Talking the talk with Aboriginal students


Students at the Ngukurr SchoolIn 2005 I had the privilege to be appointed as acting principal at Ngukurr School in the Roper River district of the Northern Territory.

Ngukurr was established by the Anglican Mission in 1905 as a refuge for the remnants of the Aboriginal language groups of East Arnhem Land who had been violently dispersed by pastoralists. Slowly a collection of tribes had regathered at a landing place on the mighty Roper River, but because they had been dispersed and lived for many years away from kin and country languages had been lost or fallen into disuse, and the people in the new settlement could not communicate well with either each other or with the new white missionaries.

Gradually the Aboriginal people and the missionaries developed a new language now known as Kriol. Based on English vocabulary it uses Aboriginal syntax and grammar and can rightly be called an Aboriginal language even though it sounds like English.

Having lived with Pitjantjara people at Ernabella in the 1980s and with Arrernte people in Mpwarntwe (Alice Springs) in the '80s, '90s and early 2000s, I was well aware of the power of language when working with Indigenous people. I had learnt conversational Pitjantjara from daily interaction with Anangu in the Pit Lands and had formally studied Arrernte in my role as educator of Arrernte kids from the Alice Springs Town Camps from Veronica Dobson and the other non-indigenous linguists at the Institute for Aboriginal Development.

It was the tradition at Ngukurr for the school to close at midday on Friday. At lunchtime an assembly was held, awards conferred and the principal addressed the school. I participated in this process for a couple of weeks and delivered a short address in English. I quickly noted the keenness of the children to escape to home or the pool as quickly as possible.

After about three weeks I asked one of the Aboriginal staff if she would translate my prepared speech into Kriol so that I could deliver it appropriately. She agreed and then tutored me in pronunciation and delivery.

So I began weekly to address the assembled students and staff, who were joined by a small contingent of parents come to collect their children.

The response was amazing. The kids stopped fidgeting, looked up — and listened! The parents moved closer to get within hearing. The Aboriginal staff smiled almost invisibly, and the non-indigenous staff looked bewildered.

I continued this practice for the rest of my six months appointment at the school. Each week more and more members of the local community came to the Friday afternoon assembly to listen to my very limited attempts to speak to them in their own language. 

In the last few weeks of my stay Ted Egan, then Administrator of the Northern Territory, visited the community. Ted graciously agreed to address the assembly. Ted is a gregarious and generous man, famous for his entertaining songs and stories as well as his historical research and education of the wider Australian community.

Ted didn't need a translator. He spoke Kriol fluently having spent many years working with Aboriginal people across the Territory. The locals laughed, smiled, and visibly opened to him, clearly honoured by his effort to meet with them in their country on the basis of equality and respect. I felt vindicated in my earlier efforts to similarly demonstrate my respect for these people and their way of knowing and communicating.

The debate about bilingualism in Northern Territory education is complex and multi-faceted. In schools it usually revolves around effectiveness — the effectiveness of Aboriginal children learning English. The theory is that if children are taught first in the vernacular they will learn concepts faster and better, and then they can ultimately transfer more easily to English. It is about 'transfer literacy'. The real object is the transfer.

The underlying idea is that kids have to learn to read and write English to become effective members of the English speaking world. And this is true.

It was a misguided understanding of this idea that led the NT Labor Government in 2008 to order that Aboriginal children in remote community schools be taught solely in English in the first four hours of school every day. As a reluctant concession it allowed the local language to be taught and used in the last few lessons.

Why was it misguided? Because if the teachers can't communicate with the vernacular-speaking students, and if they lose their trust and confidence, then no learning will occur.

In my view the greatest possible use of the vernacular in education is even more important than what has been debated endlessly by academics about the various benefits of 'two-way learning' or a 'step method'. Learning the vernacular, and learning through the vernacular, establishes in the student a sense of pride and power that comes with competency in language.

It links children to key adults, it encodes knowledge, it affirms linkages to place and country, and it enhances a sense of identity while confirming relationships.

That is the true power of language

Mike Bowden headshotMike Bowden has a Master of Aboriginal Education at Northern Territory University. He was founding coordinator of the Ntyarlke Unit at the Catholic high school in Alice Springs in 1988. From 1993 to 2001 he was manager of community development at Tangentyere Council. In 2005 and 2006 he was acting principal at Ngukurr School and Minyerri School in the Roper River district of the Top End.

Pictured: Students at the Ngukurr School

Topic tags: Mike Bowden, Aboriginal language, Kriol, Northern Territory



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Existing comments

It's a great privilege to work in a school and to have been a leader at Ngukurr school with its particular challenges (and rewards) perhaps even more so. Lewis Carroll said "Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves." Having attended many school assemblies, both as parent and staff member, I know the importance of these occasions in the life of the school community. And at Ngukurr what an inspirational change took place!
Pam | 17 June 2013

Helpful and clarifying exposition Mike. The controversy is one where two sides to the issue can confound someone who has not encountered what you recall. I like the the picture of the kids listening to your staffer's translation of your address ! Perhaps they were enchanted by your pronunciations? Seriously, a nice contribution.
Peter Wearne | 17 June 2013's about communicating... so learning takes place... love it! well done
madeleine read | 17 June 2013

The school system in remote Australia does not seem to adapt to the conditions. I.e. climate, isolation and culture. Hence the huge absenteeism and low literacy levels. I would hope there is more creative learning and adaption to the conditions. Instead of a blanket national approach. The one size fits all education is a liability. Thanks to Mike Bowden for the practical example.
Jenny Esots | 17 June 2013

Thank you, Mike, for your delightful story about Ngukurr and your exposition of the importance of first language in learning. I am reminded also of the unique art of the Ngukurr community, testimony along with language to the creativity and richness of the local culture - attributes the education system must surely seek to preserve and cultivate.
Denis Quinn | 17 June 2013

Thanks Mike. Important aspects of a complex, but critical, area that need to be well understood, not just by practitioners but by the wider community, and as you say/ imply, by policy-makers and politicians.
Jim Newkirk | 17 June 2013

Excellent article Michael. Needs a wider circulation.
Helen Parer | 17 June 2013

Hello, I hear what you are saying, and agree totally after spending 6 years in the Western Desert. Why and how come the top echelon of educational management across the board, whether WA, NT or SA. Why are we so blinkered to this fact that you have forwarded. Thanks
Kim Price | 18 June 2013

It is every person's right to be schooled (not always synonymous with education) and learn to learn in the language they dream in. Kriol is the language of dreams for so many. Well done Mike.
Judy Taylor | 22 June 2013


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