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Tuesday, 27 March 1973
Page: 693

Mr WENTWORTH (Mackellar) - I am glad to have an opportunity to commend to the House the statement by the Minister for Education ,'Mr Beazley). I support it very warmly and I support also the terms in which the Minister spoke to us a few moments ago. It is true that this program follows on an initiative taken by the past Government. But I think that we should acknowledge gratefully the energy that the Minister has shown in regard to the program and the practical results which will flow from that energy. I place on record how much 1 support what is being done.

I think that in the pre-school level and infants school level, and even up to the primary level, there is a great case to be made out for the use in Aboriginal schools in the Northern Territory, particularly in Central Australia, and in Western Australia of the native language where that is current and in use by the Aborigines who live there. There are many reasons for this. I agree that there must be an association in the mind of a young child with the family situation and the transition which all children have to undertake from a purely family situation to one of the wider community. I agree that as a matter of practical education a good deal of the confusion which is felt by Aboriginal students at later ages may well be due to the fact that we have not made sufficient use of Aboriginal languages in training in schools, particularly in the primary and sub-primary schools.

I should like to make one or two additional points. The first follows from conversations I had some time ago with the international head of the Summer Institute of Linguistics - Dr Townsend - in which he made 2 points, one of which I am glad to see was incorporated in the Minister's speech, namely, that literacy should be established in the Aboriginal language. This is essential, and the Minister very rightly drew attention to some of the difficulties inherent in implementing this concept. But the Minister is going to implement it nevertheless. 1 think one point has to be faced. Experience indicates that the incorporation of English in the education of an individual who speaks another language should be carried out by somebody who is fluent in both languages. This is a great practical difficulty to which I will return in a moment. If a proper transition is to be carried out the teacher must be fluent in both languages. I agree that eventually there must be this transition to English because English gives opportunity for education and for advancement in the various transactions of life. The transition must be a matter of choice by the Aborigines themselves.

In my experience I have found that most Aborigines, although they do not want to abandon their own language, are anxious to become literate and fluent in English. We have made a great mistake over many years in Papua New Guinea in allowing a kind of pidgin to become established to such an extent that it is now probably ineradicable. I hope that that mistake will not be repeated in Australia, although I regret to say that there are some indications that it is being repeated in this country. We should help Aborigines to become fluent in normal English, but I do not believe that this means imposing upon them an English curriculum in primary and preprimary schools. The decision which is incorporated in the Minister's statement is, therefore a wise and a good one.

I turn now to the practical difficulties inherent in the implementation of this policy. They are many. Languages are so diverse and different. Many of us are inclined to dismiss the Aboriginal language as something which is very simple. People say that the Aboriginal language is made up of only a few words and that it has no structure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Investigation has revealed that Aboriginal vocabularies are far more extensive than was once thought and that Aboriginal syntax - sentence construction and so on - is much much more complicated than English and, indeed, I would say is far more complicated than even Greek or Latin. For that reason the learning of Aboriginal languages is by no means an easy thing.

As is pointed out in the paper, there are mixed situations in which two, three or more languages are current in a given group. This is not always so foreign to Aboriginal thinking as might be first believed, because very often the husband and wife in an Aboriginal family speak different languages. This situation does not always happen, of course, but it is by no means uncommon.

Mr Beazley - Many are tri-lingual.

Mr WENTWORTH - Yes. Therefore, a mixed language situation is not foreign to the Aboriginal approach. But I agree that the existence of a mixed language situation does add to our difficulties. I do not think that one could hope to get Europeans in general to become fluent in Aboriginal languages. There are some exceptions to this. For example, a dedicated lady in the north east of Arnhem Land is very much at home in the Aboriginal languages. I do not think that we can hope to get Europeans as a whole to speak Aboriginal languages because firstly the languages themselves are so difficult to learn and secondly the languages are very much localised, so that skills learnt at great cost and effort in one part of Australia are useless in another part of Australia. I might qualify my statement by pointing out that languages in the western desert have fairly widespread use but languages used in the north of Australia, particularly in Arnhem Land, Cape York and Western Australia, are very local and very different. So I do not think that we can hope to get Europeans to become fluent in Aboriginal languages and to carry out the function of the transition which requires someone who is fluent in both the English and Aboriginal languages.

I would think that the solution must lie in the further training of Aboriginal teachers. I do not go with the idea that a teacher, in order to teach in a primary or infants school, has to undergo such a tremendous amount of training. Very often the mother or a woman in the natural situation is absolutely capable of doing this. I think it is much better to sacrifice a little academic proficiency in order to get the language proficiency. I hope that Kormilda and the other centres with which the Minister is so familar would turn their attention more to turning out, quickly, Aboriginal teachers, particularly Aboriginal woman teachers, who could be used in the pre-school, infant and sub-primary grades. I am not suggesting for one moment that we should not endeavour to get Aborigines who are academically capable of taking the higher grades; I am not trying to rule that out for a moment. But it does seem to me that the first priority now is to get Aborigines who are capable in their own language - the language is crucial - of taking the lower grades in the schools.

I know that the Institute of Aboriginal Studies has done a lot of work on Aboriginal languages. The Institute has reduced languages to the printed word. It has found out the syntax of the language, analysed words and compiled vocabularies. But the real practitioner of a language is someone to whom that language is native. Let me take up one or two side matters. The Minister spoke of Aboriginal studies being taught in the schools. This, of course, is a good thing in regard to Aboriginal secular life, artifacts and perhaps even some bark paintings. But the Minister has made some reservations. He spoke of those parts of ceremonial life which are approved by the community. A tremendous amount of ceremonial life is local and should not be the object of open study in an Aboriginal community, because from the Aboriginal point of view the efficacy or the nature of the ceremony depends upon the details of that ceremony being restricted. The profanation - to use that word in its technical sense - of the ceremony by its incorporation in school curricula might help to dissolve the power and the significance of it for Aboriginal people. Although I agree with what the Minister has said about incorporating Aboriginal skills, not necessarily formally in the curricula, I think some reservations have to be made in regard to the ceremonial life and that side of Aboriginal studies where the Aboriginals themselves should be consulted and in no way should they be pressurised into making public or more widespread the knowledge and significance of their ceremonies.

Finally I would like to say that I hope on a wider scale that the Administration will not try to mix up the various tribes in a way which the tribes themselves would resent. Let us have no more instances like Maningrida where there seems to have been almost some kind of deliberate attempt to play down tribal significance. We have mixed groups which are very difficult and which I believe are not in the best interests of the Aborigines themselves. If there is to be mixture and a breaking down of the tribe then let the initiative come from the Aborigines. We should not try to push them harder or faster than they themselves would choose. I would almost hope that in some cases there might be within a limited framework some kind of re-sorting of the tribal situations, again not forcing it, but allowing the Aborigines themselves to choose it. As an example I am thinking of the Aboriginal settlements of Papunya and Yuendumu which are almost adjacent to each other. Perhaps there could be some interchange between the populations of those 2 settlements. I am not suggesting that members of those settlements should be shifted but 1 believe they should be allowed to decide whether there should be some interchange which might be to the advantage of everyone concerned. I do not want to say any more. I want to conclude my speech simply as I started by commending the paper and the Minister.

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