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The following paper was developed as a seminar for James Cook University's final year Bachelor of Education conference,
Looking to the Future - Smart Moves in Education

31 October, 2003

PLEASE NOTE - Much of the information on this page is now out of date, and some of the links from this page are no longer active. I am currently working on an update to this paper (CN - September 2007).

The Future of Indigenous Languages in Queensland schools


1. Why should students learn Indigenous languages at school?

2. What have been the histories of Indigenous languages in Queensland schools?

3. How are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working to keep languages strong?

4. How much community support is there for Indigenous languages to be taught in schools?

5. What are some of the barriers towards developing an Indigenous language curriculum for Queensland?

6. How is the Queensland government developing policy to support Indigenous languages?

7. References

'Languages are precious storehouses of history, experience and culture; a crucial link between the past and the future'

- Jeanie Bell, Aboriginal Linguist

Why should students learn Indigenous languages at school?

The National Policy on Language (Lo Bianco, 1987) cites research that shows intellectual, linguistic and cognitive benefits of learning more than one language. Lo Bianco state that, 'children who are proficient in two languages have certain advantages over monolingual children'. He also highlights two main issues that relate particularly to the teaching of Indigenous languages:

Enrichment: representing intellectual and cultural enrichment, for individuals and for the wider society;

Equality: representing enhanced social and educational participation and opportunity for immigrant and indigenous communities.

Teaching Indigenous languages in schools recognises the contribution that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures make to Australian society. It also adds to students' understanding of their identities as Indigenous or non-Indigenous Australians (SSABSA 1996, p.2).

Furthermore, supporting the teaching of Indigenous languages could help 'bridge the gap' between schools and communities.

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What have been the histories of Indigenous languages in Queensland schools?

Of perhaps over a hundred languages originally spoken in Queensland, only a handful are still spoken across generations today. Part of the reason for this situation is the implementation of successive government policies.

In the early days of Indigenous education, many children were severely punished for speaking traditional languages.

In the 1970s some mission schools turned this around and began to encourage bilingual education (eg. in Aurukun and Pormpuraaw). This was often supported by the work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Other mission and government schools continued with the old policy of assimilation and actively discouraged the use of any language other than Standard English.

By the late 1980s, most schools had been taken over by the Department of Education and bilingualism was phased out.

In the early 1990s, under a new Labour government, there was a brief resurgence of enthusiasm and policies for teaching languages, but with limited structural funding. In 1991 the Queensland Minister for Education issued a statement (Braddy, p.2) stipulating that all students in Queensland should have the opportunity to study a language other than English (LOTE). This was taken up by Hope Vale and Bloomfield River State Schools who began to develop LOTE programs for teaching Guugu Yimithirr and Guugu Yalanji respectively, with the help of the Commonwealth funded Coastal School Support Centre. These programs were trialled from 1996 to 1998 but were discontinued as LOTE programs after that time.

The late 1990s saw a further shift in emphasis with recognition and funding given for teaching English as a Second Language to Indigenous students, with initiatives such as the Bandscales project being developed.

Today there are several schools around Queensland with language programs, but these are almost all funded externally (eg. through ATSILIP - see below) and not explicitly supported by Education Queensland.

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- That all Australians achieve bilingualism, either by maintaining languages other than English as they acquire English as a second language, or by adding second languages to their existing English.

- That Indigenous and Islander languages will be acknowledged as a unique and irreplaceable heritage of Australia and energetic efforts will be made to preserve, restore and secure these languages.

- Some recommendations of the National Policy on Languages, J. Lo Bianco 1987

... The Member States commit themselves to ...

6. Encouraging linguistic diversity - while respecting the mother tongue - at all levels of education, wherever possible, and fostering the learning of several languages from the youngest age ...

- Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, adopted by the 31st Session of UNESCO's General Conference, Paris, 2001.

How are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working to keep languages strong?

Understandably, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel strongly that their children should have the right to learn their own language.

Despite limited funding and support, many community organisations around Queensland are currently working on developing resources such as dictionaries, picture books and CD-ROMs that can be used by families to learn traditional languages. A lot of this work is done either by volunteers or with the help of small grants such as those from the federally funded Preservation of Indigenous Language and Recordings (PILR) program.

One such program is that run in Hervey Bay, where community members run weekend classes in Badjala language for children. Approaches to local schools have not yet been successful in getting language programs established in class time.

In Townsville, a group of Aboriginal people are working with publishing company Black Ink to develop a CD-ROM to teach Warrgamay language. The aim of their project is to develop a template that can be used by other language groups.

Magani Malu Kes is working on a kit comprising books, videos and CD-ROMs that will be a comprehensive resource for teaching Meriam Mir, Kala Lagaw Ya and Torres Strait Creole. Other organisations such as the Indigenous Children's Services Unit help support language programs in various communities.

Other programs are run through schools as part of their cultural studies curriculum with Elders teaching language on an ad hoc, variously paid, basis. These include Yugambeh language in the Logan area, Gunggari language in Mitchell, Djirrbal language in the Tully area, Kuuk Thaayorre language in Pormpuraaw, Wik Mungkan language in Aurukun, Guugu Yalanji language at Bloomfield River and Wujul Wujul, Guugu Yimithirr at Hope Vale, and several Torres Strait Islander languages in the Torres Strait.

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How much community support is there for Indigenous languages to be taught in schools?

There are mixed feelings within Aboriginal communities about having traditional languages taught in schools. On the one hand, many people feel very strongly a spiritual and emotional connection with their language and want this to be passed on to their children.

On the other hand, there is a wariness about the education system taking over the agenda on what is fundamentally Aboriginal knowledge. This is added to by general experiences of schools as distancing and culturally non-inclusive.

Within Torres Strait Islander communities there is a lot of support to have languages (both traditional and modern) taught in schools (Tapim, 2003). However, since most Torres Strait Islander people live on mainland Australia, there are issues of which languages are the most appropriate to be taught in any particular area.

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What are some of the barriers towards developing an Indigenous language curriculum for Queensland?

The diversity of languages, the multilingualism and fragmentation of communities, and limited numbers of speakers are all factors that present potential problems in establishing Indigenous language programs in schools.

The high turnover of teachers in many schools also means that continuity of programs is a difficulty.

Any Indigenous language program will only work if it has the strong support of the community that owns the language being taught (Ridley 2002). This has to be a matter of schools and communities developing close partnerships, with the support of government agencies and funding where appropriate, to discuss, plan and deliver language programs.

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(The statement)...

... acknowledges the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to maintain, retrieve, revive, reclaim and preserve their linguistic and cultural heritage.

- Statement on Languages other than English for Australian Schools, 1994.

The community and the school have a joint responsibility for the implementation, development and continuity of any language program'

- Qld Dept of Education, 1992.

How is the Queensland government developing policy to support Indigenous languages?

The Queensland Department of Education (Peninsula Region) worked for several years to develop a kit for schools called Which language? Your Choice!, published in 1992. The Department then worked further at a state level on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Policy, with the draft published in 1996. The final version of this policy was never released, and work was stopped on its development by 2001 (Toussaint, 2003).

The Partners for Success initiative encompasses some innovative approaches to teaching English as a second language to Indigenous students, and acknowledges the need for schools to build strong working relationships with Indigenous communities. Other Education Queensland policies emphasise valuing and recognising cultural and linguistic diversity through a socially just curriculum (Murphy, 2003).

However, there are no current policies or initiatives to specifically address issues of teaching traditional Indigenous languages in Queensland schools.

The Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy (DATSIP) has begun working towards developing a whole of government Languages Policy for Queensland. If successfully implemented, this policy will allow the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA) to develop curriculum services to support Indigenous language programs throughout the state.

Every state in Australia except Tasmania and Queensland now has their own Aboriginal language curriculum. Is it only a matter of time before Queensland catches up?

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Curriculum Corporation. (1994) A Statement on Languages other than English for Australian Schools: A Joint Project of the States, Territories and the Commonwealth of Australia. Carlton: Author.

Department of Employment, Education and Training. (1989) National Aboriginal Education Policy. Overview available from

Education Queensland. (2000) Implementing Partners for Success. Brisbane: Author. Available from

Lo Bianco, J. (1987) National Policy on Languages. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Pollard, R. & Boson, M. eds. (1995) Alive and Deadly: reviving and maintaining Australian indigenous languages. Canberra: Social Change Media.

Queensland Department of Education. (1992) Language.. A key to understanding! Guidelines for the introduction of Indigenous language programs. Kit (book, poster, video). Queensland: Author.

Queensland Department of Education. (1996) Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Policy: Support materials for communities and schools. Queensland: Author.

Ridley, A. (2002) The Guugu Yimithirr Languages Other than English Program at Hope Vale: "If the Kids have English they go Further, but if we Drop the Language we'll Lose it Forever". PhD Thesis, James Cook University: Cairns. Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia - SSABSA. (1996) Australia's Indigenous Languages Framework. South Australia: Author.

UNESCO (2001) Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Available from the UNESCO website

Thankyou to the following people consulted for this project

Jeanie Adams, Edith Bavin, Jeanie Bell, Andrew Chevathen, Peter Cleary, Angela Fenton, Alice Gaby, Melinda Holden, Patrick McConvell, Helen McDonald, Abraham Muriata, Lyndon Murphy, Kay Nettey, Barry Osborne, Bridget Priman, Annette Ridley, Phillip Rist, Dorothy Savage, Leigh Schelks, Judy Spence MP, Claire Reppel, Francis Tapim, Pauline Taylor and Julian Toussaint.

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Links to organisations and policy information.

Copyright 2003 ©
Last updated 31 October 2003
- James Cook University, Townsville -