Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
24/05/2012
Language learning in Indigenous communities

OVEREEM, Ms Alison May, Director, Aboriginal Children's Centre, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc.

REYNOLDS, Ms Annie, Coordinator, palawa kani Language Program, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre

Evidence was taken via teleconference—

Committee met at 12:34

CHAIR ( Mr Neumann ): Welcome. I declare open this public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and its inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities. We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and pay respects to our elders past, present and future. We also acknowledge the Aboriginal people who now reside in this area.

Please note that these meetings are formal proceedings of the parliament. Everything said should be factual and honest. It can be considered a serious matter to mislead the committee. The hearing is open to the public and a transcript of what is said will be placed on the committee's website. Before we begin, we will introduce ourselves, because you cannot see us. I am Shane Neumann, federal member for Blair. I am a Labor representative. The electorate of Blair covers the Ipswich and Somerset regions in South-East Queensland.

Dr STONE: I am Sharman Stone, federal member for Murray, which is on the Victorian side of the Murray River.

Mr PERRETT: I am the Labor member for the electorate of Moreton, in Brisbane.

Mr HAASE: I am the member for Durack, in Western Australia, a very large portion of Western Australia—in fact, about a quarter of Australia. About 14 per cent of my population is Indigenous, with many Indigenous languages.

CHAIR: Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Ms Overeem : I am the manager of the Aboriginal Children's Centre in Hobart, but I am representing the use of Indigenous language in Tasmania across the state, with children and family.

Ms Overeem then spoke in language—

Ms Overeem : Hello, all blackfellows and white friends. Welcome to my Aboriginal land. Aboriginal children stand strong. That is my role here today.

Ms Reynolds : I am the Coordinator of the palawa kani Language Program, which is operated by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to revive palawa kani language across Tasmania.

CHAIR: Would you like to make a brief introductory statement before we proceed to questions?

Ms Overeem : Yes. It is difficult because we cannot see your faces. We are so disappointed that the committee could not get down to come and see the language in action down here in Tasmania and across the state, particularly with our zero- to five-year-olds, and our five- to 12-year-olds and all our families over on our own land at Risdon Cove. By coming and seeing it, that is how you experience what language means to us in Tasmania. But I guess this is the next best thing. Our palawa kani language across the state, across the children's programs in the north, the north-west and the south is celebrated by the community and engaged in by the children. We have seen that come across the generations. I think it is a language that so deserves to be protected, supported and legislated. As a community it is our passion, and the children are passionate about it. You can tell by the tone in my voice that it is a passion we immerse in our learning program in Hobart and across the state. My role here is to make sure that people hear that palawa kani is a living language here in Tasmania.

Ms Reynolds : I do not have anything further to add to that.

CHAIR: Thank you. I am interested in palawa kani and how it is a composite language. How did you get people together in such a way to agree upon it?

Ms Reynolds : To agree upon it being a composite language?

CHAIR: Yes, because it seems as though there must have been a fair bit of consensus achieved on the language revival process. From what we have read, it seems that it is a composite language of a variety of different languages that may have existed at some stage.

Ms Reynolds : The language revival process is completely community driven. It was an initiative of the whole community back in the early 1990s. When attention began to be paid to what there was of the language that could be used, it was seen clearly that because of the historical circumstances where many of the people in Tasmania were murdered, not very much remained of some of the languages. In fact, it is not even possible to go to many languages that there may have been originally.

However, there is a wealth of records from 1770 onwards that pretty much cover the whole of the state.

So there is a little bit recorded from most of the languages, but not enough from any of them to revive one whole language fully right through. The bulk of the recorded language came from the journals of the George Augustus Robinson, who was the self- appointed protector of the Aborigines, who rounded them up and took them to the offshore islands to free up the mainland for farming and settlement. He travelled throughout all of Tasmania, so he was with the people on their home country, insofar as it still existed for them. He was mainly with the people from the north-east, who are also the people from whom today's Aborigines are descended.

Because of his writings and the bulk of his work, a lot of language was recorded from the north-east. Subsequently, in the retrieval of the language, we make it a priority to use that language from the north-east as much as we can. But where there are gaps—and there are very many—it was agreed that, where necessary, the vocabulary of those languages elsewhere in Tasmania should be used to fill those gaps. The community were in full agreement on that. Many of those languages were of course connected to each other. Some were more dialects than languages. Some are quite dissimilar from each other but, on the whole, as with all heritage in Tasmania, because of the degree of dispossession and disruption, everything that is left is the property of the Tasmanian Aborigines who survived and the language is the same. So hence the composite language.

CHAIR: In your submission you refer to the Miller program and, on page 8, you talk about your experience with a succession of federal government language bodies over almost 20 years. You said:

… an increase of bureaucratic reporting requirements unmatched by significant allocations of funding.

Can you explore that further?

Ms Reynolds : I thought the next paragraph explored it in as much detail as anybody could bear. There have not been significant allocations of funding. You can see that in the previous paragraph.

CHAIR: We understand that. It is more the bureaucratic reporting requirements.

Ms Reynolds : As I have said there, there are periods of change from year to year without reasonable explanation. For a couple of years we were on 12 months reporting and then six months reporting. At some stage last year they brought it back to three months reporting. The way in which you report changes is without rhyme or reason—sometimes it is a fully written report, then they bring in these proformas, so you have something half- written and then suddenly they slap a proforma on you. As I have said there, also at that late stage last year we had something written. They presented us with a proforma and said, 'It has to be on this proforma.' The next day they recalled that proforma and gave us another one and said, 'It has to be completed by the end of the week.'

Ms Overeem : Supporting that statement is the fact that, when so much time is taken up with bureaucratic issues, it takes away from us engaging families and engaging children in palawa kani.

Ms Reynolds : Particularly when it is three monthly, because we are trying to operate statewide. We do have limited numbers of specific staff who are language workers. Their role is to engage with the workers in all the other programs and services that we operate statewide. They are community workers and a lot of them are not terribly up on this sort of reporting. They have to take time to be trained, to learn how to fill in our own statistical reporting forms from which we derive information for this and then the types of things that we are required to report on are increased.

All of a sudden, out of the blue, late last year they wanted dates from us for every kind of community engagement that there had been. A lot of those things are kept, but often a lot of them aren't. They wanted copies of everything that we had produced which contained language. The whole point of a language revival program is that as much as you can produce contains language. All sorts of things like calendars and flyers for breastfeeding programs and invitations to an elders lunch—

Ms Overeem : Everything that we do in the learning program at the children's centre includes palawa kani and we are immersing that in the general learning at the children's centre. But the cumbersome nature of the reporting detracts from us getting on with the business of sharing the language and promoting the language to the community. That is basically the point.

CHAIR: I asked that because we have not had much evidence about that in the past and your answer was very helpful. I now understand what you meant in your report when you talked about being 'harassed by whimsical and unnecessarily time-consuming bureaucratic demands'. You explored that very well.

Ms Reynolds : The reason you probably have not heard much on it in the past is in the past it was not so bad. At one stage we were required to provide just six-monthly written reports, which we did in meticulous detail, plus the budget reporting twice a year. That is not so bad, but now we have to do it four times a year which is just ridiculous.

CHAIR: At some stage I may be called to give a speech in the House of Representatives. If I disappear it is not because I am offended by anything you say, I may be buzzed and have to go.

Dr STONE: Congratulations on all the hard work you have obviously put into palawa kani. Please tell us more about how you achieve teaching this language to your children. You make the point it should be taught from the earliest age. Do you have trained teachers with facility in the language? You talk about the need to train Aboriginal teachers and ancillary staff in the language. Is this voluntary? Are all children at certain preschools required initially to learn in this language? How is it working in the practical sense?

Ms Reynolds : The language program trains Aboriginal community workers who learn the language. It is not a full language yet. It is a mix of Aboriginal language and English although more and more over the years we have developed a greater range of Aboriginal language so we can talk in full sentences and paragraphs. These community workers work with the other programs and services. Our goal is to have each of the different programs that operate—age care, youth diversion and the three children's services across the state—have people in those who can transmit the language to their clients and children. There is a particular focus on that in the three children's services—the Aboriginal Children's Centre in Hobart, and the two in Launceston. The workers there, because they have early child development learning skills, apply the language more precisely to the needs of the children. In the training that we give to the Aboriginal workers we use a lot of the principles of second-language learning. We have had consultants work with us who are second-language teachers, early child development people. We have also taken a lot of input from other Aboriginal and Indigenous language communities elsewhere and applied their teaching strategies—things like total physical response and immersion methods. We try to simulate as much as possible the language nest situation in all of our teaching exchanges.

We do not call it teaching. We try to take away the formal teaching element, because in the community there is a lot of discomfort with the formal, white teaching experience that a lot of people have not enjoyed very much. We teach through more informal methods; a lot of activities, cultural camps on Aboriginal land and stuff like that.

Ms Overeem : We run the children and families programs across the state through the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. I will give you some insight into specifically what we do in Hobart and the other areas as well. My background is in early childhood teaching. I have been running the children's centre, which, for those who might not know, is a multifunctional Aboriginal children's service. The immersion principle is what we use in our general practice in the centre with all learning. As Annie said, palawa kani is not about sitting down and learning a lesson or today we are going to learn this, palawa kani is immersed in the program and it is about engaging children. It is about having that as part of the cultural learning in these services.

In 1993 our centre and other areas of Tasmania proudly celebrated the launch of a CD, Palawa Kids Kanaplila, which means Aboriginal children sing and dance. Those children who were involved in that, their children now attend the centre and, generationally, the impact that had has been wonderful within the service for people's cultural identity and for strengthening community values.

Palawa kani is not something we add on to our culture in Tassie. It is something that is part of our culture and something that is part of our practice. Particularly for those following the National Early Years Learning Framework, it is all about immersing children in language. I would love for people to see and hear our children speaking the language. That is more than we could ever present in a telephone conversation. As I sat at work a couple of weeks ago, a proud mother came in and shared with me how her 2½-year-old had gone home and in palawa kani—full sentences—done a welcome to country. That is something we do every day. It is a part of our learning program but that really says it all. The community down here embrace palawa kani. It is all about community consultation, all along the way it has been since the early 90s. The community is part of it, children are part of it and the families are part of it. It is a rich living language down here.

ACTING CHAIR ( Dr Stone ): We have lost Shane Neumann, the chair. He has had to go into the chamber. I am deputy chair and so I am taking over.

Mr HAASE: I am going to follow on from the original question from the chair in relation to your funding. I am aware that Indigenous corporations, not simply language corporations but Indigenous corporations generally, are subjected to fairly rigorous reporting in relation to funding they receive. I have been trying to find just what funding you do receive. I do not need to know the exact dollars and cents but I imagine your funding goes on wages and that sort of thing. I am therefore interested in knowing how many staff you have, how many centres you are at and what sort of hours are put in over a given period of time.

Ms Reynolds : What we call our language centre is based currently at our Launceston office although it has been based previously in our Hobart office. We have two state-wide workers who are full-time and three or four part-time workers. We also have casual workers who assist those. We also pay for a full-time worker at the Aboriginal children's centre and always have done. That is wages for the most part. That fluctuates because we employ different people at different times. Over the last 30 years, I think we have employed about 20 Aboriginal people in different capacities. We also employ a full-time consultant who works all the time on reconstructing the language, on the linguistic reconstruction and research. We also engage consultants at different times for different teaching skills, as I explained before, for second language learning and child development. A lot of the rest of our money goes on travel across the state and also to the offshore islands where we also run programs. We attend the high school and primary school on Cape Barren Island to provide teaching there. We produce all our own resources because when you are developing a separate language none of the curriculum resources or books or anything like that from anywhere else are applicable. We do our own printing in house. We produce CDs. We produce DVDs as well. We produce online resources that are available within the community. Another aspect is training, which I forgot to mention, and also there are consultants who we engage from time to time to train Aboriginal workers in aspects of this. We have got a whole range of little books with CDs and interactive DVDs and stuff like that that we have produced.

Ms Overeem : It really is about making sure that palawa kani is promoted through every aspect of our core business and all our activities, but there would not be enough funding to go around anyway.

Ms Reynolds : We always manage to acquit all our funding, and I am sure there are other things as well—such as the research that we do, and that is another component that we often need to go out and pay for—and the usual administrative costs. As I said, we are based in the Launceston office but we also operate through the Burnie and Hobart offices. The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre also has properties on some of the offshore islands where staff are based. Currently at Lungtalanana on Clarke Island we have a youth diversion program operating. Language is a key component of the cultural element of that. So we provide resources there with a worker at (unclear) as well. So there are those kinds of things.

Mr HAASE: What approximately is the quantum of dollars that you are receiving from the federal government for all of your programs and operations?

Ms Reynolds : For the whole of them?

Mr HAASE: Yes.

Ms Reynolds : I could not tell you. For the whole of the centre's operations it would be a large amount of money because that includes the health services. We provide a whole range of health services and legal services.

Ms Overeem : And education on parenting.

Ms Reynolds : For the Tasmanian centre across the board I would not be able to tell you that.

Mr HAASE: Okay. Can you tell me what you have gleaned for the language services?

ACTING CHAIR: Barry, would you like the ladies to come back to us with the language component of it?

Mr HAASE: Yes. Now I realise that you are incorporating the language into your other programs that you are funded for, I understand that better. Perhaps you could let us know at some future time the quantum of federal dollars that you get specifically for language programs.

Ms Reynolds : I see, for the language programs.

Ms Overeem : I will organise that.

Ms Reynolds : Mr Haase, I thought you meant the whole thing.

Mr HAASE: I did initially, yes. But I am happy now to receive that.

Ms Reynolds : We could provide you with that information too. For the language program it is a little bit more than $300,000 per working year. It has fluctuated up and down and has been slightly above that for the last five to eight years.

Mr HAASE: Ladies, I get the impression now that you are both associated with numerous programs run by your corporation. Are you funded specifically for language or are you funded for the overall operations of your organisation?

Ms Overeem : I am not quite sure what your question is, sorry.

Mr HAASE: Your group specifically, as you are appearing today, is the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

Ms Overeem : That is right.

Mr HAASE: Now the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre clearly has more programs than just language programs.

Ms Overeem : Yes, and I run one of those major programs, which is the Aboriginal Children's Centre over at Risdon Cove.

Mr HAASE: So the language teaching you are involved is incorporated in all of your programs but, because you are teaching language, you are able to receive federal funding that is specific for language programs in addition to those other activities that you are engaged in.

Ms Reynolds : The language funding is received for the activities of the language program, which is a specific program within the centre's operations. The brief of the language program is to integrate language into all the programs and activities that the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre runs—

Ms Overeem : It is a partnership.

Ms Reynolds : —across the state as a holistic approach. Therefore the money comes to the language program, and the language programs specifically trains language workers. Those workers then work with the other programs and provide resources and support to the other programs so that the workers in the other programs can develop some facility in language, although they themselves are not stand-alone language workers. They still require the support of both resources and coaching from the language staff. The idea is that if you are working in aged care and you have your clients in aged care, you are the direct contact with the aged-care client. You transmit to those clients language in your everyday interactions with them, rather than always having at every one of your events—

Mr HAASE: I am quite happy with that. I am taking up a lot of time unnecessarily.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Alison and Annie. Have you had a formal evaluation of your language programs at any time? You have been going a very long time since 1993. For example, an evaluation in terms of—

Ms Overeem : An evaluation of what a sustainable language is?

ACTING CHAIR: No; of what the impact of the teaching of palawa kani has had on your preschoolers in terms of retention or attending school. You talked about your diversion program at Clarke Island. I am wondering if there has been any evaluation which you could share with us and which shows something like the relationship between language learning and self-esteem building or school retention or English language learning or any other part of human development.

Ms Overeem : That is sort of what I meant. No, we do not have any formal evaluation other than our own internal evaluation. We are in close contact with Annie through the language program in Launceston down here. That is actually what I meant through my comment—the fact that the language is still going. We do not have any formal evaluation other than lots of anecdotal evaluations and feedback from families and from children who are now adults who have participated in that program. It would be so wonderful to have the opportunity to formally evaluate that and gather all that information to show the impact rather than having that anecdotally and through resources at the service.

Ms Reynolds : In the language program we do do a constant monitoring of the people who have been using language from day one. That is to say that we keep information on everybody's progress, which helps everybody, and that we have been able to see over the years when we have been working that there has been a trickle-on effect through families—children who were learning back in the mid to late 90s are now using language with their own children. The children that we have now in the children's centres, for instance, have siblings who are older than them who have been receiving language teaching through the after-school youth programs. Their parents in some cases are young people who have been exposed to the language from an early age. So there is a generational link.

A lot of the young people these days who have grown up with the language produce songs in the language which they perform. Dewayne Everett Smith is one of those. He was touring most recently with Gurrumul Yunupingu in Europe, singing one of the songs that he had written in palawa kani. We see that as an impact which is very valuable. Also, among some of the other older teenagers—which is an age group that we look at most carefully because they are in the age group during which people most usually lose their learning by getting distracted by other stuff and during which a second language is all a bit too hard to bother with—there is quite a culture. They do a lot of SMS texting in palawa kani as an identity marker. They use a lot of it on Facebook—

Ms Overeem : An awful lot of it goes on on Facebook.

Ms Reynolds : They use it as a social marker when they are out and about in white society.

Ms Overeem : In meetings, in conversations—yes, that has changed.

Ms Reynolds : Yes. Those sorts of things, those sorts of social indicators, to us are a very strong indicator that something is working, because the children are taking it with them as they grow. What we are hoping to see and find a way of cementing over time is that they extend it into their family life and consolidate, as a group, these generations, in the same way that the Maori did when they first started with their language nests and those young children grew up and took charge of their language.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much for those insights. We will have to leave you there. We thank Alison and Annie. Your transcripts will be sent to you to check that we have spelled things right and it is all making sense. Other than that, we thank you very much. It has been very valuable to be talking with you.

Ms Reynolds : It is a pleasure to talk to you about palawa kani.

Ms Overeem : Thank you for the opportunity.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you.