what educators need to know about many First Nations children
Of the more than 250 original languages and over 750 dialects spoken by First Nations people before 1788, only 12 are learned by children today.
However, widely spoken contact languages – creoles and dialects – have emerged. An example is Aboriginal English, which is a general term used to describe the many varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal people across Australia. Another example is Kriol, which is a creole language spoken in northern Australia.
These contact languages are not always recognized as languages in their own right by some educators and society in general.
For this reason, many First Nations children are not treated as second language learners. Their languages are sometimes seen as deficient forms of standard Australian English and can be ‘invisible’ to teachers and education systems.
To improve the educational outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who do not speak standard Australian English as their first language, their linguistic background must be recognized and valued.
Read more: The state of Australia’s Indigenous languages - and how we can help people speak them more often
What are the contact languages?
Contact languages form when communication is essential between speakers of two or more languages. In Australia, this occurred between speakers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and English speakers after the British invasion in 1788.
A variety of contact languages have developed, both similar and different from each other. Some languages are more closely related to English, while others have more characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Many of these contact languages are not officially named.
The characteristics of contact languages often reflect the impacts of colonization on communities across Australia. These factors contribute to their lack of recognition in Australian society, including school systems.
Read more: New Indigenous language course should count for ATARs
Little is known about contact languages, but many First Nations children across Australia come to school speaking them as their first language.
Our research was carried out at three primary school sites in Far North Queensland. One group was made up of monolingual children speaking standard Australian English. The other two groups were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who spoke Aboriginal contact languages. The First Nations groups were located in close proximity to each other, but despite their proximity, they differed.
One of the two First Nations groups was in a rural town where Standard Australian English is widely spoken and the children had varied language backgrounds. The other was in an Aboriginal community where a contact language was predominantly spoken and exposure to standard Australian English was limited.
Our research aims to make the Standard Australian English learning needs of many First Nations children more ‘visible’ to educators. We have identified some of the language differences between standard Australian English and the contact languages that these First Nations children speak for testing.
First, we compared the short-term memory capacities of the three groups. The short-term memory abilities of all groups were the same, demonstrating that all children had the ability to store language in their short-term memory for immediate use.
Then these students were asked to orally reproduce a series of simple sentences given to them in standard Australian English to assess their proficiency. There were 18 simple phrases of varying syllable lengths – six, nine and 12.
Example sentences included:
• The dog barks at the cats (six syllables)
• In the bush they built houses with sticks (nine syllables)
• He always eats mangoes in the park with his friends (12 syllables).
Each sentence has been marked for grammatical correctness in Standard Australian English. The speaking ability of the three groups differed considerably. On average, the standard Australian English-speaking group scored 71.1% accuracy, the group of First Nations children with diverse language backgrounds scored 45.1%, and the others who spoke the same contact language and lived in an Aboriginal community scored 29.6%.
We also looked at students’ knowledge of four grammatical features of Standard Australian English:
• the prepositions “chez”, “dans” and “sur”
• “s” in the plural on nouns, for example cats
• the present simple with an “s” in the third person singular, for example, she runs
• simple irregular past tense, for example, they Ate.
The Standard Australian English-speaking group and the contact language speakers differed significantly in all aspects except for the prepositions ‘at’, ‘in’ and ‘on’ where there was no difference.
For other grammatical features, the difference in accuracy between Standard Australian English speakers and the second group ranged from 12.1% to 20.8%, and for the third from 20.1% to 45%. The simple present tense with the third person singular ‘s’ was the most difficult feature for speakers of Indigenous contact languages, and plurals the easiest.
These results highlight the close relationship between Aboriginal contact languages and Standard Australian English, as well as the important differences.
Native contact language speakers may be proficient in some aspects of Standard Australian English, as shown by their use of prepositions, but not others. The results also showed significant differences between the two groups of First Nations children, which likely reflect their diverse linguistic backgrounds and different levels of exposure to standard Australian English.
Read more: Meet the remote indigenous community where a few thousand people speak 15 different languages
Why is this important?
Our results showed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pupils’ ability to speak Standard Australian English improved during their primary school years. However, it never reached the levels of their standard Australian English-speaking monolingual peers.
As children progress through school, language and literacy requirements in Standard Australian English increase at such a rate that language gains are unlikely to be identified in classroom assessments or standardized. As a result, student achievements may not be visible or recognized in the classroom.
The impact of this can be seen in the ongoing stories of deprivation surrounding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners. The educational and social implications of this are far-reaching, and the educational outcomes of First Nations children who speak contact languages are a national disgrace.
Read more: How caring for children can help Indigenous Elders during lockdown
What can be done?
To meet the Standard Australian English learning needs of First Nations students who speak contact languages, their languages need to be recognized and valued in the classroom. Contact languages should be treated with respect and understanding, and not seen as incorrect forms of standard Australian English.
To show respect and promote learning, we encourage teachers to inquire about students’ first language(s) and include them in the classroom. Students should feel free to express themselves in the language of their choice, recognizing that their mother tongue plays an important role in learning.
All teachers should understand how the language is learned and should be supported to teach Standard Australian English effectively alongside curriculum content. Language skills are the cornerstone of literacy and educational development. Teachers should explicitly teach Standard Australian English and give students the opportunity to practice their language skills.
Targeted training should be provided in initial teacher education courses and through professional development for those who are already teaching.
In today’s climate of heavy responsibilities for teachers who are short on time, sufficient funding and time must be given to teachers to acquire the required skills.
In order to provide a fair and equitable education for all, the linguistic backgrounds of First Nations children should be taken into account in their educational environments and in the broader systems.