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

SIMPSON, Professor Jane Helen, Private capacity

Committee met at 12:15

CHAIR ( Mr Neumann ): I declare open this public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs inquiry into language learning in Indigenous Communities. I would like to acknowledge the Ngunawal and Ngambri people, the traditional custodians of the Canberra area, and pay our respects to their elders, past, present and future.

Please note that these meetings are formal proceedings of parliament. Everything said should be factual and honest, and it can be considered a serious matter to attempt to mislead the committee. This hearing is open to the public and a transcript of what is said will be placed on the committee's website.

Before we begin proceedings, we will introduce ourselves. I am the federal member for Blair. I am a Labor representative and my electorate is based in Ipswich, in the Somerset region in south-east Queensland.

Dr STONE: My electorate is Murray, on the Murray River in Victoria.

Mr PERRETT: My electorate is Moreton, in Brisbane, but I come from St George, about 500 kilometres west.

Mrs GRIGGS: I am the member for Solomon, which is the Darwin and Palmerston area of the Northern Territory.

Mr HAASE: I am the member for Durack in Western Australia. It is difficult to describe the electorate, but it is basically the northern 63 per cent of the state.

Prof. Simpson : You have some of the few languages still spoken by children in your electorate.

Ms GRIERSON: I am the federal member for Newcastle. It is the home of the Worimi and Awabakal peoples. It is also host to the east coast Indigenous languages group, who are doing a great deal of work. The university has an endangered languages faculty centre, but its focus is very much on the Asia-Pacific—the Pacific languages particularly, and helping the Pacific communities, with some work in Indigenous languages as well.

CHAIR: I welcome Jane Simpson, from the Australian National University. Do you have any comment to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Prof. Simpson : I am Professor of Indigenous Linguistics at the Australian National University, but I am representing myself rather than the Australian National University.

CHAIR: Before we ask you questions—I promise it will not be an interrogation—would you like to make a brief opening statement?

Prof. Simpson : Yes. I have had a look through some of the submissions and transcripts, and I can see that everyone really wants Indigenous languages to stay vital, healthy languages. We all value them. An enduring recognition of that value will be if, in 50 years time, we have lots of Aboriginal children who are fully bilingual in an Indigenous language and in a language of wider communication, the language of government. That is fundamental to all the submissions that I have read and the transcripts.

We all come with different skill sets. The first point to make is that it is very important to recognise that there is no one magic bullet that is going to solve these problems. Indigenous people are at the forefront of it, but nothing can really happen without the involvement of government and without the involvement of people with skills, such as language teachers, ESL teachers, hearing specialists and linguists. There are a whole range of people who really need to work on this.

The second point I want to make is that, as you know from your different electorates and from the submissions, there are at least three main situations of language learning in Aboriginal communities. There are the few communities where Aboriginal languages are still the primary communication, where children are still learning them—in Mr Haase's electorate, and in Arnhem Land, in Central Australia, in the APY lands. Then there are a lot of communities where children are speaking a Kriol as their first language. What I have seen during 30 years of working in the Territory is that communities that switch from traditional languages very often switch to Kriol, not to standard English. I think that is an important point to make, because children who speak Kriol have similar but not identical problems in school as children who come to school speaking an Indigenous language.

The third situation is the many revival and restoration situations in most of Australia where there are no speakers of the language left and the community is really interested in reviving and restoring the language. So we have three different situations and each of those has different needs for language programs. Those are my basic concerns.

CHAIR: Thank you. For a start, there are a lot of us here so we will spread it around in terms of asking questions. Correct me if I am wrong: you have seen and you record that there is a big language shift in the last 20 years, from speaking traditional languages to that Kriol of mixed languages which you mentioned before, and you do not see a need for that shift. We have had a lot of different evidence about Kriol. Where do you think Kriol fits in; and should we be assisting Kriol? What impact does that have on traditional language?

Prof. Simpson : We should be assisting the children who speak Kriol as a first language. It is very important for them when they go to school that the teachers understand that what they are speaking is a separate language and not just a bastard form of English. We need to have much better language awareness. You can imagine how upsetting it is for children to be told that they are speaking incorrectly, ungrammatically, wrongly. We need programs such as Joyce Hudson ran in the Kimberley, the FELIKS language awareness program, which was a respectful attempt to compare the Kriol of the Kimberley with standard English in the classroom so that children would be aware that there are two different systems, and that you use one system for one purpose and the other system for another purpose. Such programs are really important.

Denise Angelo and the Queensland education department are running what seem to me to be very interesting programs in Far North Queensland aimed at the same effect—getting teachers aware that the children are coming to school with a different language code.

Mr PERRETT: Philosophically or practically, why should the Commonwealth government be concerned with the revival of languages in areas that no longer have a functioning language?

CHAIR: The third aspect of your introductory comments.

Prof. Simpson : I have worked a bit with revival programs in Adelaide, the Kaurna revival program, which I have been on the fringes of. It seems to me that, by what they have done with Kaurna—they now have dual naming, they have Kaurna awareness—people in Adelaide are now much more aware of the Aboriginal heritage of the city than ever before. I grew up in Adelaide and I did not know the name of the language of the people in the area. I did not know that until I was an adult. I do not think that would be the case today—

Mr PERRETT: Was that local, state or federal dollars that did that or was it the—

Prof. Simpson : That was a mixture of both.

Mr PERRETT: All three levels.

Prof. Simpson : All three levels. Community support, Adelaide university, federal government funding, the Miller funding—all of them have gone to produce a much enriched environment for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Adelaide, I believe.

Dr STONE: How do you think we are going to increase or improve teacher training so that it includes ESL? At the moment we have had a lot of submissions talking about the fact that the preferred or best practice model would be for any teacher heading towards any community, whether it is a refugee community or any school community which has other than standard English as its community language, to have a sound knowledge of how to teach English as a second language. That is not in fact the case in most of our teacher training institutions. Can you tell us how we are going to get that shift so that ESL will be recognised as an essential part of your teacher training?

Prof. Simpson : The shift really has to come from education departments requiring it of teachers who go to work in Aboriginal communities, so that they say 'This is a requirement.' That will drive the shift in universities to bring in ESL. In Newcastle, certainly linguistics is part of teacher training there.

Ms GRIERSON: They have made ESL a compulsory component of teacher training. In a general sense across the nation I do not think it is a compulsory section at all.

Prof. Simpson : The other side of it is that it would be well worth investing heavily in places like Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. The really important thing, particularly for remote communities, is having teachers who are prepared to stay there for more than a year. I think the only way you will get that is through training local Indigenous people, supporting Batchelor college in recruiting teachers from remote areas and giving those teachers ESL training. That would be a really excellent investment.

Dr STONE: You made the point that the grants application process is onerous. You need to have councils or staff with good English language skills to make a good application; therefore funds tend to go to those communities where English is spoken rather than traditional languages. How would we overcome that? What are you proposing as an alternative to the current competitive tendering model?

Prof. Simpson : In some areas, say in the Pilbara, with the Pilbara language centre, they have a very effective language centre which can successfully tender for grants. That sort of model can work. But language centres need oversight and accountability as much as any organisation. So that is not a be-all and end-all. A very clear instance would be that, when the Northern Territory government removed the bilingual education programs from those 11 schools, that was removing, in the long term, a massive amount of financial support for language work in those communities. That could have been a targeted choice by the funding agencies to say, 'Let's go to those communities with clear language needs. Maybe we should see what happens there. Maybe we can work with them on funding.' But I do not have a good answer, other than that.

CHAIR: Could you discuss the impact? If you read the submissions or the transcripts you would have seen, particularly in Sydney, severe criticism by some of the submitters there. People gave evidence of the Northern Territory's decision in relation to the removal of funding for bilingual programs. Can you comment on the impact that has had from your observation? Are you in a position to do that in the Northern Territory?

Prof. Simpson : I can only report hearsay.

CHAIR: Okay.

Prof. Simpson : I can say that Greg Dickson did a study of the attendance rates, which suggested that the attendance rates in the former bilingual schools had dropped. I have had conversations with people who work in places like Yuendumu who say that morale is very low. But that is the limit of what I can say from a personal—

Dr STONE: Is this the four hours in English language at the beginning of the day model?

Prof. Simpson : Yes.

Mr HAASE: Professor, you mentioned your experience in South Australia and your awareness that the Aboriginal naming of areas of Adelaide was advantageous and had occurred. Do you have any, even anecdotal, information about the positive impact that such awareness of the Kaurna population has in Adelaide or elsewhere, for that matter?

Prof. Simpson : I suppose the anecdotal evidence I have is from just talking with people, friends and relations, and seeing that people now look to see if they can find Indigenous names. They know that Kaurna is the language of the Adelaide plains. They recognise that these places had significance and continue to have significance to Aboriginal people. There is much more in the curriculum at schools about it. There are far more resources. There are more exhibitions in the museums which bring out the history of the area. So we have a much richer view of the history of Adelaide.

Mr HAASE: An enriched view, a more diverse view.

Prof. Simpson : Yes, a much more diverse view.

Mr HAASE: I do not expect you to be performing as an economist, but one of the questions that we as a committee, and then subsequently government, have to wrestle with is the cost-benefit analysis of any decisions and recommendations that this committee might make. I am very interested, from your perspective, as a positive promoter of Indigenous language, how you would see the outcome of such a cost-benefit analysis. I believe we share a single view for the advancement of Indigenous people. In terms of teaching, keeping in mind the cost of equipping personnel for the task of being bilingual teachers—there is a great diversity of languages required to cover the nation—do you believe that under a cost-benefit analysis it would be considered the best outcome to go through such a process rather than in the area of job creation, training, improved housing, improved medicine, dental et cetera?

Prof. Simpson : In the case of children who come to school speaking a traditional language as their first language, if they can be taught in their first few years in their traditional language, so that they actually understand what is happening in the classroom, I think the benefit of that is unquestionable. At present we have children coming to school who cannot understand what is happening in the classroom, so they are not learning. We have, as you know, very poor results in the NAPLAN tests in the communities where English is not their first language. We obviously have to address that.

Mr HAASE: Do you believe it would improve school attendance?

Prof. Simpson : I believe that if you understand what is happening in the classroom then you are more likely to attend. There are a whole lot of factors involved in classroom attendance. Do you enjoy the school, first off? Is the school teaching? Do you understand what is happening in the classroom? Do you enjoy what is happening in the classroom? Are there incentives for you not to go to school? Is there a change of teacher every six months? Is the school even open for the whole period of the year? There are certainly schools in remote areas in the Northern Territory where they have been closed down because they have not been able to get teachers for reasonable periods. There are a whole lot of factors that go into school attendance. I would not say that mother tongue medium instruction is a magic bullet for school attendance. It is part of a whole suite of things that have to happen to get school attendance up.

Mr HAASE: And a necessary part.

Prof. Simpson : I think it is necessary for communities—

Mr HAASE: Ipso facto you would make the tie between school attendance, education and therefore financial independence and contribution to society at large?

Prof. Simpson : Yes, but then I would say that you can have bilingual education and have poor attendance. We have seen that.

Mr HAASE: Unfortunately.

Prof. Simpson : There are a lot of things going on.

Mr HAASE: Thank you.

CHAIR: Is it your submission that we could have the NAPLAN testing but then have an additional form of testing, say, in an Indigenous language in a community, which would perhaps be a better indication of how that child's educational experience and standards are going at the same time?

Prof. Simpson : Yes. There are two sides to it. The NAPLAN tests are basically tests of children who speak English as a first language. We need a measurement of how second language learners are going and the kinds of questions. Particularly as a linguist I look at the grammar and pronunciation, the grammar and spelling questions in NAPLAN. They concern me because I cannot see any logical progression. I cannot see how they test the stages of ESL development. I do not think the results are particularly informative. I think it would be terrific if we could have a set of NAPLAN tests which were designed for ESL learners.

Ms GRIERSON: I want to pursue that. Your recommendation 5 is one I find very attractive, because pre-learning testing when your child goes to school, as you rightly point out, is usually done in English. There are no pre-learning tools to assess their pre-learning skills or their pre-reading skills or their pre-language skills in native languages. Barry makes a very sensible point. We have to prioritise things. When you prioritise helping kids who are starting their education I think that is a wonderful thing. You recommend developing measures of fluency and strengthening Indigenous children's mastery of their home languages—a language assessment tool. Are there any at this stage?

Prof. Simpson : My understanding is that some of the bilingual schools did develop such tools within the schools. Colleagues of mine from Melbourne University and I worked on a vocabulary test. It was a very simple—

CHAIR: Cabaret testing? How do you spell that?

Prof. Simpson : Vocabulary.

CHAIR: Vocabulary. I thought you said 'cabaret'. That is why I was shocked. I am sorry; I am getting my own testing done next week in hearing.

Prof. Simpson : The short answer is that I do not think we do have those measures and I think we need them.

Ms GRIERSON: You are a linguistics expert. Are the linguistic structures that underpin Indigenous languages and English similar or dissimilar? How would you describe that?

Prof. Simpson : We have got, as you have heard, 300 or so Indigenous languages. A large number of them belong to one language family. The grammatical structures of that family are what we call 'free word order'. So the words can go in any order, but endings on the words tell you who is doing what to whom. It is more like Latin or German in that respect than like English.

Ms GRIERSON: Does Kriol have a different structure? Is Kriol a disadvantage for kids or is it just what they have and therefore it is the base?

Prof. Simpson : The structure of Kriol is more like the structure of English in that it has generally a pretty fixed word order, although it uses the word order for somewhat different purposes than English. I should actually say there is not one Kriol. There is a whole lot of—

Ms GRIERSON: That is right.

Mr HAASE: Is the structure similar from language to language?

Prof. Simpson : As a linguist, I find it very interesting that the Kriols across Australia actually all do have fairly similar underlying structures.

Ms GRIERSON: It is interesting to know. Thank you. I actually think your recommendation 5 is one that the committee should note particularly.

CHAIR: It is similar to English so it is easy to make the transition?

Prof. Simpson : It is certainly easier to make the transition in terms of structure from Kriol to English. In some respects it is harder to make the transition from speaking Kriol to speaking English because of the social costs associated with making the shift. It is a bit like if I go to America I find it rather difficult to take on an American accent. It seems somehow like, 'Well, I'm Australian; I should be speaking like an Australian.' My identity is bound up in how I talk. That makes it somewhat easier for a person who speaks Nyangumarta to speak standard English than it does for someone who speaks Kriol, because by speaking like a standard English speaker you are really cutting yourself off from your family. So it makes it a bit harder.

Mr PERRETT: If you go to Paris, you are speaking French perhaps with an Australian accent. So it is not challenging your identity.

Prof. Simpson : Not in the same way as putting on an American—

Dr STONE: As a contact language.

Prof. Simpson : Yes. Of course, this is a personal thing. Some people have no problem doing that, but a lot of people do have a problem changing from one dialect to another.

Dr STONE: I think that is because so many of those children have been told: 'You're just bad English speakers. You're badly brought up. You're uneducated. Your parents don't know any better.' There is a real stigma attached to Kriol speaking and it is often reinforced, particularly at the schools, but also in the general community. We have found it in some of our submissions where there has been no recognition, we have been told, about the traditional languages in the area and no mention of Kriol, which in fact has been spoken more often by more people than the traditional languages. One of the problems with Kriol, is it not, or the Kriols, is that there is very little written literature or written Kriols? So for a child they have a similar disadvantage with their traditional languages, because they have not been writing Kriols in any prose or ways to communicate it.

Prof. Simpson : There was a bilingual program in the Northern Territory, a Kriol program, at Barunga. That program produced quite a lot of material. The hearsay was that they had a change of principal and the principal burnt the material. The system in the Northern Territory, whereby principals are given a lot of power over what happens at school, allows for that sort of thing. But Kriol does have a complete translation of the Bible, which is more than most Aboriginal languages have. There is a standard spelling system for the Kriol that is spoken in the Katherine area. There are Kriol dictionaries and there is some reading material in it.

Mr HAASE: Are we not trying to make formal and culturally appropriate something that never was so? When you speak of there being a Kriol translation of the Bible, which particular Kriol, given that there are so many different Kriols?

Prof. Simpson : The Kriol translation of the Bible was done in the Katherine area.

Mr HAASE: So that would be applicable to the Katherine area?

Prof. Simpson : Yes. But to some extent it would be applicable more widely.

Mr HAASE: Do you agree that we are trying to formalise and make culturally appropriate something that never was?

Prof. Simpson : None of the Indigenous languages were written languages.

Mr HAASE: That is my point.

Prof. Simpson : Having a written language, having a written form of a language, is an advantage. Lots of people really appreciate having a written form. One of the things that really struck me in working with older Aboriginal people in the Tennant Creek area was how excited they were by the possibility of having things written down because—

Ms GRIERSON: Languages get corrupted all the time. Even English gets corrupted by generations, doesn't it?

Prof. Simpson : They saw the value in a permanent record.

Mr HAASE: It gets away from the economic imperative of our problem here. I believe you said a little while ago that you believe it would be greatly advantageous if in the early years of schooling that children were able to understand the proceedings and the instructions from a teacher. I can understand that that, in early years, would be process facilitation, therefore, enabling the learning process to take place. But I did not have a sense that you would want that to be formalised so as one would graduate as a master of that particular language. I would have thought we could make progress with simply a bilingual mother tongue speaker in the classroom interpreting, perhaps, the major aspects of the teaching process from the teacher.

Prof. Simpson : That is the de facto situation in a number of schools in the Northern Territory; that is actually what happens. Think about the kinds of things that we teach at school—we teach science, we teach maths, we teach things where we have built up a way of talking about. We talk about 'subtract', 'divide', 'multiply' or whatever. I remember when I went to primary school that one maths teacher said 'subtract' and another maths teacher said 'take away'. It took me a while to realise that these were the same thing. We have teachers who have been trained in maths and science—whatever teaching—who have a whole body of common vocabulary. That has not been the case for most Indigenous languages. One teaching assistant will interpret as best they can and they will use one form. Another teaching assistant will use another form for it. What the bilingual programs in the Northern Territory did was allow people to work together to develop a common way of talking about maths, or a common way of talking about science. So for instance—

Mr HAASE: Locally you mean? You are underlining locally in that regard.

Prof. Simpson : In their language—

Mr HAASE: Yes, locally.

Prof. Simpson : The Warlpiri schools had what they called the Warlpiri triangle. Schools where Warlpiri was the main language got together and they developed a Warlpiri maths curriculum so that the teachers and the teaching assistants would have consistent ways of interpreting mathematical concepts. I think that is really crucial. It is something that Batchelor institute is a great place for facilitating.

Dr STONE: Can I make a point very quickly? Are you agreeing with this statement—I am not trying to lead you—that Kriol is just as legitimate a language as any other and has grammatical structures, vocabularies, which make it just as rich as a means of communication as another language and that, therefore, it needs to be acknowledged that when a child comes to school with a Kriol that they have an alternative language to standard English and have to be treated with ESL-type support as much as a person speaking Dutch?

Prof. Simpson : Yes.

Dr STONE: Thanks.

Mr PERRETT: Is English a Kriol?

Prof. Simpson : That has been a subject of debate.

Mr PERRETT: The language of English. I remember when I was at teachers college that it was French. It was the Kriol language of the Normans, the Celts, the Anglos, the Saxons and all that.

Mr HAASE: All languages are in that sense.

Prof. Simpson : We certainly know that English underwent substantial changes after the Norman conquest—substantial changes in the sense that we lost a lot of the case endings that German has, for instance, and we borrowed a lot of French words. Most linguists these days would not say that the break in transmission was as sharp as what happened in the Kriol situation—

Mrs GRIGGS: I am interested in your funding. It is always a difficulty—accountability and funding and funding efficiently so you get the best outcomes. Your recommendation 9 is to introduce expert review into the allocation of funds. It is always very sensitive when it is Indigenous funding. How would you identify experts to assist with a review of those sorts of funding programs?

Prof. Simpson : The ARC has a peer review system for funding. It seems to me that MILR could do something similar, which is basically setting up a set of reviewers. Reviewers would have to include quite a wide range of skill sets because we have speech pathologists, linguists—we have lots of people involved.

Ms GRIERSON: Indigenous speakers.

Prof. Simpson : One of the things that the ARC has done is use previous grant recipients as peer reviewers.

Ms GRIERSON: Seeing you have raised the ARC peer reviewing as a model, can I ask you: do you think the ARC peer review group becomes weighted in certain ways so that it does not reflect the whole gamut of research? Do humanities get the same representation perhaps as sciences and maths and those things? I think that all these things can get out of balance sometimes.

Prof. Simpson : Everyone who fails to get an ARC grant, as I have done, assumes that there has to be something wrong with the system.

Ms GRIERSON: I am putting a plug in for humanities on the record, I suppose. Thank you.

CHAIR: You call for more research into the various stages of development of learning of language, particularly for young children. Tell us about the proficiency in English and effectiveness in English language that you think a child should have if English is a second language by about the age of seven, when they are just starting, or just into primary school, and have just started to learn how to read and do subtracting and 'minusing', as they used to say to me. This is a different way of putting it—'minusing'.

Prof. Simpson : I forgot 'minus'.

CHAIR: The school teacher down the end here is chuckling away.

Prof. Simpson : That is the kind of thing that I would turn over to my colleagues in the teaching profession.

CHAIR: I have a final question. There is the issue of the national Indigenous language commission, an idea that has been raised. Where would you see that fitting in and what would that look like? Wave the magic wand; give you the power. You are the minister. How would you do it and what would it look like?

Ms GRIERSON: Can I just ask: would it be part of an existing Indigenous structure—research structure or centre?

Prof. Simpson : It is rather difficult because there are so many different languages. We normally think of a language commission as something which works with one language. For instance, the Maori Language Commission, which helps standardise, helps develop resources—

CHAIR: Gaelic or Welsh.

Prof. Simpson : Gaelic, Welsh. So it is rather difficult to see how it could work for 300 languages.

CHAIR: Okay.

Mr PERRETT: I just wondered if there were examples such as Gaelic or Welsh. Is it the same Gaelic in the north of Scotland as in Ireland?

Prof. Simpson : Similar, but not the same.

Mr PERRETT: Were there world examples of government supporting languages?

Prof. Simpson : Welsh is probably the best and most successful example. The Welsh government put a lot of resources into Welsh education. They managed to achieve it so that the Welsh medium schools were so good that English speakers were sending their children to the—

Mr PERRETT: There was a time in Welsh history when there was no government support for the language.

Prof. Simpson : Yes.

Mr PERRETT: It started at a certain point where people wanted to preserve, or they were worried about decline—

Prof. Simpson : The Welsh Nationalist Movement fought extremely hard for the recognition of Welsh.

Mr PERRETT: When was that—the 1940s or 1950s?

Prof. Simpson : The 1950s or 1960s, I think.

Mr PERRETT: There were obviously a lot of native speakers.

Prof. Simpson : Yes. There was a substantial pool of native speakers, but they were worried about the decline. They are still very worried about the loss of speakers.


CHAIR: You made the observation that MILR tends to fund, if I can put it this way, revivalist rather than maintenance aspects of Indigenous languages. Do you think we should continue that or should we be saying, 'Most of these are lost. We shouldn't revive them. We should maintain the ones as best we can'? When is it really a 'silly thing to do', if I can put it in colloquial terms, to try and revive a language?

Prof. Simpson : I do think that more support needs to go into funding the languages where children are still speaking them. To say that that means that we should not fund the revival one I would find a lot of difficulty with.

CHAIR: So it is both. It is not an either/or?

Prof. Simpson : It is not an either/or.

CHAIR: It is both.

Mr HAASE: I am not sure it is a question, Professor. I am fairly close to the community of Mount Margaret in the eastern goldfields in Western Australia. Of course, some of the outcomes of Mount Margaret Mission are rather legendary as far as job achievement and subsequent leadership roles. Indigenous language was banned there once the missions moved in. All teaching was done in English. I accept there was a preparedness to rewrite the books on learning, and many practical examples were used to teach the basics of mathematics especially. It tends to be historical fact, well proven, that flies in the face of the move towards government support for the teaching of Indigenous language. It remains a problem for me in coming to grips with some of the evidence and recommendations we are receiving in evidence.

Prof. Simpson : I would like to pay my respects to the late Kathy Trimmer from Mount Margaret Mission who was the first Indigenous linguist that I know of to write a dictionary of her own language and who very much wanted that language to become strong and alive. Having gone through schooling in English, it did not mean that she did not want to keep her language.

Mr HAASE: The remarkable thing I find about that, of course, is that she was able to do it with the skill she had learned in English through the mission school that was very much dedicated to learning. She did it primarily without government assistance via the teaching of her Indigenous language. It is a great hurdle in my process of embracing the necessity for a linguist—

Prof. Simpson : She was a remarkable person.

Mr HAASE: She was, as many were. The first Australian Indigenous nursing sister, of course, and presided as matron over Leonora Hospital.

Ms GRIERSON: But you can never say: would she have done it differently now, knowing what she has done and all the experiences? It would make an interesting comparison to study and ask.

Mr PERRETT: In Queensland we have a lot of communities—probably like, as Barry said, mission areas. They are the deed of grant in trust lands or places like Palm Island where many groups from many parts of Queensland were brought together. I am not even sure what language—Yarrabah, Woorabinda, Cherbourg, Palm Island—but would there be benefits where languages have been dispersed? There might be a Kriol—I am not quite sure—but in terms of providing instructions in a Kriol rather than where you might have five different traditional owner groups all gathered in this one area created by priests or churches? Are there any examples from Canada or anywhere where they have been able to do something useful in terms of building identity and language and education?

Prof. Simpson : Your Far North Queensland education group are attempting to do something a bit like that in the sense of raising language awareness of what the children are actually speaking, what they come to school with.

Mr PERRETT: Which might be a Kriol or—

Prof. Simpson : Yes. There is a continuum between something which sounds like a completely different language and something which sounds like rural English. All of those get called 'Kriol' or 'Aboriginal English'.


Prof. Simpson : The key thing is finding out what the children are speaking and then working on how to teach in that environment. For a lot of communities we do not actually know what the children are speaking. There are Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory where, to the best of my knowledge, the education department and linguists—none of us know actually what the kids are speaking at home.

Mr HAASE: Is pidgin a Kriol?

Prof. Simpson : Pidgin is a technical term for a second language. A Kriol is a technical term for a first language.

Mr HAASE: I see.

Prof. Simpson : It becomes difficult because people call what they are talking 'pidgin', even though it is their first language. We have a terminological nightmare.

CHAIR: I will finish up by asking this question: we have had a lot of evidence about preschool, school, primary school and a lot of evidence about what happens, say, at university and TAFE in terms of courses that could be run. A lot of the focus has been on teaching young children. You have made a comment that there is little research about the high school students and what is appropriate for high school students. All of us have gone to high school. We learned in some fumbling way French or German or whatever it might have been. How would you envisage language learning in terms of Indigenous languages in high school and what should we do?

Prof. Simpson : Again, it depends on whether they are learning it as a second language, in which case similar sort of methods to what we use for teaching French or German would be used, or whether it is their first language, in which case there is no point just going through vocabulary items. We really need serious ways of enriching it. Just as we enrich our students' knowledge of English through literature, through films, through class discussions of different kinds, so we should be looking at ways of doing that for Indigenous languages. Children from Arnhem Land, Gupapuyngu speakers, should be able to have an enriched high school curriculum where their Gupapuyngu is enriched. At the moment I do not know of that happening anywhere. I think we have had a real problem because of the confusion between learning a second language and enriching your first language.

Dr STONE: Can that enrichment occur just as well without written form?

Prof. Simpson : A written form is an enrichment of the language.

Dr STONE: Having it translatable or converted into written form would be part of that enrichment?

Prof. Simpson : There are spelling systems and dictionaries for many Aboriginal languages, and for almost all the languages where children still speak them we have reasonably good dictionaries and spelling systems.

CHAIR: If you are not teaching it like Mandarin, French, German or Indonesian, would you envisage that you would, for example, in an Indigenous language learn about biology or any other form of science or maths, so that you would have someone being taught algebra in an Indigenous language? Is that what you are saying?

Prof. Simpson : No, that is not what I am saying at the moment. That is just a very big task to take that on for high school. It would require the kind of language engineering to develop the vocabulary to talk about those concepts that is beyond our reach. But it is not beyond our reach to have a high school course as we do currently for Mandarin enrichment, so that native speakers of Mandarin can take Mandarin at high school and develop that, which has the practical advantage then of not competing with second language learners in matriculation. We should be able to do the same for Indigenous languages.

CHAIR: I am glad I asked that.

Mr HAASE: The whole gamut of Indigenous languages?

Prof. Simpson : It is going to be a lot of work to develop a course for one language. Obviously you would have to start with where there is demand and where there are resources and people to do it. You could not introduce it across Australia all at once but you could start developing it. Once you have developed a program for one language then you can build on that for subsequent languages.

CHAIR: The APY languages—

Prof. Simpson : Yes.

CHAIR: Where there is demand and volume.

Prof. Simpson : Yes.

Ms GRIERSON: I just opened on Google Mount Margaret mission and there is an amazing article on a person who went through there. It talks about the loss of language. I will show it to the secretary.

CHAIR: Jane, thank you very much for being here. A transcript of your evidence will be available for publication.

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.

CHAIR: Thank you for your insightful and very interesting evidence.

Prof. Simpson : Thank you for giving me the chance to talk with you. It has been most interesting.

Committee adjourned at 13:03