Aboriginal languages matter – but to who?

By July 3, 2017Education

NAIDOC Week 2017 Logo

Every year, the first week of July marks NAIDOC Week – a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and recognise the achievements of first Australians. The 2017 NAIDOC theme is “Our Languages Matter”, a reference to the importance of languages to Aboriginal culture and identity.

The fact that Aboriginal languages matter barely needs explaining. All Aboriginal languages have been threatened by the European colonization of Australia and discriminatory government policies. Despite this, Aboriginal communities have worked hard to maintain and revive their languages. Today around one third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children speak an Indigenous language, with even higher rates in remote areas. Yet, speakers of Aboriginal languages are often forgotten or ignored by policy makers, educational institutions and other services.

Take the Northern Territory (NT) for example, which has some of the largest groups of Aboriginal language speakers in Australia. Over the last 40 years, the NT Government has swayed to the differing (and often ill-informed) opinions on bilingual education. Devlin, Disbray and Devlin (2017) give a thorough chronology of these events which I will summarise here to demonstrate the issue. Throughout I have also sought out the views of Aboriginal authors, as the research on Aboriginal issues is too often dominated by ‘white’ colonial voices.

Bilingual education for Aboriginal students in the NT was first introduced in 1973, influenced by emerging international theories about bilingual education, and with the aim of “recognising and supporting the culture and language of the children and communities who speak those languages” (Devlin, Disbray & Devlin, 2017, p.49). Aboriginal teachers worked alongside non-Aboriginal teachers to develop teaching materials and resources, and this approach was soon producing results, with many schools reporting that bilingually educated Aboriginal students were outperforming Aboriginal students who were taught in English only.

In the 1980s and 90s, however, political opinions against bilingual education and in favour of English-only teaching gained greater attention, under the guise of it being better for children’s futures, yet clearly coming from a monolingual ideology that ignored the positive results of bilingual schools. The NT education department responded by, at first, rewriting the goals of bilingual education to have a focus on learning English, and then later, in 1998, under the pressure of funding cuts, phasing out bilingual education altogether. While it is true that servicing the needs of the many Aboriginal language groups in the NT is more costly than a ‘one size fits all’ English-as-a-second-language (ESL) program, it fails to take into account the savings associated with higher student engagement, better educational outcomes and, as a result, greater employment opportunities.

NT Intervention area (Source: http://everydayracism-au.tumblr.com/)

As funding cuts rolled out across the territory, the NT government was heavily criticised for failing to properly consult with schools, parents and communities, with protests and petitions happening around the nation. Unfortunately, the influence of the monolingual Anglophone mainstream proved to be stronger, and with it the belief that teaching in English was the best way to improve the students’ English skills.

Towards the late 2000s, two major events caused the NT government to tighten the reins on bilingual education even further. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 (better known as the NT Intervention) legislated a series of changes to government services which ultimately took decision-making and control of out of the hands of Aboriginal communities and into those of government. Thomas (2017) links this shifting of power to subsequent policies that then took community control away from education. After all, bilingual education was based on a model of self-determination for Aboriginal communities, so, as the NT government took steps to remove self-determination, the suppression of Aboriginal languages in education followed.

The second event was the beginning of a new national literacy and numeracy test known as NAPLAN, which, despite many early concerns that it was biased against students in remote settings (Piller, 2016), was rolled out to schools all over Australia. As educational experts predicted, the first round of results found that students in remote parts of the NT could not compete on these tests, which was quickly labelled as ‘underperformance’. The NT government responded with further attacks on bilingual education in 2009, this time implementing the rule that the first four hours of every school day must be conducted in English.

Source: treatyrepublic.net

These forms of schooling, which Piller refers to as ‘submersion education’, often have long term detrimental effects on the children who are not only trying to learn the language, but also the content of the lessons. It can be a stressful and demotivating experience for children, with lowered attendance being one of the first indicators that schooling is not meeting their needs. By 2011, a number of NT schools were reporting large drops in attendance following the implementation of the new policy.

Submersion education can also have lasting effects on children’s linguistic identities and the status of their home languages. Most Aboriginal languages are highly endangered (of the 250+ languages that once existed in Australia, only 120 are still spoken in some way, and only 13 are considered strong), and compulsory education in English is partly to blame for this. If children are led to believe that their home languages hold no value, they may forfeit the use of their languages for English. Yalmay Yunupingu, a teacher in the NT who teaches in both Yolngu Matha (a group of languages of the Yolngu people) and English, speaks of the importance of children receiving an education that balances English with their home language:

“The decision to make English the only important language in our schools will only make the situation for our young people worse as they struggle to be proud Yolngu in a world that is making them feel that their culture is bad, unimportant and irrelevant” (Yunupingu, 2010, p. 25)

Yunupingu goes on to say that, if forced to teach in English, her students will not understand what she is saying, potentially becoming bored and misbehaving, and ultimately missing out on learning.

Despite insistence from governments that they are working to ‘close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage’, policies like the ‘first four hours in English’ only serve the interests of those who want to further suppress Aboriginal cultures and promote a monolingual society. Yingiya Mark Guyula, a NT politician (quoted in Thomas, 2017), states “that gap grows when Yolngu children are forced into English-only schools, taught in a language they do not speak or hear in their community”. Williams (2011) goes even further to say that forced teaching and learning in English not only contradicts the federal government’s promises to Aboriginal people but “it strikes at the very heart of all that we Indigenous peoples claim in the name of reconciliation, and what the international and national literature clearly asserts regarding the dreadful risks of Indigenous language and culture loss” (p. 120).

While discussing the topic of this paper with a colleague of mine who is a Gomeroi Aboriginal woman, I made reference to the NAIDOC theme “Our Languages Matter” but straight away realised how strange it was for me, a non-Aboriginal person, to say ‘our languages’ in reference to Aboriginal languages. My colleague was quick to point out: Aboriginal languages are the first languages of this country, so as Australians, they should matter to all of us. All Australians have a role to play in making sure that Aboriginal languages are appropriately respected and that they can be used by the communities who have a connection to them.


Devlin, B. C., Disbray, S. & Devlin, N. R. F. (2017). History of bilingual education in the northern territory: People, programs and policies. Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic diversity and social justice: An introduction to applied sociolinguistics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Yunupingu, Y. (2010). Bilingual works. Australian Educator, 66, Winter 2010, 24-25.

Author Britt Jacobsen

Britt Jacobsen is a Master of Applied Linguistics student at the University of Sydney. She also holds a Master of Commerce from Swinburne University of Technology and a Bachelor of Business from Griffith University. Her professional experience includes corporate, not-for-profit and government roles in Aboriginal affairs and Diversity and Inclusion. Her research interests include Australian Aboriginal languages, language revival and language and identity.

More posts by Britt Jacobsen