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Bilingual Education

The language objectives of bilingual/bicultural schools do not just provide a supportive linguistic environment when children first came to school they also build their language skills and develop literacy in each of their languages. In bilingual schools these skills can be built up over a range of subjects and for many hours a day.

In contrast language classes in monolingual schools are usually for a short period each week. This can be from 30 minutes to 3 or 4 hours a week. From an Indigenous language teaching/learning perspective these short classes may be adequate for language retrieval work where the language level being taught is fairly basic. However to build literacy in an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander first language or to strengthen a weakening language these periods are inadequate. Language classes in non-bilingual schools are often unstructured, short term or sporadic. Consequently many of them are ineffective from a language teaching point of view although they many still have some indirect benefits.

However thinking about bilingual education purely from the perspective of Indigenous Language teaching is not sufficent. When an education institution teaches students only in English without recognising their first language (be that an Indigenous Australian language, or a modern Aboriginal language(link)) the student is immediately disavantaged as he or she will not understand the material being taught.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language speaking children attending school for the first time are confronted by an institution that teaches them only in English and does not recognise their language. … it is totally inappropriate that any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander child today begins school in a language other than their own. It is destructive of both the language and the child. The committee recognises the difficulties in servicing multilanguage schools but does not believe this is an excuse for doing nothing. Bilingual/bicultural education is essential if strong and weakening Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are to be maintained.
A MATTER OF SURVIVAL – Report of the Inquiry into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Language Maintenance, June 1992.

The promotion of bilingual education was a key to the recommendations of the report.

Recommendation 27 – ensure that bilingual or bicultural education be provided to all Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children whose first language is other than English if sought by the relevant community and if there is a sufficient number of speakers to support a program.

Recommendation 28 – ensure that – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language communities serviced by a school determine which model of language teaching is appropriate for their school.
Recommendation 29 –  ensure that bilingual education is clearly based on the maintenance model rather than the transfer-to-English model.

Northern Territory

Bilingual education, in various forms, has been run by the Northern Territory Education Department since 1973, although there are significantly fewer bilingual schools now than at times in the past. In 1999 the government announced the closure of the Bilingual Program, pointing to declining education (literacy and numeracy) standards in the NT’s Indigenous population as proof of the failure of the program. However, due to the considerable opposition to the decision from communities with bilingual education programs, the program was not closed but underwent a name change and became known as the Two-Way Program.

At this time there were 21 schools (including one Catholic and one independent) with bilingual programs covering 18 languages and some of their dialects. There are currently half the number of bilingual programs across the NT than there were in 1999. Nominally, there are currently 10 programs across 9 schools in 6 different Indigenous languages. There are also 3 Catholic schools which have a bilingual curriculum. An NT Ministerial statement of August 2005, stated that they would “put Bilingual education back on the agenda”, but little change has been evident on the ground.

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