Bilingual education can take different forms, but the underlying principle is the development and ongoing maintenance of knowledge and capacity in both languages.
I have always supported and fought for that principle in the context of those Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory where there is a dominant regional language which has community endorsement as the language to be taught in school in addition to English. How to implement bilingual education in a community where there is no consensus as to which Indigenous language should be taught as the "other" language is a more difficult challenge which I will not attempt to discuss here.
Fundamental to the concept of bilingual education is the notion that development of capacity in both languages should take place within the same timeframe and that it should be an ongoing process. There is an increasing body of research which confirms that children benefit significantly from being exposed to and taught in both languages from the earliest possible time.
As noted by Janet Werker, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who studies language acquisition in bilingual babies, in an NPR News radio interview broadcast last year: Growing up bilingual is just as natural as growing up monolingual. There is absolutely no evidence that bilingual acquisition leads to confusion and there is no evidence that bilingual acquisition leads to delay.
In a fairly spiteful and inaccurate article published in New Matilda last week, Greg Dickson has attacked what he says was my abandonment, when I was the NT Minister for Education, of what he calls bilingual education.
Greg Dickson is a member of a sophisticated, well-organised and influential lobby group. It is a lobby group that purports to promote bilingual education but in fact promotes a particular teaching strategy that has been referred to as the "step" or "staircase" method or the "transfer model". It is a strategy which is predicated on a concern that early childhood learning of two languages (i.e. both English and an Indigenous language) causes confusion and difficulties, and that instead the child should be exclusively "immersed" in the Indigenous language to start off with. The child is to be gradually exposed to English over time, and then fully transitioned into English after about five years of schooling.
The strategy is in truth one which favours sequential monolingualism, and to the extent that the goal of being able to transition to English after five years is achieved it involves what is tantatmount to "burning the bridge after it has been crossed".
Greg Dickson’s article starts with some historical information about generic bilingual education in the Northern Territory. Arguably the most authoritative examination of this issue was in the Learning Lessons report commissioned by the then County Liberal Government and submitted in late 1999. This is what the report had to say (at page 25, my emphasis in bold text):
"The transfer model has sufficient question marks surrounding it for the review to recommend that it undergo complete reappraisal to determine the most appropriate approach. As part of this reappraisal, a comprehensive analysis is required of what is either in place or available to increase the amount of standard English oracy and explicit exposure to the literate language features, while supporting vernacular language development. This assessment is critical to all attempts to address the quality and effectiveness of English language teaching for all Indigenous students, and is not a matter or bilingual or not bilingual. The ‘bilingual or not’ debate conceals and distorts the generic concerns that are in need of urgent analysis.
"The review believes that the whole question of ‘bilingual education’ in respect of the most effective pedagogy for teaching Indigenous students has become a major red herring. The term itself no longer reflects what is happening in classrooms and is so divergently interpreted and misunderstood that is should no longer be used. A more accurate and appropriate description would be ‘two-way learning’, a term which removes the current tendency to see learning in the vernacular and English as somehow in competition. The evidence is that competency in one tends to be reflected in competency in the other, and in any case, vernacular instruction is taking place regardless.
A longer extract including the above passage was reproduced and relied on in the policy document on Indigenous education in the Territory which I finalised in November 2008. The document, which can be viewed here, was called Transforming Indigenous Education and covered various policy initiatives which had already been agreed upon by the Northern Territory government over a month before.
The main policy initiative related to addressing the long term truancy crisis. The policy initiative which Greg Dickson complains of formed only one part of the over-arching policy framework, but the formal announcement of that particular policy initiative in October 2008 was bungled by myself and others. I have made that acknowledgment countless times since, and I had in fact begun making strenuous attempts to correct the public record in the weeks after the formal announcement was made.
It is an unfortunate feature of modern Australian politics that policy initiatives often tend to get "dumbed down" to slogans or "key lines" formulated by people who don’t themselves have to actually speak them in public. The key line for this particular policy initiative was "four hours English". It was a mistake for me to run with that. The impression conveyed to many at the time was that there would be a prohibition on the use of any Aboriginal language in the first four hours of the school day.
That was not at all the policy intention which I had settled on after a great many meetings with Aboriginal educators, including my friend Esther Djayhgurngga, the Principal of the School at Gunbalanya in my electorate. Gunbalanya was not a "step method" school but it was a "two way learning" school. The local language of Kunwinjku was and continues to be used as a vehicle for teaching English. My intention was that English should be learned in that way in the morning, and that Kunwinjku should be taught as a subject in its own right in the afternoon.
I wanted to launch a policy (for the first time in Territory history) which would prioritise the teaching of Aboriginal languages as subjects in their own right throughout the whole of a student’s education, not just during the first five years of schooling. That would take place in the afternoon but would not replace the use of a locally endorsed Aboriginal language as a vehicle for teaching English in the morning.
But people like Greg Dickson know all this, because I have made my position clear in published articles again and again, particularly in 2009. It is expedient for him to further his partisan lobbying interests by presenting the policy as some kind of mainstreaming assault on Indigenous identity.
More important to me than my attempts to set the record straight in the media and in other mainstream forums, was the time and effort I spent over the following months and years to visit schools and communities throughout the Territory, in particular communities with "step method" schools . The meetings I had at Yirrkala and Yuendemu in particular went for hours.
In every single community I went to, when I explained the change in emphasis from "step method" to Gunbalanya-style "two way learning", the Aboriginal teachers, parents, and elders I spoke to understood and endorsed the change. There was universal acceptance and acknowledgement that kids needed to effectively learn English as well as their local Aboriginal language, and that that objective wasn’t being achieved at the moment. In fact, the concern expressed to me was that members of the younger generation were not effectively learning their own language, and there was enthusiasm for the plan to teach it as a language in its own right at times when community elders could participate and contribute.
Contrary to Greg Dickson’s claims I was not "publicly heckled by Indigenous language-speaking students" at Batchelor, and neither Eva Lawler nor myself were ordered to leave Areyonga.
I have not been the Northern Territory Minister for Education since early 2009. Some, but by no means all, of Transforming Indigenous Education has been implemented. Any criticisms that Greg Dickson or others may wish to make about the situation on the ground in the Territory as of 2012 can be taken up with others.
But I do not resile in any way from my belief that the "step method" promoted by Greg Dickson et al squanders the precious opportunity for Indigenous infants to simultaneously learn English and their own language at the beginning of their schooling journey, and that in the end it undermines rather than enhances bilingual education.
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