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Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs - 09/09/2011 - Language learning in Indigenous communities

McKINNON-KIDD, Ms Marianne, private capacity

CHAIR: Welcome.

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : My name is Marianne McKinnon-Kidd. I am a Dharug woman. I have connections to Gathang country as well. I am here in my capacity as an Aboriginal language teacher. I have taught the Gathang language to certificate II level, off campus but on country at Moorook, at Williamtown and at the Hunter River-Lake Macquarie language at Singleton to the Wonnarua people.

CHAIR: At TAFE?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : Through TAFE, yes?

CHAIR: Would you like to make a brief introductory statement?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : I have seen clear evidence that learning language has improved the self-esteem of the students. I believe that learning languages not only gives a sense of self and identity within the Aboriginal community; it is an acknowledgment within the wider community of the worth of the Aboriginal community.

CHAIR: Tell us about TAFE? You have worked in TAFE. Are there any TAFE accredited courses in relation to language?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : There is and the TAFE course at the moment is undergoing reaccreditation.

CHAIR: Is it an associate diploma? A diploma? A certificate?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : It goes to certificate IV level.

CHAIR: Having completed that course, what you qualified to do?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : I can only answer for myself. In 2009, I attended the University of Sydney and did a Master of Indigenous Languages Education. That gave me the qualifications to teach the language. The language? Whatever language, really. There are guidelines within the TAFE course for teaching the language, but actually delivering that teaching has come more from a collaborative effort with the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative at Nambucca who auspice the Many Rivers Aboriginal Language Learning Centre. They are the ones who were responsible for bringing out the Gathang dictionary and grammar book that Andrew showed you, as well as the Hunter River Lake Macquarie dictionary and grammar book. They worked on the Dunghutti and produce one also. The Sydney language, the Dharug language, is a little piecemeal. There is not a real resource or reference book. Or you can online access Jeremy Steele's master's thesis. You can online access Jacqueline Troy. There is a Dharug Dalang site that you can access a word list also.

The reason I am saying this is that I am teaching my students, part of the course that they are doing is to be aware of the other languages in the area. So we look at the phonology of the language that they are specifically learning, whether it is a Hunter Valley-Lake Macquarie language or the Gathang language, and we see how that compares with the languages around them and, knowing that there are similar words—whether it is 'maa' for hand or 'yalawa' for sit—makes the idea of learning that particular language a little less daunting. The way that they are being taught now in collaboration with Many Rivers and Muurrbay is through a very direct and very low-tech method. Muurrbay were influenced by Stephen Greymorning, who is an Arapaho teacher of language from America. They had discovered within their community that, although languages were being taught at school and the elders had language, the children were not coming home and speaking language. They realised that it was the way it was being taught—it needed to be more direct.

The way that Stephen Greymorning was teaching was the way we had adopted here for our Gathang language. Basically, the first lesson saw the students learning 16 nouns, the next lesson brought in verbs, and so on through to adjectives, so that you were actually building a sentence and learning the language in very much same way that you would have learned your first language. You were not worrying about looking at the written word until you were more familiar with the sounds of the words and associating them with the images. When you are looking at the written word of another language, you are immediately code switching with English, and that blocks the flow and ready take-up.

When a student is learning the word, the teacher points to the image and the student repeats after her. There is no English used. It is immersion. It is just the image and word. Here are a series of images. This is from the nouns.

CHAIR: That is a picture of a man.

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : Yes. So I say guri and the student repeats it, not looking at the teacher but looking at the image. You repeat it three times. The rest of the class is sharing in this also, so by the time each student has gone through they have heard the word about 60 times. Rote: they used it in the olden days when I was going to school, and it works.

The way that that particular method realised its intention is that by the end of the term the students are talking to each other in sentences that they are making up themselves. As you are teaching the words you are also teaching the grammar by repetition. So if guri is doing something then, with guri-gu, gu is your ergative, which says that this is the person doing it. That is enforced while you are teaching it, so you are teaching the grammar as well. You do have a written component as well, but that is so much easier when it comes after the speaking.

CHAIR: The federal member for Newcastle, a former school principal, is nodding her head sagaciously at your methodology. Does she have any questions?

Ms GRIERSON: I like the simple approach and, having heard some of the previous submissions about the difficulty of using symbols, the English symbols and words would absolutely clutter that learning. I missed the first part of your presentation. I do not know if you are of an Aboriginal background, whether you are just a linguist, or whether you are both.

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : I am Aboriginal. I am Dharug. Also, I have connections with Gathang as well.

Ms GRIERSON: Today we have seen lots of different approaches—very real approaches, very on-the-ground approaches, very intimate and personal approaches, through to reaching out all over the nation. Would you like to comment on the way to embrace all of those approaches, whether they work well and how we could enhance those.

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : Well, I can really only speak for my own approach. Initially my approach was different. Before we started to use the same approach that the Arapaho people are using and were memorising phrases, seeing them written down, having images with the word written underneath it, working with language circles and a whole lot of things like that, you were not remembering. You are not remembering in the same way that you were remembering when you have the image of the noun acting out the verb, then the adjectives to describe the person. I heard Andrew because we have a very wonderful relationship—teacher-student—but we do not know who does what. What I am doing with the students is encouraging them within the classroom to also teach—to take the role of teacher. They have all of the resources I have. They get access to those and have them for themselves. So my place might be surrounded with pictures. They too are taking it into their homes and into their communities.

Ms GRIERSON: Having been a teacher, we would look at children learning in a classroom and look at their preference for learning styles in terms of being an auditory learner or a visual learner, and of course good learners take their cues from everything. We heard from some of the presentations today of the need to capture facial expressions and gestures, which are as important as the sound. Would you agree that you are using visual and auditory in a way that is more relevant to the learners?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : Absolutely, and the fact that they are actually touching them gives them another way of having a relationship with that image and that sound.

CHAIR: When they have completed your course at TAFE and get the certificate, do any of those people go on to be teachers of language—in school, for example, or preschool or kindergarten or something like that, or just in the local church or charity or sporting club setting?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : They do take it to their communities. At the moment I think there is something like 45 students learning Gathang in Taree, Foster, Port Macquarie—the Northern Coast TAFE Institute, I think it is—and they are being taught by the language people who come down from Nambucca. Julie comes down with Anna Ash and, in turn the students are teaching classes as well. They are teaching with the other teacher standing beside them and giving them instructions and helping them, so the students are empowered to teach as well because language should not be something that you have to do a TAFE course to learn. It is like breathing, it is like painting! You cannot teach Aboriginal art going through a Western art system; it is an entirely different thing, it is a spontaneous thing, and language is like that and when language is spoken it lives.

CHAIR: I am a Queenslander, so we call it Education Queensland, but to what extent is the New South Wales education department supportive of your students going into state schools or public schools and teaching language?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : I am not quite sure. They might have to team teach. At the moment the only way that Aboriginal teachers are being taught formally is through the MILE course at Sydney University and that really needs to be supported and encouraged. In order to do that, the student has to have a Bachelor of Education plus their Aboriginality. That is the entree into that particular course.

CHAIR: What if I paint a scenario where your students could go into, say, a public or state school and teach Indigenous language in collaboration or cooperation with an average primary school teacher, for example—say having a certificate IV or an associate diploma? What do you think about that idea?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : I think that would be fine. I think that, as far as it is at the moment, people are going into the community and within their own families and they are teaching languages based on the certificate II level that they have attained. As they learn more, they can teach more. But it is vital that it happens. It has been sleeping too long.

CHAIR: That would be a good way to connect community to schools, wouldn't it?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : Absolutely, and you have got to have the same recognition for Aboriginal languages within schools that you have for other languages.

CHAIR: That way your students could be paid at higher salaries and have better terms and conditions. I probably should not say that in view of what is happening in the New South Wales education department and the New South Wales budget. But it certainly means that students that you teach would be in a position to teach others also and be paid appropriate wage and salary entitlements.

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : I think they would be consultants really, wouldn't they?

CHAIR: Yes, exactly: language consultants.

Mr HUSIC: Following on from your question, Chair, about people being able to teach and then how you would actually do that in another setting, I know you rattled off a number of different areas. I asked a question earlier in reference to out-of-school-hours programs that are being done with young people. What have you seen of that type of activity happening locally, and what do you think is working well? What do you think are the prerequisites, if you will, for a successful after-school program targeting particularly younger children to start picking up languages?

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : Teaching Aboriginal languages is pretty new. My experience was that I did not start until fourth term 2009 and then taught last year and for the first two terms of this year, mostly because there is no directed funding. You get funding to pay the teacher through applying for a grant. If you do not get that grant, you do not have those funds. The problem is: how long between lessons do the students have to wait? How can you keep rolling on a language learning when you are virtually starting from scratch every time because there has been a year's difference or whatever in the time that the classes were taught?

As far as out-of-school or other programs that might incorporate language into them are concerned, there used to be with TAFE an Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Practices course that some students at Muswellbrook whom I had taught personally had taken advantage of as a TVET class. It had an Aboriginal languages component but very few resources. Because at that time I had not been trained to teach Aboriginal languages, all I could do was download various wordlists from wherever I possibly could that were appropriate to the languages that those children had descendancy from and give them to them. I was able to download some Wonnarua words for some Wonnarua students, some Kamilaroi words for Kamilaroi students and Gathang for Gathang students, but nothing more than a wordlist. A wordlist just sort of waves about until there is somebody to interpret that. The dictionary is a wonderful thing to look at and to read and everything like that, but until you start to practise a language it is just words in a book; it does not live.

CHAIR: I have one final question, and you may or may not be in a position to answer this. My electorate is based on Ipswich and the rural areas outside in south-east Queensland, and there is a very large Indigenous population in that corridor south of the Brisbane River. We have many national partnership schools and there are better start programs for Indigenous young people there. What do you think about the idea—maybe you are in a position to comment or maybe not—of making Indigenous language a component of the national partnerships arrangements for schools? The national partnerships schools have funding for literacy and numeracy—special funding from the federal government for those schools, which are usually in low socioeconomic areas; in my electorate, say, places like Leichhardt and Riverview which are really quite working class areas. So then every school which receives funding for literacy and numeracy would also have funding for Indigenous language learning as a part of it. Invariably that would mean that schools with high Indigenous communities located around them would receive extra funding. I know that I would never in my years as a practicing litigation lawyer be allowed to ask that question in open court, because it is incredibly leading. Can you please comment in relation to that?

Ms GRIERSON: Can I be just as terrible and say that that money is worth $1,000 per student for three years. So it is really a huge investment into literacy and numeracy development.

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : I had a student who had enrolled in the community college, which was part of the TAFE campus at which I was teaching. She had enrolled in literacy classes. She got very excited about learning the language that I was teaching her—to such an extent that she decided that she was going to translate one of the dreaming stories, which she did. She never had her nose out of that dictionary grammar book. In order to find the words in language, she had to pursue the words in English. That improved her literacy. I do not think that it would do any harm at all, and it will probably do an awful lot of good. If that answers the question.

CHAIR: We love that evidence, so thank you very much. We really appreciate that. Please check the Hansard record when it is produced. Thank you very much for being here today.

Ms McKinnon-Kidd : Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you all very much for contributing to this inquiry, and thanks also to those members who, in my absence, did such a good job.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Adams):

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 14 : 34