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

CASTLE, Mrs Dominique, Principal, Alice Springs Language Centre

SMITH, Miss Margaret, Assistant Teacher, Alice Springs Language Centre

ZERK, Miss Tanya, Assistant Principal, Alice Springs Language Centre


CHAIR: Thank you for coming. We appreciate you taking the time to come here. Please note, everything that is said must be factual and honest. Would you like to make a brief introductory statement before we start?

Mrs Castle : The Alice Springs Language Centre first opened its doors in 1989. The main role of the Alice Springs Language Centre is to deliver languages to all government schools in Alice Springs. There are four main languages that we deliver at primary and middle school. They are Arrernte—which is the local Indigenous language of Alice Springs and is priority number 1—Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian. At the senior level, as well as those languages, we deliver French and sometimes Spanish.

We teach approximately 2,050 students per week. Of those, 850 are students or children learning the Arrernte eastern central language. The Alice Springs Language Centre took over the Arrernte language back in 2005. We decided that it should be a priority language in Alice Springs and that it should be the first language we look at. We started recruiting Indigenous teachers and Indigenous assistant teachers who could speak, read and write the Arrernte language, as at that time there were only 3,000 Arrernte speakers in Central Australia and very few of them could read and write the language as well.

We recruited some Indigenous people, ladies. We trained a couple of them as teachers and Margot as the assistant teacher. We tried to talk Margot—Margaret—into becoming a teacher for many years but she does not want to; she is very happy being the assistant teacher. In 2005 we recruited a senior position at the Alice Springs Language Centre because we recognised that there were no resources to teach the Arrernte language in Central Australia and there was no curriculum or programming for it. That is where Tanya Zerk comes in and I will let her talk a little about what she does with the Arrernte school program.

Miss Zerk : Basically, my role is to work with the Arrernte ladies to program classes from transition through to year 9. In senior years there is a subject called Australian languages, which is run through SACE in South Australia. We teach that in years 11 and 12. Our students who decide to continue from year 9 into year 10 will jump into that stage 1 course. They have a pathway to move into there and continue with their language studies. It also gives students who have not learnt any language before or who are interested in the language and the culture an ability to jump in and learn about the Arrernte language and culture. I suppose, programming-wise, in middle years and primary, we program according to the Northern Territory curriculum framework. We use the second-language learning area as opposed to the Indigenous languages and culture program because the majority of the kids we teach are second-language learners of Central Eastern Arrernte. All our other languages are also based on second-language learning and we follow the same format when we program our classes.

Mrs Castle : I guess for us, the Arrernte program needs to be a little bit different from teaching Japanese or Chinese or any other language. There are not a lot of resources available so a lot of the resources are made at the language centre. Tanya does a lot of research into that and Margot and Kumalie make up a lot of these resources in order to be able to teach the Arrernte language in schools. A lot of the program is really hands-on because, as the ladies always tell us, it is more culturally appropriate to have the kids outside the classroom than inside the classroom. A lot of it is about culture and so, if they are studying about bush tucker or something like that, it is better to take them outside.

In 2006 or 2007 we had our first senior students in Alice Springs doing Australian languages with Tanya through SACE. All five of them did very, very well. One of them actually got a 20 out of 20, which I think for South Australia is like a perfect score. I always tell the story that the father of the girl met me at the Yeperenye Shopping Centre and said, 'Dom, I am really embarrassed that my daughter's name made it to the paper. I am really not happy that the language centre could do such a thing.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' and he said, 'She got 20.' 'Yes,' I said, 'she got 20 out of 20! That is like saying 100 out of 100.' 'Aahh,' he said, so they were really happy. We have the Minister's Award after year 12 here in Central Australia and the whole family turned up to see this young girl receive her award, because she had got 20 out of 20 in Australian languages, which was fantastic.

But there are other things we do—and I will ask Margot to talk about that. A lot of teaching is done in the INU units, which are Indigenous units in all the primary schools. It actually helps the kids to settle in or enables them to use their language with a teacher who is the speaker of Arrernte. I might just ask Margot to talk a bit about what she does, because it would be awful if we went back and she did not say anything.

Miss Smith : I was quite happy with that. I am the Arrernte teacher at the language centre. I deliver Arrernte from transit into year 6 including what Mrs Castle just said, the Indigenous unit. We also teach students at the Amoonguna community just out of Alice here through the IDL centre that we have with the language centre, and we do about half an hour communication with Arrernte. The kids love it with the TV and everything.

I also teach and assist with the middle school with years 7, 8 and 9 with the other Arrernte teacher, Kumalie, who could not be here today because she is not well. I also teach Arrernte evening classes to adults and anyone who wants to come and learn a bit about the Arrernte language. The people who do come along work in the hospitals and schools and Indigenous organisations around town. They probably just want to learn a bit about Arrernte. That is pretty much it.

CHAIR: I am interested in how the kids respond to Arrernte compared to, say, Indonesian. I presume there are not too many Indonesians living in Alice Springs, necessarily. How do the kids respond to Indonesian and how do they respond to their native language here? Do they respond differently and, if so, how?

Mrs Castle : I would like Margot and Tanya to elaborate on it, but one of the elders from one of the communities around Alice Springs once stopped me at the supermarket and said, 'This little blonde, blue-eyed girl just said "werte" to me, and it was amazing.' She said, 'I got a wonderful feeling, because it's taught at all primary schools.' I think it is very, very good. It does help with our non-Indigenous children getting a glimpse of the local Indigenous culture. I think it is very important. That is why Arrernte is a priority language for us. There can be a lot of racism in Alice Springs, and I think it is really good for Indigenous teachers to be teaching it in our schools and to have a senior teacher who is planning and making sure that it is in the program at the same level as Indonesian, Japanese or Chinese and not just, 'Well, let's talk about the hunters and gatherers.' No, they actually are learning the language, just as they would be learning Japanese.

CHAIR: I ask that question because one of my daughters did Indonesian at high school and she is currently studying it at university, and for her it is a foreign language; she speaks English at home. But do the kids respond differently when they are learning their Indigenous language?

Miss Zerk : Are you talking about kids who actually speak that language?

CHAIR: Yes, exactly. Do they respond differently? Is it something that they embrace more readily than, say, Indonesian, for example?

Miss Zerk : My personal opinion is that it is just like any other language class. You have the kids that love it and are good at it and really enjoy it and do embrace it, and then you have the other kids—'Oh, this is my language; I already know all this.'

CHAIR: Like maths, science and history.

Miss Zerk : Yes. So it is just like any other classroom environment, I would say. However, I suppose that where that changes is when you move up into senior and then they are making the choice to take on that language. I have kids in senior who absolutely love doing languages and do embrace their language and culture and think that it is really important. But then again you get that in middle years as well, don't you, Margot?

Miss Smith : Pretty much the same—and primary.

Miss Zerk : Because you do have a mixture of kids that are learning it from scratch and kids that know it, that is where I think Indigenous teachers are really important, because they can extend those kids who do have that language base and speak to them in language and extend them, as opposed to the other kids in that classroom as well.

Mrs Castle : The other thing for the Indigenous child, who maybe is not doing so well in literacy, numeracy or whatever, is that the ladies come in and they are teaching Arrernte, and they are actually having success at something. For that one hour, they are king of the class, which is very good.

Dr STONE: How do the schools go about selecting a language to be taught? Do they do some sort of referendum amongst their parents and say, 'This year we can do Indonesian, Japanese or Arrernte'? How does that work? Do the students have a choice of language? Do some of the Arrernte speakers get to choose Indonesian instead? What is the focus on the actual literacy part of the language learning when it comes to Arrernte?

Mrs Castle : In the middle years—years 7, 8 and 9—students choose what language they want to do. Amazingly enough, the numbers of years 7, 8 and 9, compared to the other languages, are much higher for Arrernte. So you have many more kids wanting to do Arrernte.

Dr STONE: These are Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids?

Mrs Castle : Maybe, I would say, a third. It is a good mix of non-Indigenous and Indigenous kids. In primary schools, all primary schools in Alice Springs want the Indigenous language.

Dr STONE: Do they?

Mrs Castle : Yes.

Dr STONE: State and independent?

Mrs Castle : We do not teach independent; we only teach state—government schools. Basically, the assistant principals will ring the language centre in about October-November and they will say, 'Look, we want to specially transition years 1, 2, 3 and 4 to do Arrernte, because we might have little kids that are coming off the community and we know that the ladies will be able to settle them in and talk to them,' or, 'We would like, say, Margot to have her recess as part of her teaching program with some of our new kids,' which seems to work. At the senior levels, of course, it is their own choice whether they do it or not.

Dr STONE: You are saying that at senior levels that was the 30 per cent. What numbers were you quoting for those choosing Indigenous?

Mrs Castle : That was middle school. In middle school it is a good half and half, would you say?

Miss Zerk : Would you have Indigenous kids whose first language is not central eastern Arrernte and who are also doing that class?

Dr STONE: Do you have many year 12 students? Can they take it as a year 12 subject?

Miss Zerk : Yes, of course. Basically, at years 11 and 12, it is Australian languages, which is not just learning the language; it is actually a study of Indigenous languages in general as well. There is a component where they have to learn language and they do an oral task. One of their other tasks, which I am working with them on at the moment, is to study a text and then look at the word order, at how it all works and everything like that, which is actually quite full-on. I have spoken to SACE about that, because it quite linguistic. Then they do a research topic.

Dr STONE: So are there many Indigenous students or non-Indigenous students doing that year 11-12 subject?

Miss Zerk : In year 12 this year I have five students doing that, which is quite a lot compared to what I have had in the past. I think a lot of kids maybe expect that that course will be something a little bit different from what it is. That is where that linguistic component is quite challenging for them, because the kids that want to do this are not the most academic students. They just want to be in there learning the language; not to then explain how the language works and all that kind of stuff. That tends to have an impact on whether we have larger numbers or not. Year 11 is usually quite good. Last year, I think we had 14 or 15.

Dr STONE: Margo, how do you teach these junior or just-commencing students with teaching materials? Have you made your own? I am talking about the books, the dictionaries, the reading materials and the vocab. How have you developed your reading materials for Arrernte? This is the literacy part. I can understand you teaching oral language, but I presume you are teaching the literacy as well in these courses?

Miss Smith : We do make our own resources at the centre. Then we take them to the classes.

Dr STONE: You make them yourselves?

Miss Smith : We make them ourselves and take it out and explain to the kids. In general, if we are reading a book it will be a normal English little story book, and, for whatever program we made, we can sometimes convert it to Arrernte and share that from the book and from their worksheet into Arrernte.

Dr STONE: Do you use the language centres: the Tennant Creek language centre or was it Katherine? The one we had evidence from earlier on: the Papulu Apparr-kari Language Centre. Tennant Creek. Do you use any of their materials?

Mrs Castle : No, because it is totally different language. Basically, the Alice Springs Language Centre—the model for us is basically for us to go out and teach. That is what we do. So we go out into the schools and we do it. This year, because we have a few non-native speakers working at the language centre—for instance, a Chinese, Japanese and an Indonesian—what we have decided to do to make it easier for the children, especially in primary school, is to use the big book. So we start with a book in English. It might be Wombat Stew. That is what Margot did last. So she will read them the story in English and the kids will get involved with everything, and then gradually that book will turn into Arrernte. She will look at the animals of Central Australia and what they are called. She will look at the colours. They will talk about maybe the seasons: the dry, the wet. The children will then make a mural about all the things that they have learnt in the book and everything will be in Arrernte.

Basically what we have found using that method is that, because most in primary schools are non-Indigenous, the kids are more willing to engage with the language.

CHAIR: Mr Haase?

Mr HAASE: Thank you. I am listening, not formulating questions. But I am very interested in knowing more about this whole question we have been analysing here today about the bilingual period versus the now four-hour English period. Dominique, do you know whether there is any moratorium in this regard, or is it gone and gone forever and that it is—close the door?

Mrs Castle : We are not really involved with this. Basically, we are a language centre and all we do is deliver languages, and that is it. We are not into the bilingual program. I was brought up in a bilingual system in Mauritius so I can answer for that, but I cannot really talk about the other because we really do not have any.

Mr HAASE: Does the Language Centre have anything to do with appealing to people who might go on and learn to teach or translate? Do you believe your impact in schools in any way leads to career opportunities for people in language? Might it be that your teaching of Arrernte in schools may result in an interest that sends a student to Batchelor? Have you any experience of that?

Mrs Castle : I think so.

Miss Zerk : I could probably say so. I have a couple of students at the moment. One is very passionate about language, and about central western Arrernte, even though that is not her first language. Her first language is English. Her father came from up north in Western Australia, but he is 'kuminjay' now. She loves it and is looking at going to university to become a teacher, and she would really like to come back to Alice Springs and work in that area. I have another student who is doing a school based apprenticeship with CAAMA. She has more of a grounding in the language. She understands the spoken level of language and she can speak a bit of language. She is working on her reading and written language and is getting quite good. She is certainly looking in that direction with CAAMA and maybe being able to use the language in that way.

CHAIR: Margot, what is your experience? You have obviously done some study?

Miss Smith : Sort of, kind of—not really. I learned as I went along. I have been working with kids for about 17 or 18 years. Like Mrs Castle said before—

Mrs Castle : Don't call me Mrs Castle; what is that?

Miss Smith : Sorry—just being professional! I think I have just been lucky in the field. I have been passionate about working with kids. After becoming a mum, I thought, 'That's it; no more teaching.' But, after 12 months, after the little one was born, I said, 'Okay, I'm going back to work with kids.' I think in my field I have just been lucky to work with kids. I never had the opportunity to study but I learned as I went along, getting great professional help and support from Tanya and Dom over the many years that I have been working with them.

CHAIR: Dom—I will call you 'Dom', not Mrs Castle—and Tanya, you might be able to help us. How can we improve teacher training in language in Indigenous communities? What can we do? You are both teachers. You are obviously both experienced; what are your observations?

Mrs Castle : I think that, first of all, you have to be lucky. I have always said that we need to clone Margot. She is an amazing teacher in the classroom and in the way she works with students. If I walk in to go and have a look to see what she is doing, it as always, 'Miss Margie, Miss Margie.' Watching Margot teach is like watching a television show. She is very good.

I also think that the Indigenous languages need to be taken very seriously. At the Language Centre we have decided that it will be a priority language, and Tanya has done a fantastic job with programming and curriculum. When you walk into the Language Centre, if you want you can pick up a Japanese program, but you can also pick up a very similar Arrernte program. I think it is very important to recognise that it is a language. On communities and even at the Language Centre, the ladies who come in to teach have to be trained. You have to work with them and support them. They know a hell of a lot. Also, we need to all work together to have a good work ethic. I think it is very important that we are at work all the time and we are teaching the kids and building relationships. That is what it is all about.

CHAIR: You mentioned before that just for an hour some child that might not be particularly academically gifted or doing particularly well could be king or queen for that hour. Have you seen any correlation between, say, the Indigenous language teaching, particularly here in Alice Springs, and the development of English proficiency and effectiveness? Do kids say, 'Oh, I worked that out there; that'll help me in my understanding here'?

Mrs Castle : I am very passionate about languages. I teach French and Indonesian, and for me it is very important. Learning another language is like a window to the world, and you do not have to carry a book; it is all up there in your brain. I think that for all children, whether they are learning an Indigenous language or another language—whatever it be—their literacy skills will improve, their grammatical skills will improve and their cultural knowledge increases. I think they are much more intelligent and sensitive human beings. Also, at the same time I think that you need to have teachers that know their stuff too—that know about grammar and know about the linguistic part of what makes a language or the culture. Watching Stephen Fry at the moment on Sunday night is excellent. But I might just pass that on to Tanya also, because she sees the other end. She is with the senior students, who are getting 19 or 20 out of 20 at year 12. What do you think?

Miss Zerk : With Australian languages, I have said it is very linguistic, so it can be quite difficult for the kids. But at the same time they are learning through being able to say, 'How does the language work?' and to say, 'Okay, with a sentence you have your subject, your object and your verb. In English it's this way. In Arrernte it's actually slightly different, the word order changes and it doesn't have to be exactly the same.' They start to understand, even with the simple things in year 7, that every Central/Eastern Arrernte word ends with an 'e'. They get that in their heads. Fantastic. That is the start of being able to do some spelling here, whereas it might be different in a different Indigenous language. When it comes to English, they can make that correlation: 'They use this word to mean these things; English uses many words to mean the same thing.' They start to maybe put the puzzle together. With my kids at the moment, I am saying, 'You look at the writing; you work out your puzzle; you go around.' I said, 'You know, when you have a puzzle you go around; you form the edges first because that's the easy part for you, and then you start to put the pieces together.' Yes, they are getting there. They are starting to understand: 'Okay, these are nouns, these are pronouns and these are verbs and adjectives that work slightly differently from English.' As they are learning the Arrernte, they are actually learning, 'Okay, that's how it works in English.' So I would say that it does help their literacy and their knowledge of that kind of stuff immensely. I think they get that in the middle years as well.

Mrs Castle : Currently we teach Indonesian to Wallace Rockhole School, which is about an hour away; it is near Hermannsburg. They have decided to learn Indonesian from us. What the teacher has noticed out there is that their English has improved because that is the common language that they are using as a medium language to communicate all this stuff. The teacher out there is saying the kids are asking a lot of questions and they are doing it in English. So the lesson is in English, they are learning another language and it is actually improving their literacy skills.

Dr STONE: Can I ask Dom, Margot or Tanya—whoever knows—how you fund it. Do the skills who request you to come and teach Arrernte or whichever language pay you a fee per child, or do you have a global budget which is not dependent on different schools asking you for different classes to be taught?

Mrs Castle : The Alice Springs Language Centre started 23 years ago, and the language centre has grown since then. It started with only two teachers, and it now has almost 13. We are all above establishment, so basically the schools do not pay anything. We are the language centre. We go out to the schools and we teach. We do not provide teachers with relief time, so when we go into primary schools the teachers are actually there learning with the students. In the middle school or in the senior schools, we are not relieving anybody; we are there in our own right teaching languages.

Dr STONE: So the usual class teacher is in the classroom with you when you are teaching?

Mrs Castle : Yes, in the primary schools, but in the middle school and the senior schools we are part of the timetable.

CHAIR: Are your teachers, in terms of their language, at a high level?

Mrs Castle : Yes.

CHAIR: You guys are really specialist language teachers?

Mrs Castle : With DET, we are just normal language teachers. We are not seen as specialist teachers or anything like that.

CHAIR: Your proficiency in that—say, Indonesian—

Mrs Castle : Yes, we are all fluent.

CHAIR: is so much better than, say, a year 11 or year 12?

Mrs Castle : Yes, because we teach right through. All of us will teach about 380 to 400 students a week. We are going from classes to classes. Tanya being the assistant principal of the language centre, her teaching load should be 12 hours, but it is not; it is 23. Mine should be eight, but it is not; it is 20. We are travelling all the time.

Dr STONE: How many schools do you service?

Mrs Castle : We have six primary schools. We do the School of the Air students from Katherine all the way down to the South Australian border, because we have IDL facilities at the language centre. Margot does Amoonguna, which is through IDL; Wallace Rockhole, through IDL; Tennant Creek, IDL; and then we do—

Dr STONE: IDL is School of the Air?

Mrs Castle : IDL is interactive distance learning.

Dr STONE: What about what we used to call School of the Air?

Mrs Castle : Yes, we used to go there but we do not now because, with federal funding, they gave us our beautiful language centre. Every two years we used to move from one school to another and use up a couple of their rooms, but now we do not have to move any more because we have a brand-new language centre with IDL facilities.

We do the middle school. Languages in years 7, 8 and 9 are compulsory, so we teach all the students there. We also, starting next term, will teach at Acacia Hill School, which is the special school in Alice Springs. We do years 10, 11 and 12 at Centralian Senior College.

Dr STONE: I think you are unique. I cannot think of any comparative model in any of the states. Can you think of any in the states?


Dr STONE: I think it sounds brilliant. I wish I had one in my area—one of your clone centres!

Mrs Castle : It is really good. I think one of the main reasons that the language centre works is that all principals and all assistant principals really value languages in Alice Springs. At the moment we are stretched. We cannot offer them any more. They want more, but we just cannot.

Dr STONE: Are you the only language centre like this in the Northern Territory?

Mrs Castle : There is one in Darwin but it does not operate the way we do. Our sole purpose is to deliver languages into schools, whereas their main purpose is to deliver PDs for teachers.

Dr STONE: What is a PD?

CHAIR: Sorry, I did not quite pick this up. The federal government has provided a centre for you?

Mrs Castle : Yes.

CHAIR: Your recurrent funding?

Dr STONE: Are you paid by the Northern Territory?

CHAIR: The Northern Territory government?

Mrs Castle : Yes, by DET. We are teachers. We are employed.


Mrs Castle : Yes, the Department of Education and Training.

CHAIR: Of the Northern Territory.

Mrs Castle : You know Building the Education Revolution?


Mrs Castle : We got funded to get a language centre. It is marvellous, marvellous—what can you say?

CHAIR: What can you say about the BER? I am a great fan.

Mrs Castle : Yes, I am a great fan.

Mr HAASE: Just to clarify that: the students do not come to your centre, do they? You go to theirs?

Mrs Castle : We go, but we do have classes at the centre. We are based at the Centralian Middle School, so years 7, 8 and 9 will come down. We are not attached to any school. We get maybe $50,000, I think, per semester. We provide all our resources. We do study tours for our students. Every two years we take them to the country that they are studying. We do not pay for that, though we do subsidise our students. In May we have 32 students from years 9 to 12 going off to Japan. We do a lot for our language students, yes. But we would love a bit more funding, so if you could put that into your submission that would be great!

Dr STONE: Do you have equal numbers of boys and girls? First of all, how do male and female teachers at your centre divide up? Then, in the classrooms, with the older students who get to choose whether they do whichever language, are they equally divided between males and females?

Mrs Castle : Students, you mean?

Dr STONE: First of all, with the teachers in the centre, how many and what is the mix?

Mrs Castle : We have one male and the rest are females.

Dr STONE: Okay, I am not surprised. Tanya, what is the divide of girls versus boys when they get to senior levels?

Miss Zerk : At senior, specifically for Australian languages, they are all female; no males. I did last year have one male who was quite interested but then just dropped out halfway through. He had other stuff going on.

Dr STONE: We have a cultural problem, don't we, in relation to engaging males in education?

Miss Zerk : Yes. I think, if you had maybe some more male Indigenous teachers and assistant teachers, that would certainly help with male students.

Mrs Castle : I think it has to do with a lot of their cultural—

Dr STONE: I am sure it is, yes. Margot could tell us more, I am sure. It seems that our schools are the domain of women, particularly in the isolated regions, in terms of being teachers, TAs and so on—which is a problem if you are male, especially an older boy.

Mrs Castle : Margot does, as she said before, a lot of night classes for us as well, so we get a lot of people from the hospital—

Dr STONE: These are mature-age professional people wanting to have language; is that what you are saying?

Mrs Castle : Yes.

Dr STONE: And how do they pay?

Mrs Castle : Night classes are self-funded.

Dr STONE: So fee per course?

Mrs Castle : They pay, then we pay the teacher, and anything that is left over is like a big fundraiser for our study tours for students who cannot afford to pay, so we assist them in going overseas.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for coming. We really appreciate it. Good luck. You are doing very good work, obviously. A transcript of the evidence will be on the website. Please make any changes you wish if there are some inaccuracies there—let us know. Once again, thank you, Hansard, for being with us for the last few days and today. Well done.

Dr STONE: If there is additional evidence you want to submit, just feel free to do that, if there is something that you think of five minutes later to add.

Mrs Castle : We do not really know how our names got on this little committee thing.

Dr STONE: Your fame has come before you!

CHAIR: The committee secretary said it was through the Institute of Aboriginal Development.

Mrs Castle : We have never been invited to anything like this.

Dr STONE: It does fit in very much with our inquiry in terms of traditional language preservation and learning.

Resolved (on motion by Dr Stone):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 16:18