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Fwd: Aboriginal languages the remedy

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  • Donald Z. Osborn
    On this list I ve posted on the subject of how monolingual non-first-language education can lead to a kind of limited or impaired bilingualism (or even
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 13, 2005
      On this list I've posted on the subject of how monolingual non-first-language
      education can lead to a kind of limited or impaired bilingualism (or even
      semilingualism?). Here is a case that seems to show that as well as other
      consequences of programs that ignore people's first language. (Fwd from
      MultiEd-L ; also seen on ILAT)... DZO

      Mike Steketee: Aboriginal languages the remedy
      The Australian
      July 14, 2005

      RICHARD Trudgen is not surprised by this week's report to federal and state
      governments showing that, with a few exceptions, we are not making much
      progress on overcoming indigenous disadvantage.

      A steering committee run through the Productivity Commission found that,
      although there have been improvements in Aboriginal employment and education,
      there has been little change in many health indicators and crime and
      imprisonment rates have worsened. Five years ago, at the request of Aboriginal
      leaders in northeast Arnhem Land, where he has worked as a (white) community
      development officer for most of the past 30 years, Trudgen wrote Why Warriors
      Lie Down and Die.

      The book gave the indigenous perspective on the crisis facing the once proud,
      independent and economically self-sufficient Yolngu people of the area.

      It helped solve the riddle of why nothing governments do seems to make much
      difference in Aboriginal communities. It highlighted the misunderstandings that
      arise from the cultural and communications gaps - or, more correctly, gulfs -
      between black and white Australians. He offered alternatives, based on dealing
      with people in their first language and giving them back control over their
      lives, which he argued could solve problems as diverse as poor health,
      inadequate housing and petrol sniffing.

      So how is the situation now in Arnhem Land, I asked him this week. "It's worse,"
      he replied. "It's like we never wrote the book and no one ever noticed it. The
      health indicators have all got worse. Many of the medical people who come here
      aren't even receiving adequate cultural awareness training any more."

      Yet Trudgen retains a determined optimism. A radio service for Yolngu started
      last year, without government support, broadcasting in the local language and
      English. "We are on the edge of a massive breakthrough in communication," he

      This week is National Diabetes Week and he estimates that the broadcast material
      is reaching about two-thirds of the 8000 Yolngu, with indications that it is
      making a big difference in knowledge of the disease. "People who don't have
      radios know nothing about diabetes," he says. "Some ask whether it is a

      It is difficult for other Australians to appreciate the seriousness of what
      Trudgen describes as a two-way crisis in communication. People ignore advice to
      change their diets until it is explained to them, usually in their own
      language, what diabetes is and why giving up salt, sugar and cigarettes can
      overcome it.

      Trudgen cites the case of a woman who was unable to explain to her doctor that
      she had splitting headaches, and was being examined instead for hookworm. A
      mother lost her five-year-old son to pneumonia after failing to give one of the
      drugs dispensed for him because she did not know what it would do. Because
      health clinics and their employees have no authority under traditional law,
      many men do not attend them.

      What frustrates Trudgen is the attitude of governments and in particular
      bureaucracies. "People are rolling out the same old stupid programs for petrol
      sniffing and the rest," he says. He argues that people are mistaken in thinking
      that children sniff because they are bored, "so let's go and teach them how to
      play basketball".

      Much more important is the virtual disappearance of bilingual education. "They
      learn almost nothing in school other than that they are incapable of learning,"
      he says. "You may as well be teaching them in Japanese: they cannot process
      what is being taught. They feel bad about themselves and they sniff because
      they want to forget who they are."

      Recreational programs introduced into the Ramingining community in the early
      1980s made the problem worse. Organised by non-Aborigines, they alienated the
      children from elders and parents, while some became sniffers so they could join
      the programs.

      Success came when children were educated about the effects of sniffing,
      including permanent brain damage, and elders were encouraged to revive a
      traditional ceremony that allowed them to give instruction to sniffers.
      Sniffing stopped in Ramingining and has never restarted, says Trudgen, although
      there are other problems with drug abuse. Trudgen shares with Aboriginal
      leaders such as Noel Pearson views on the destructive effects of welfare
      dependence. But he parts ways with Pearson and others who emphasise the use of

      "I'm afraid you cannot force people to learn a language: you can only force them
      to lose a language, particularly academic concepts," he says. "That is why you
      end up with a lot of urban Aboriginal people who have no academic language
      capacity. You actually de-educate people."

      Trudgen argues for the need to give back to the people control over their lives,
      and he believes the key to that is language. "Government will say it is
      ridiculous to say everyone who comes to our communities should learn the
      language," he says. "But to find a teacher or nursing sister, it costs
      government anywhere between $40,000 and $60,000, and sometimes they don't even
      last three months. It seems wise to pay them a little bit to learn the language
      and slow that merry-go-round of people coming in and out."

      Trudgen's views find some resonance in this week's report from the Productivity
      Commission. "Indigenous language is fundamentally linked with indigenous
      culture and law and these are intrinsically linked with indigenous wellbeing,"
      it says.

      And it attributes the success of the governing council in Wadeye in the Northern
      Territory to the use of traditional structures that give it legitimacy.

      Mike Steketee is The Australian's National affairs editor.

      ----- End forwarded message -----
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