confident to speak English now.

Mr HAASE: Can you give us a sense of the difficulties you had in dealing with teachers who only spoke Australian English and you having no knowledge of Australian English, how difficult was that for you to understand the lessons that were being taught?

Ms Campbell : At first, it was really hard for me. I could not understand English. My teacher used to sit down and do one on one with me. I learned slowly through reading books, reading out the words slowly. I was still scared, because I was scared I might make a mistake and I might get into trouble with the teacher. I tried harder. I was still trying hard.

Mr HAASE: Do you recognise anything special about your parents at the time, that they wanted you to persevere and learn English, and our understanding that there are so many Indigenous parents that do not focus on the necessity for their children to attend school regularly? Was there a difference? Is there something that you can find in essence that your parents wanted you to go to school?

Ms Campbell : Yes, my parents wanted me to go to school, because they had never been to school. They were just working at the station, but they learned English by speaking to the station managers. So they were my role model. I used to watch them speaking to station managers, going to work and speaking this new language, English. I learned by that.

Mr HAASE: Did your parents think there might have been employment for you speaking English at the station at that time?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Mr HAASE: So eventual employment might have been their motivation to push you into regularly attending school?

Ms Campbell : Yes, because the station manager used to put us on a bus. We used to go to the school in Ti Tree town—make sure we go to school.

Mr HAASE: We need more like you, April. The hand signals you are speaking of—I do not know the communication you are referring to—is it Indigenous or is it mainstream hand signalling.

Ms Campbell : It is Indigenous.

Ms Carew : It is traditional. They use it for sorry business.

Ms Campbell : Hand signs. Yes.

Mr HAASE: I thought you might have been talking about Australian—

Ms Carew : AUSLAN.

Mr HAASE: AUSLAN mainstream.

Ms Carew : It is different.

Mr HAASE: Thank you very much, April.

Ms GRIERSON: April, I am sorry we cannot go to Ti Tree school. It would have been very interesting for us. We did go to Utopia school yesterday. They had a young man who was training as a teacher aide and working as a teacher aide, but they had separate classes—boys classes, mens classes and girls classes. Does Ti Tree have gender based classes?

Ms Campbell : We used to have it for a long time. This year we have a man teacher. Those young men stayed and came back again. Last year our kids dropped down. We only had 50 or 40 kids in the school. There were no young men, no 15-, 16-, 13-year-olds used to come to school, especially boys.

Ms GRIERSON: Because there was not a man teacher?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Ms GRIERSON: That is interesting.

Ms Campbell : So this year we have a man teacher. We have a lot of kids now, nearly 100.

Ms GRIERSON: It is a bilingual school?

Ms Campbell : It is not a bilingual school.

Ms GRIERSON: It is not a bilingual school. But does the principal encourage languages?

Ms Campbell : Yes, the principal encourages us to do language and culture with them.

Ms GRIERSON: So it is not a formal bilingual school, but it does happen?

Ms Campbell : Yes. It is not a bilingual school.

Ms GRIERSON: I think yesterday when we saw Utopia School the message was: 'We are a self-contained community. We want to be self-sustaining. There are wonderful opportunities for young people if we respect their language and their want for training and employment in their own communities.' Would that be the same at Ti Tree? At the Ti Tree School and in the community do people want to stay there, do they want to have opportunities through losing their own language and culture?

Ms Campbell : Yes, well, everyone in the community is really happy because we have about six young men going to Sydney. We are encouraging them to finish their study. We want to see them working at the school.

Ms GRIERSON: Do they come back? Do they go away and come back?

Ms Campbell : Yes. They come back for Easter. In July they come back for holidays.

Ms GRIERSON: April, did you train at Alice Springs, at the Batchelor Institute?

Ms Campbell : Yes, I took my training at Batchelor.

Ms GRIERSON: Were you given support to stay here and live here while you did that?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Ms GRIERSON: Did you stay at the accommodation that Batchelor provided?

Ms Campbell : Yes.

Ms GRIERSON: Was that okay?

Ms Campbell : Yes. Sometimes it is a problem when you are bringing your family with you. You have to find somewhere else to stay.

Ms GRIERSON: I am sure it is very difficult. At Ti Tree School, can you see young people who you would want to encourage to do that, who you would want to see go on to become teachers? Do you identify the ones who you think have that potential?

Ms Campbell : There is my little brother, close to Sydney. He tried to stop back. We encourage him to go back. We keep on pushing him to be a teacher or health worker at the community. We have some of the young men working at aged care, looking after the elders and stuff like that.

Ms GRIERSON: Do you use the dictionary that you spoke about before? Is the dictionary used in the school?

Ms Campbell : Yes, we always use dictionaries—picture dictionaries and other big dictionaries.

Ms GRIERSON: And song books? Do you have a song book or do you just teach it by doing?

Ms Campbell : Yes, we have song books.

Ms GRIERSON: I think that is very exciting. Margaret, you mentioned the demise of bilingual education. What was the reason for that—policy or funding or something else?

Ms Carew : There have been a couple of critical moments that have, I guess, gone down as historical points in which bilingual education has not been supported by policy. One of those was in 1999, when the end of bilingual education was announced. There was a bit of a fight back by a number of schools and a lot of advocacy for it. Then it was allowed to continue, however in rather strange circumstances. There was a very famous announcement by Marion Scrymgour in 2008 which came out with the four hours of English a day. This was taken as the end of bilingual education because it meant that English-only instruction was really important in the first four hours of the day. A lot has been said about that.

My own perspective is that there was a burgeoning of bilingual education in the seventies and eighties. It was a time when the whole idea of bilingual education was on the rise. There was a fair bit of support for it. I think the Territory government tolerated it and the federal government supported it. Batchelor Institute in those years really rose to prominence on the back of bilingual education. It would not really have become what it is if it were not for bilingual education, and that is because there was a teacher education program called RATEP, which was federally funded and funded quite well. Batchelor had a large number of education staff in those years who were involved in teacher training through this RATE Program. There are a number of people out there still—Indigenous women in the main, but there were a few men—working in schools such as Maningrida and Yuendumu and a number of other places which I do not know so well. They are ageing now and there is not anyone coming up behind them.

There are a few reasons for that. One is that the National Training Framework that came in in the late nineties, and that was the start of a real standardisation of education—higher education and VET. The RATEP curriculum did not have a place in the National Training Framework and it fell away. Batchelor was not able to respond with something else. Those people who once would have trained as teachers under RATEP then went on to train as Indigenous education workers, not teachers. They were doing certificate III and IV level training there and getting paid at a very low level compared to what a teacher gets paid and having much less say in the school and less status and so on. Obviously the counter argument to people who say that is a problem is that a lot of Indigenous people—while they are part of their community and fluent speakers of the language and there for the long term compared to a lot of teachers who come and go—did not have the literacy levels required to be able do a higher education level course like a bachelor of education.

Dr STONE: You would suggest that there needs to be more flexibility in some of our curriculum and training requirements?

Ms Carew : It would be good to see if that were possible. I am not from an education background. I have got a dip ed but I have never worked as a teacher and I have never worked in schools and I have never been involved in teacher education. I am not really qualified to comment, but my own perspective is that I believe a lot of schools work along a kind of—sorry for the informal jargon—'alien spaceship' model: the school is in the community and school stops at the gate; kids come through that gate and they are in another world. I think there is a lot more scope for much more community development.

Ms GRIERSON: We went to a school yesterday that is not a formal bilingual school but, because of the quality of the community and the principal and their ability to work together, it has understood and respected language. The results speak for themselves. Is that the direction that should be explored and continued or should it be mandated that all schools in the Northern Territory are bilingual?

Ms Carew : It terms of an instructional model, there have been schools which were bilingual. I would suggest that the success of implementation has been patchy at best. I think there were successes in the early years of bilingual education, but bilingual education only ever reached a subset of the schools in the Territory.

Ms GRIERSON: Can I suggest to you—and I am trying to lead you a little bit—that if things are mandatory then they are usually resourced. If they are not mandatory then they are not resourced. Perhaps one of the reasons for mandating and making it formally required is that it is recognised and approved for resourcing. It is wonderful to see schools that are taking this upon themselves and doing what comes naturally to the community and therefore advancing all of the education competencies and skills of young people without language being a barrier. But I know that the resourcing of it—developing a film, a dictionary, a song book, all those things—takes a lot of effort and that it is generally voluntary from people like April, who do it as an extension of their work. I ask you again: do you think it should be mandatory?

Ms Carew : I cannot give you a yes or no answer, I'm sorry. One thing to consider here is that these communities exist in dynamic, multilingual language contact environments. There is a risk of language purism coming into play, and I think that is a real risk to any kind of effective engagement with the actual ways that people use their languages.

Ms GRIERSON: That is a good point. April, I am absolutely fascinated by signing. I am a former principal of a mainstream school, with hearing units, where the whole school learnt signing—it was not just the kids with a hearing impairment but everybody in the school who learnt signing as a second language—so I find it strange when people resist the teaching of two languages at once, because it is a wonderful thing. Knowing the problem with hearing impairment amongst some Aboriginal kids, it is wonderful to see this signing. I have not seen it anywhere else; have you seen it used anywhere else?

Ms Campbell : Yes, a lot of schools are doing it.

Ms GRIERSON: Is it standardised or is it different in every community?

Ms Campbell : Some hand signs are similar in each language groups.

Ms GRIERSON: That is fascinating. Thank you, very much.

CHAIR: I have three questions for you Margaret, to finish up. I was going to ask two of these questions of the Central Land Council, who gave a submission to us, but perhaps you might be in a position to comment. I will quote from their submission; feel free to respond with a yes, a no or a comment. They say:

In 2008, in response to the poor NAPLAN results of students in remote NT schools, the NT Government announced that the first four hours of instruction in NT schools would occur in English. This effectively spelt the end of bilingual education in NT Government Schools.

Was it as a result of poor NAPLAN testing? Was it a fair and accurate comment?

Ms Carew : I think it is an oversimplification of the actual social processes that are involved. It is hard to say. Marion Scrymgour in a recent response to a particular article actually denies that that is what the intent of that announcement was. I think that, politically, the whole bilingual education question is a very fraught discourse. It is not something that I have been particularly involved in. I have worked at Maningrida and have observed the school in action in the nineties and more recently, and I have seen a massive change in the capacity of what you would call bilingual education, basically where first language is the medium of instruction. I have also worked with people where there are schools in communities that have never had any bilingual education. It is a really complex area; I could probably talk at length, but I do not think that is what you want today.

Dr STONE: What were you suggesting about Maningrida: that they had poorer outcomes now than before or better?

Ms Carew : I cannot talk about educational outcomes; I can talk about the adults that I know who are language speakers who are involved in the school and the way that I have seen them operate. What I am really seeing is that back in the nineties there were a number of people who were trained teachers or about to be qualified teachers through the RATE program at Batchelor who had a central place in a school. I have also seen the—

Dr STONE: You are saying they don't have now.

Ms Carew : No. The couple there are getting almost to retirement age and there is no-one who has come up behind them except the assistant teachers. A fabulous irony that I observed involved a woman I know, who has never been a qualified teacher but who has worked for many years, since the late sixties, as a literacy worker. She is a highly fluent writer of her first language and a fluent speaker of course of a number of languages of the area. She qualified a couple of years ago through Batchelor as a Certificate III as an Indigenous education worker. I thought there was a kind of sad irony in that that is about as far as she has got, and she does not even live in Maningrida anymore; she lives in Darwin. So there has been a disenfranchisement.

CHAIR: The second thing is the Central Land Council, in their submission, talk about the fact that there is criticism of bilingual education on the basis that it is at the perceived expense of English language development but in fact the major aim of bilingual education is to improve English language outcomes. Would you like to comment on that.

Ms Carew : I can comment to a point. I think there are stated aims and how things work in practice. I think there has been very little research done on how bilingual programs actually did perform. It is easy to talk about what it is meant to do as if that is what it does. I hesitate to make these blanket generalisations. However, I do believe there is an ethos in mainstream Anglo culture in Australia, which Sharon referred to, that to learn another language causes some kind of problem in your brain and there is a conflict. What we are talking about here are multilingual environments, and a lot of the professional staff who come to work in these environments do not quite get multilingualism because they are not multilingual people.

CHAIR: The final thing I want to ask you about is the Master-Apprentice program and the merits of it. Are you in a position to comment on that? Are you involved in that at all?

Ms Carew : I am involved in it. Bachelor hosted a Master-Apprentice training workshop a couple of weeks ago here. I think the program has merit. I think it is a bit early to say now what the merits are. Again, these things need evaluation and research to really be commented on. What I saw was a roomful of people come together and create a network. If the kind of advocacy and networking of key people involved in language advocacy, language maintenance, language idealisation can be supported then there can be success there.

CHAIR: Thank you, Margaret and April for your time here today.

Pr oceedings suspended from 11:03 to 11:15