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Bilingual education for Australian Aborigines

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Overseas research and experience suggest that the basic components of a bilingual programme should be:

I. English or second language 2. Native or Primary language 3. Normal school subjects (science, social studies, health etc. taught in both languages) 4. Culture of both groups.

To be truly bilingual, a programme must be bicultural otherwise it is just a regular school programme with a second language added to it.


There is a basic difference in approach in teaching English language skills to the average English—speaking child and teaching English language skills to a child whose mother tongue is another language. A bilingual programme would add little to

the methods used in teaching the first group but would involve teaching English as a second language to the second group.

Bilingual education does not bring new methods into the teaching of subject matter. It relies on modern theories used in teaching any subjects at elementary level. No part of the curriculum should be taught merely as a translation of the other.

Teaching the culture

In a (true) bilingual programme it is essentinl that both cultures are taught and that there should be a careful planning of the cultural programme. Materials should be developed, often at the local level. Without planningthe teaching of

culture can cease to be an integral part of the bilingual programme. Bilingual education has to teach a child where his two cultures are alike and where they differ.

The goals of Bilingual Education

Bilingual education assumes that deficiency in English is a primary factor in a child's inability to conceptualise in a class at the same level as other children whose first language


is English. Theoretically it enables a Child to learn in his own language from the time when he first enters school while, at the same time, he progressively catches up with his understanding and communication In English. If the bilingual education is

continued through primary school he should achieve the same group level as the monolingual -English speaking Child and should also understand and appreciate both cultures of .which he is part. A successful bilingual programme must also achieve the same or

superior standards in other skills and content subjects (maths, science) as a monolingual programme.

American Experience of Bilingual Education

Bilingual education in the USA dates back to 1840 when an attempt was made to draw the children of German immigrants from private and parochial schools into the state school system by promising them instruction in German language or the German and English languages together. There was, however, no single

community which, over a long period of tine, had a bilingual programme which was adequately sup p orted by the community it served. Such bilingual programmes as existed were rarely integrated into either the philosophy or the practice of the

school or of the society. Teaching, teacher training, curriculum plqnning, evaluation and community involvement all fell below ideal standards.

Bilingual schooling disappeared in the United States between 1920 and 1963, in which year a true bilingual programme was initiated in the Coral Way Elementary School, Dade County, Miami, Florida. Half the school population spoke English, the

other half S panish, and parents were offered a choice between the traditional All-English programme and a bilingual programme in which about half the teaching would be done in S panish. Almost all the parents chose the bilingual programme and by the second

year it was not necessary to continue the all-English curriculum. In the programme English-speaking children were learning a second language and Spanish . speaking children were learning to read and write their native language. An evaluation of the programme in

1968 found that progress in language, arts and arithmetic had not been handicapped by the use for approximately half of each school day of a second language.


In the evaluation of another bilingual programme in Webb County, Texas, it was found that both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking children learned mathematics better bilingually (through Spanish and English) than monolingually.

Some bilingual programmes in America have not been so successful, owing primarily to a shortage of adequately prepared teachers and the indifference of parents and the general public.

The Bilingual Education Act 1968

This Bill was introduced into the Senate of the US on 17 January 1967 and became law on 2 January 1968. The Bill recognised and aimed at redressing the educational disadvantage of Children whose home language was other than English.

The close correlation between inability in English and educational deficiency had received increasing attention from education investigators in studies ranging over a number of years culminating in the work of the Special Subcommittee on Bilingual Education, of the Committee on Labour and Public elf are of the United States Senate.

The Act declared it to be -"The policy of the United States to provide financial assistance to local education agencies to develop and carry out new and imaginative elementary and

secondary school programs designed to meet these special educational needs. For the purpose of this title, 'children of limited English-speaking ability' means children who come from environments where the dominant language is other than English."

Bilingual education is defined as -"The use of two languages, one of which is English, as mediums of instruction for the same pu p il population in a well organised program which encompasses part or

all of the curriculum and includes the study of the history and culture associated with the mother tongue. A complete program develops and maintains the Children's self-esteem and a legitimate pride in both cultures."


And the aims of the Bill are summarised as follows -

"It is intended that children p articipating in this program will develop greater competence in English, become more proficient in their dominant language, and profit from increased educational opportunity.

Though the Title VII, ESEA program affirms the primary importance of English, it also recognises that the use of the children's mother tongue in school can have a beneficial effect upon their

education. Instructiona3 use of the mother tongue can help to prevent retardation in school performance until sufficient command of English is attained. Moreover, the development of literacy in the mother

tongue as well as in English should result in more broadly educated adults."

The bilingual programmes under the Act are aimed at children of limited English-speaking ability aged between 3-18. There is a "poverty clause" which restricts grants to areas having a high concentration of p oor families. Further, with only limited

funds available, great emphasis is placed on the evaluation of results so that the cost effectiveness of the scheme can be assessed.

An assessment of the effectiveness of the half year of the programme has revealed that "there is such inadequate attention - time, resources, and understanding - to the other tongue, as compared to the attention paid to English, that, on the whole, the concept of bilingual education represented by these

plans of operation seems to be something less than the legislation and its advocates intended." (1)

These weaknesses have been revealed particularly where the bilingual programme was seen simply as a "bridge" to English and not as a two-way process of cultural enrichment. Assimilation often seemed to be the goal rather than linguistic and cultural

pluralism. Most teachers are not prepared for bilingual schooling. To a large extent the projects depend on the teaching services of aides, 'bilingual individuals usually drawn from the local community. These are rarely requited to be literate in the aglish tongue

and are paid low wages. Where the bilingual programme is aimed (1) Quoted in Bilingual Education, The American Experience, by Theodore Andersson. Modern Language Journal, Vb1.55, No.8, 1971, p.433.


at cultural pluralism and not simply at being a bridge the teacher is supposed to present adequately two cultures which to be done authentically, fully and fairly, requires two persons.

The American ex perience of bilingual education which is perhaps most applicable to the Australian situation is educational experimentation on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.

Until 1966 the education had aimed at total assimilRtion. The schools had discouraged the use of the Navajo language and are said to have denigrated the Indian way of life. The administration had been paternalistic, the Bureau of Indian Affairs denying the right of the Navajo to control their own affairs. The result

had been "poverty, dependence and spiritual depression 1) and

a high drop out rate with an average of 3 years schooling for members of the tribe aged over 25.

In 1966 the Routh Rock Demonstration School was established with a school board, chosen from community leaders, having absolute control over choice of staff and general policy.

The school was given a generous budget by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Economic Opportunity. Navajo was taught as the first language, English as the second. Adults were encouraged to visit the school and, as many children had to live

in dormitories, were employed as house mothers, and at every level of the school's operation. Parent-teacher-child "learn-ins" were held to combine home teaching with school teaching and Navajo culture was the basis of the curriculum. Encouraged by

the success of the Rough Rock experiment (non-existent drop out rate, close involvement of Navajo peo ple in their children's education) other schools have been opened on the Reserve through the enthusiasm of the local communities, and a Navajo community

college has been established, the first institution of higher education completely organised and controlled by Indians. The faculty is one-third Navajo and Navajo studies is the centre of the academic curriculum.

(1) The Navajos build a College, Estelle Fuchs, Saturday Review, 4 March 1972, p.58.


The main problem to be solved is whether a minority culture can be maintained while preparing individuals to compete with the standards imposed by the dominant culture but the founder of Rough Rock Demonstration School says the most

significant achievement has been:

"Indians have at last won the right to be wrong. It's a freedom other Americans have long enjoyed." (1)

The Position in Australia

The Watts-Gallacher Report on Aboriginal Schools in the Northern Territory issued in 1964 stated:

"Even in a situation like that in the Northern Territory where the Aborigines as a minority group need to become proficient in the English language, it cannot be doubted that the language which should

be used as the medium of instruction in the early years of schooling is their own vernacular language. The education of young children in their own tongue will not only help the children to feel secure in

the school situation but will also promote their concept development and, importantly, will help them to feel that school life is not dikrorced from village life. Research suggests that children who

achieve literacy in their mother tongue subsequently achieve literacy in a second language more readily and more successfully than children whose first attempts at literacy are in a foreign language."

The Report went on to advise, however, that the p ractical difficulties of implementing teaching in the vernacular in the Northern Territory were insurmountable at present owing to:

1. The variety of languages and dialects in use.

2. The impossibility of requiring that all teachers should master an Aboriginal language.

(1) Smooth Path at Rough Rock, by Raul Tunley, American Education, March 1971, p.20.


3. The cost of providing text books and adequate reading material in at least twelve major Aboriginal languages.

Having considered these difficulties, the Report reached the "only practicable conclusion. English should be the language of instruction in the schools. (

It was, however, felt advisable that children should be encouraged to use their own language in class discussions and it was felt that Aboriginal teaching assistants could have special functions here. The use of their own language would

reassure not only new school entrants but also older children who would "derive security and comfort from communication in the vernacular with the teaching assistants". It was further hoped

that the teaching assistants would be able to assist the children by discussing with them in the vernacular the subject content of lessons which had been taught in English, revealing misconceptions and correcting errors which would thus provide a sounder basis

for future learning.

Teachers should be given the opportunity to learn as much of the local language as possible and should be given a special training in general linguistics so that they could understand the problems that arise owing to differences between

the Aboriginal and English language.

On December 14, 1972, the Prime Minister, Hon. E.G. Whitlam, after consultation with the Minister for Education, Mr Beazley, and Dr H.C. Coombs, announced that a campaign would be launched to have Aboriginal children living

in distinctive Aboriginal communities given their primary education in Aboriginal languages with English being taught as a second language. Traditional Aboriginal Arts, Crafts and Skills were also to be incorporated into the school curriculum.

The Government would assist in the training of teachers and teacher aides — some of them Aborigines — to help with the language teaching in primary schools.

(1) p.81.


It was expected that most Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory would be affected and the programme would be further extended to tribal areas of Northern Queensland, the KiMberleys in Western Australia and

y forthern South Australia.

An advisory group on teaching in Aboriginal languages in schools in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory was established consisting of Dr Betty H. Watts, Reader in Education, University of Queensland, Mr W.J. McGrath, Inspector

of Schools, Aboriginal Education Branch, and Mr J.L. Tandy, Department of Education, Canberra. The task of this group was to examine the nature and extent of the resources available and

then to make recommendations for the implementing of government policy. The Committee's task was not to assess the educational p rinciples involved but to implement an already determined policy. However, after three weeks investigation and discussions with as many officers, teachers, linguists and Aboriginal people as

p ossible, the Group found itself in agreement with a bilingual approach because it made "most sense, not only to the educationists and linguists but also to the Aboriginal people themselves".


The recommendations are embodied in a 74-page report, Bilingual Education in Schools in Aboriginal Communities in the Northern Territory ? Department of Education, March 1972. In its opening paragraph the Report stated that "the optimal

educational, cultural and social development of the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory can best be fostered through the institution of a programme of bilingual education". (2)


definition of bilingual education as formulated by the United States in framing its Bilingual Education Act is adopted.

It is felt that if the language of the community were an integral part of the school programme -1. the school would be an agent of cultural continuity, with the non-Aboriginal Australian culture introduced in a manner

accep table to the people.

2. the children's pride in their ethnic identity would be fostered and favourable self conce p ts developed.

(1) p.4.

(2) Para. 1.1, p.7.


3. Aboriginal teachers would give the children effective and acceptable models from within their own ethnic group.

4. adults in the community would feel an involvement in and responsibility for Aboriginal language.

The Report gives details of the benefits expected, both educational and social, and gives models for the introduction of bilingual programmes in different areas as follows:

(a) where there is a single Aboriginal language 'which has been analysed and recorded by linguists; -

(b) where the accepted Aboriginal language has not been analysed and recorded;

(c) where there is net one Aboriginal language which is universally accepted.

The third section of the Report deals with the initial implementation of a bilingual programme and recommends that it should be introduced in its full form only to the pre—school and First Year Infants' class. In higher grades it may be possible to work towards literacy in the Aboriginal dialect or language.

In comnunities where the Aboriginal people wish the older children to undertake Aboriginal studies this section of the curriculum could be expanded if the Aboriginal community would undertake the resoonsibility.

The Report next deals with the problems arising from the multiplicity of languages and dialects. It is recognised that the ideal of a child beginning his education and establishing literacy in his first language may not be attainable. The final decision relating to the choice of language to be used in the bilingual Programme must rest with the Aboriginal community

assisted if possible by a linguist. The need for further research so that all languages spoken by Aboriginal groups of significant size have been fully recorded and analysed is recognised. Further, the need for usycholinguistic research

into Aboriginal children's developmental acquisition of their language is described as urgent.


Analysis of differences in conceptual styles and preferred cognitive strategies between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians would provide useful information to those devising bilingual educational programmes.

In section 5 the Report considers the matter of teaching staff, curriculum, resource materials and evaluation:-

1. Teaching Staff

The special strengths of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers are examined and a re-definition of their roles is recommended so that "the strengths of each group may be fully realised to the benefit of the children". Provision for

in-service training of the Aboriginal member by the fully qualified teacher is recommended. It will be necessary for the staff to see 1973 as a developmental year and to keep identifying problem

areas and co-operate in solving them. The use of reasonably short workshop sessiors is recommended for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff members. A change in emphasis is required as previously Aborigines have been used as teaching assistants

and they would need a greater understanding of the whole education process, together with a clear grasp of the grammar and syntax of their language. The aim should be for all new or untrained Aboriginal members of the teaching teams to have an

initial 2-year course of teacher training, together with a further final period of teacher education at a later point in time. The training course would need to be handled by officers knowledgeable about the Aboriginal people and the s p ecial needs

of the trainees understood and met.

The non-Aboriginal staff would also need certain new skills for teaching English as a second language and teacher education authorities would be consulted about courses to prepare teachers for this type of work.

The supply of trained Aboriginal teaching staff is seen as essential for the success of the programme and staffing problems are likely to be serious as the need expands. The solution of the staff supply problem is seen by the Advisory Group as lying in the support of the Aboriginal communities for the

scheme. There will need to be an enthusiastic and sustained


effort by all concerned to lift the status of the teaching profession in Aboriginal regard and to encourage the communities to do their own selection and recruitment among

their people.

2. Curriculum Modifications

Possible modifications of the pro-school curriculum should be considered in view of the introduction of bilingual education. It is suggested that in Infants School bilingual education should be introduced only to the new intake of school

entrants to avoid interruption and major changes for children already in their second or third year. Some changes could be adopted (use of Aboriginal language for relevant activities, reading of Aboriginal stories) but detailed programmes would

only become possible as the 1973 intake of children advarced through Infants school.

A special note is taken of non-Aboriginal children attending schools where bilingual ap p roaches are used and it is suggested that Head Teachers will have to evolve a form of school organisation so that non-Aboriginal children can make proper progress and benefit from interaction with Aboriginal children.

The position of Aboriginal children attending schools outside Aboriginal communities was unable to be considered by the Advisory Group.

3. Resource Materials

It would be essential to make an immediate start on the production of reading and other resource materials in the Aboriginal language. These materials should be such that interest is aroused in and pleasure associated with the reading process.

4. Evaluation

Difficulties are foreseen in evaluating children's progress awing to the limited professional skills of the Aboriginal members of the teaching staff and it is suggested that during 1973 staff should aim at devising sets of evaluation techniques which may be easily used by the Aboriginal staff members. Of

particular importance is the assessment of the children's


progress and fluency in English as the ease of transition from literacy in an Aboriginal language to literacy in English is determined by this. The development of more effective bilingual programmes will be achieved by an on-going evaluation of the

programme. It is recommended that a research and development programme in the area of evaluation be instituted.

Further Recommendations

1. Staff facilities be provided to support the personnel in the schools engaged in the bilingual programme.

2. A senior officer should be appointed to have overall responsibility for the development, implementation and expansion of bilingual education. Two advisory teachers, one at Darwin and the other at Alice Springs, should also be appointed.

3. Present professional staff may need to be increased to deal with the development of curricula.

4. Professional staff would need consultation with a linguist and an anthropologist in the production of suitable materials.

5. Pre-schooling and in-service training are also likely to require additional staff.

6. The Darwin Office should be provided immediately p ith offset printing facilities and the necessary operating staff to produce the essential reading materials.

7. A consultative Committee including an educationist, a suitably qualified linguist and an anthro p ologist, should be ap p ointed to review progress and provide guidance for future policy.

Finally, the Advisory Group selects five schools in which it is suggested the programme be implemented in 1973. Two Ap pendices discuss the pre-school curriculum and the Infant School curriculum in more detail.

Arguments for and against Bilinqual Education

Arguments in Favour

The advantages which are expected from the introduction of bilingual education in Aboriginal communities are:-

(a) the Aboriginal child will be happier at school, will feel more at home and less bewildered by alien surroundings;

(b) his ethnic identity will be given status comparable to the ethnic identity of his white classmate;

(c) his comprehension of and transition to western type schooling will be eased;

(d) the Aboriginal culture will be preserved, the school being "the agent of cultural continuity rather than of cultural discontinuity" (1)


(e) The recording and analysis of Aboriginal languages and dialects will be encouraged which will help preserve them from extinction;

(f) through parental involvement the Aboriginal community be able to accept responsibility and make its own decisions for the future;

(g) the disadvantage of the Aboriginal in the dominant white community will be lessened.

The overseas experiences among the Navajo Indians give support to the possibility of these aims being realised. The establishment of pilot schemes in carefully selected locations and the emphasis placed on evaluation of progress will give the

opnortunity to assess the degree of success of the scheme as applied in Australia.


(1) Para. 1.2.1, p.7.


Arguments Against

General concern about bilingual education is based on the following assumptions:

1. Children who are instructed bilingually from an early age will suffer cognitive or intellectual retardation in comparison with their monolingually instructed counterparLs.

2. They will not achieve the same level of content mastery as monolingually instructed children.

3. They will not achieve acceptable native language or target language skills.

4. They

y ill become socially disorientated and be isolated from both culture groups.

Some Australian psychologists have expressed concern about the bilingual education programme on the above grounds, and Mr Rupert Xentish, M.L.C. for Arnhem Land, has opposed the introduction of bilingual education in the Northern Territory for

similar reasons. He feels that a bilingual policy has nothing of benefit for the future of Aboriginalsbut rather the reverse if they are to live and work in an English speaking country.

Aboriginal skills should be taught at home, not preserved by a paternalistic government.

Mr Kentish points out that the multiplicity of Aboriginal languages means that inter-tribal communication has been aided by the advancement of fluency in English. He feels that among the many disadvantages of teaching in an Aboriginal language

is the fact that many nouns and actions have no equivalents in native language.

Mr Kentish concludes that his deep concern is -"the disastrous effect of neglecting the English content of teaching whieh should rather be intensified if the people are ever to make any progress in this country of one people and one language."

The new policy showed -" sheer ignorance of Aboriginal habits and educational priorities."


(1) Letter in the Northern Territory News, 19 December, 1972.


Apart from the Navajo experiments the most successful overseas bilingual programmes have involved two strong Western type cultures with community backing for both (e.g. Dade County, Florida and Webb County, Texas).

The Aboriginal culture involves a way of life and set of values completely foreign to Western culture. It is a way of life transmitted from adult to child with a strong oral tradition that is also completely alien to formal schooling.

Sex roles are clearly defined and the divisions between the sexes are such as to make the teaching of Aboriginal culture to boys and girls together impossible. The skills required of Aboriginals living in a tribal state are mainly concerned with food gathering

and survival. Tracking and an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of the lend are not readily taught in a western type school, even if teachers with these skills were available. A strong

material culture has never been developed by the nomadic Aboriginals and the bark paintings and art associated with them is often a westernised adaptation without true cultural context. Some Aboriginal songs and legends have been collected and could perhaps be taught but their meaning would be violated by being taught

out of their religious context with sex and totemic taboos ignored. The success of the Navajo schools lies partly in the fact that the Navajo culture could be learnt and transmitted in a school setting, the material culture and handcraft skills of a settled

people being more highly developed than those of a nomadic people. To this extent the Navajo data can only be applied cautiously to Aboriginal communities.

The Aboriginelshave no background of a written language and many dialects and languages have not been recorded. Consequently there is little literary resource material. If Aboriginal reading material could be made readily and freely

available in the community it may be possible to ameliorate the anti-reading situation in the home. The bilingual programme has a double aim:-

1, to achieve literacy in the Child's Aboriginal dialect; 2. to achieve literacy in English.

Even if the problems of lack of literacy material and multiplicity of languages could be overcome so that (1) could be achieved, there is as yet no real evidence that it would ease the transition to literacy in English. Among the Navajo the transition was,


in some cases, eased, (1) but the double academic task of acquiring literacy in a non—literary dialect and then in English is a formidable one.

Bilingual education as a form of remedial education to overcome disadvantage in achievement in western society also poses problems. It is expected that such a programme will assist the acquisition of concepts necessary for partici pation in the Western competitive world. There may be strong grounds for

saying that the acquisition of such concepts would be fact be retarded because the terms required do not exist in Aboriginal languages. For instance, Aboriginal concepts of time are quite differemt to Western concepts ad 10 minutes or one hour has no meaning for them. Similarly the concepts of place or number used

in English have no meaning in Aboriginal languages. A more effective form of remedial education may therefore be English language enrichment programmes which attempt to tackle this specific problem (e.g. pre—school pro g ramme at Bourke, NSW).

Bilingual education may assist the move from home life to school life but if teaching is in the vernacular the school could become identified with Aboriginal cultural systems and motivations — the very variables which may be hindering the

present children from acquiring the kinds of concepts required to make a success of their entry into Western civilization. The children may be hap p ier but at the expense of being reinforced in the antipathetic attitudes to success which lead to failure

in Western society.

Involvement of the Aboriginal community is an

essential feature of the proposals put forward in the Report.(2) The community itself is expected to implement the Aboriginal Studies programme. It is possible that such a degree of community involvement will not be forthcoming without an extensive

community education plan. To have a better chance of success the motivation for such courses should come from the community itself and not from the government.

However, the experiments at Rough Rock Demonstration School, Arizona, are beginning to show what can be achieved when the community is able to accept responsibility in this way.

(1) Smooth Paths at Rough Rock, Roul Tunley, American Education, March 1971, p.18. (2) see para. 5.2.5, p.48.


If the bilingual ap p roach is being used as a remedial programme for educationally disadvantaged children it is probable that home and socio—economic background are among the causes of the disadvantage. Unless this background, often one of

illiteracy and antipathy, can be drastically altered, it is unlikely that community backing will work towards the success of the programme.


The Report on Bilingual Education was produced in three weeks and was concerned with implementing a policy rather than investigating its underlying principles or implications.

The far—reaching educational and sociological implications of a true -bilingual programme would need to be carefully researched, however, through the pilot schemes. Even if the bilingual programme is capable of practical implementation

its reinforcement of cultural values alien to Western culture may possibly retard rather than assist the Aboriginal to find his own identity in a Western dominated country.

Education and Welfare Group LEGISLATIVE RESEARCH SERVICE (D.B.) 9/8/73