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Aboriginal Languages Slowly Making Way into Australian Schools

  • Nicola Fell

On the eve of European settlement in Australia, around 250 indigenous languages were spoken. Today most of them have been lost, and only 17 are thought likely to survive for another generation. But in the state of New South Wales, the government is attempting to reverse this. In schools with a large indigenous population, learning an aboriginal language will be available to all students, as Nicola Fell reports from Sydney.

Here at Broulee Primary School on the southeastern coast of Australia, Waine Donovan is greeting his students in the local Aboriginal language, Dhurga.

"I didn't learn the actual Dhurga language… because traditionally, Aboriginal people were forbidden from speaking their own language. If they were caught doing it, they could be punished by beating, or they could be killed. So, a lot of our elders still don't speak the language. They also don't feel that it's valuable," he explained.

Donovan, who is half Aboriginal and grew up here in Broulee, says the new emphasis on native languages is popular among Aboriginal students.

"For Aboriginal people in Australia, if you do something that draws attention to yourself, it's seen as a shame. But since we've been doing this language course in our school, we actually use the language a lot more, in the staff room, we hear it being used in the playground, it permeates throughout the school. That shame aspect has actually been turned around, to pride," said Donovan.

In New South Wales, all students have to learn a second language, and this policy being pioneered by the state government aims to make indigenous languages the main option, along with Chinese and French.

Rob Randal of the New South Wales Department of Education says that so far, 5,000 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students are learning an indigenous language local to their area.

In a nation where indigenous culture suffered greatly since European settlement, Randal says the reason for this new program goes beyond mere education.

"This move is as much about reconciliation as it is about enhancing their cultural identity, as it is about the educational reasons," he said.

Randall says the reception to the language courses has been striking. He says one school had a 12 percent suspension rate the year before the language was introduced. The following year, suspensions dropped to zero.

He says there was also a 25 percent increase in attendance at the school, and he hopes this enthusiasm will help eliminate the achievement gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students.

"Having children attend school and engage in school leads logically to improved results," he said. "Our goal is by 2012 to have Aboriginal student achievement on a par with non-Aboriginal student achievement. At the moment, there's a significant gap."

When European settlement began in Australia more than 200 years ago, 250 Aboriginal languages were spoken. Today there are only 20, and fewer than 3,000 people speak an indigenous language in New South Wales.

Michael Walsh, a linguist at the University of Sydney, says revitalizing languages can help people like Australia's Aborigines recover their lost identity.

"I've seen specific instances where Aboriginal people have had a terrible life, and the mere reintroduction of their language has been enough to turn their life around from one of despair and hopelessness to one of optimism, and an ability to function much more effectively in the wider society," he said.

Many teachers believe that this policy can make a real difference to how Aboriginal children perform in school. Currently only 33 percent are completing high school - which is less than half the national average.

Tiahnnya Smith is 10 and lives near her school in Broulee.

"I'm Aboriginal and I think I should know Aboriginal words," said Smith.

Q: "The teachers say that when children learn an Aboriginal language, like you, then they do better at school. Do you think that's true?"

A: "Yes because makes me feel good because I'm learning my own culture."

Frances Kerkham, who is nine, says non-Aboriginal students also enjoy learning the language.

"I reckon it's really interesting because I get to learn about the language of the people who originally lived on these grounds," said Kerkham.

Interesting to a girl like Frances - but important to a girl like Tiahnnya. For her and students like her, this is a part of personal history.

Tiahnnya is teaching her mother to speak their native language, she says. Doing so makes her proud.