Bilingual education needs to be extended, not scrapped


Yirrkala School recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its bilingual education program.

The release of the draft report of the NT government’s review of Indigenous education has generated a lot of alarm in remote Indigenous communities. Yet again Aboriginal people have been singled out for treatment that no one would even contemplate proposing for other social groups – specifically, closing remote education centres and forcing all secondary age children to go away to boarding school, which a former student of mine said reminded her of the sort of thing that went on with the Stolen Generations. Furthermore, author Bruce Wilson proposes scrapping bilingual education, thereby denying Aboriginal children the right to be educated in their first language as well as English. Did someone say “assimilation”?

I’m not going to offer a comprehensive critique of the Wilson review here; I’m just one of many people working on formal responses to the review as part of the consultation process, and some very good responses have already been written by Margaret Clark and Kriol Kantri. Furthermore, I’m far from an expert on bilingual education. So I’m going to mainly confine my remarks to my own experience of working in one of the few remaining bilingual schools and what I’ve learned in the 18 months I’ve been teaching in the NT, in which time I’ve had the good fortune to learn from highly experienced educators who have devoted much of their lives to Indigenous and bilingual education.

Yirrkala School has been a trailblazer for innovative approaches to education, recently celebrating 40 years of offering bilingual education to students. The school’s bilingual program has been built up carefully over decades, with its Literature Production Centre producing countless resources for use in the classroom. The prevalence of bilingual education has undoubtedly assisted the Yolngu of Yirrkala and surrounding areas in maintaining a strong cultural identity, with great efforts being made to document and preserve many aspects of traditional culture, as well as pass it along to the next generation. Leaving aside for just a moment the question of whether bilingual education is the best way for students to learn English, it should be defended as a fundamental right of Indigenous peoples who wish to maintain literacy in their traditional languages.

Now, as to whether English-only education leads to better outcomes for students… Bruce Wilson feels confident enough to make his recommendations “based on the view that Indigenous children learn English in the way that other children learn English…” (p. 7) However, the evidence does not support this, and it is extraordinary for Wilson to make this sweeping claim without referring to the research. Margaret Clark does a fantastic job of explaining why “English only” doesn’t meet remote Indigenous children’s needs so I won’t replicate what she’s said. I will explain briefly how the bilingual process works in our school and why I think it’s essential.

In the bilingual program, students first learn to read and write in a simplified version of their clan languages known as Yolngu Matha (with regular exposure to oral English). This approach reflects the fact that students speak almost no English when they being school; cultural considerations aside, it makes perfect sense to commence their education using a language they understand and use in very context. Students begin formal English literacy instruction in Year 4. Students who have attended school regularly (80 per cent or more, on average) are generally able to make this transition. English instruction in all classes up to Year 10 utilises the Walking Talking Texts program, developed specifically for Indigenous students learning English as an additional language.

Last year two separate groups of evaluators praised our school’s dedicated teachers and sophisticated whole-school approach to bilingual education, particularly the ESL/EALD program in the early years, where an experienced bilingual teacher worked closely with an English teacher to engage students and build a strong foundation for learning. Students approached English in a fun and practical way, such as through cooking, without the pressure of trying to learn words they didn’t understand.


During last year’s bilingual celebrations, participants reflected on the school’s success in training and mentoring bilingual teachers.

One of the evaluator teams was doing a study looking at effective teaching practice in remote Indigenous schools right across northern Australia. They were impressed with our school’s rigorous bilingual program, and by contrast described visiting remote schools as part of their study where Indigenous students, despite being educated in English from day one, were leaving school as young adults unable to string together more than three English words. Their “native” language was Creole.

The problems with an English-only approach were expressed clearly in the 2007 Little Children are Sacred report (perhaps the most misused report in Australian political history; full of very good recommendations, yet used to justify John Howard’s “intervention” into NT Aboriginal communities): “Schools teaching and instructing in English alone… develops a failure syndrome for many children as they return home at the end of the school day often unable to remember what was taught that day – which causes them to become depressed.” (p. 147)

However, even with the bilingual program there is a clear ceiling most students at Yirrkala reach with their English literacy: they generally struggle to get beyond what we call the Level 3 or 4 ESL benchmark, where language moves away from an informal and conversational nature to language of a more abstract, written quality. This means that students can’t access higher-order language and concepts, and locks them out of the basic language required for vocational pathways, let alone the “secret” English language of intellectual knowledge and power. If you have a look at any school curriculum, there is a huge intellectual leap expected of students in Year 8 and 9, and that is clearly a stumbling block for nearly all remote Indigenous students.

What is the importance of bilingual education here? One of the interesting findings my former principal related to me was that, although students only begin formal English instruction in reading and writing in Year 4, by Year 6 their first language written literacy already lags their English. This may offer a clue into why their English language proficiency plateaus – they don’t have an understanding of equivalent higher-level concepts in their own language, meaning absorbing those concepts within their conceptual framework is more difficult. Unsurprisingly, as students get into the middle years we typically start to see a drop off in attendance and engagement, as learning content becomes dramatically more challenging just as first language support falls away. This is not the only factor affecting student retention but it is a very important one.

One of my biggest difficulties as a middle years teacher is conveying complex concepts to students in what is not only a foreign language, but also an alien cultural framework. For example, I’m currently teaching my students a unit on advertising; it is full of concepts such as “audience” and “consumer” which do not readily correspond to Yolngu experiences and traditions. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach such things. It does mean we need to look at the best way of doing it meaningfully. Rather than more English-only instruction, what’s actually needed is more first language support. We have Yolngu assistant teachers working in all primary classrooms, but the funding for these positions at the secondary level was cut several years ago (one position was reinstated this year to work across the two middle years classes).

Unfortunately Bruce Wilson puts this issue in the too-hard basket, concluding that “The lack of trained first-language teachers reduces its likely effectiveness and the level of resourcing required for effectiveness means it is not sustainable.” (p. 61) In other words, it’s expensive and difficult and therefore we won’t commit to it. That’s not nearly good enough, given the priority Wilson attaches to improving Indigenous education outcomes. Yirrkala has a strong history of training and mentoring bilingual teachers, often with little institutional support. A renewed emphasis on the importance of bilingual teachers should be a major recommendation of Wilson’s final report.

I must confess I was initially a bit sceptical about the bilingual approach; “common sense” would seem to indicate it makes sense for students to learn in English from day one of their schooling. But as I’ve observed the way students in my school learn and the difficulties they face, it has become apparent that maintaining (and strengthening) bilingual education programs is essential to give students the opportunity to succeed at school, as well as maintain knowledge of their own languages and culture.

Bridging the cultural divide in Indigenous education

Last year Arnhem Land experienced a solar eclipse. A big challenge in remote education is ensuring traditional knowledge and culture are not eclipsed.

Last year Arnhem Land experienced a solar eclipse. A big challenge in Indigenous education is ensuring traditional knowledge and culture are not eclipsed.

Preface: This post was written almost in its entirety in December last year and February this year, at the beginning of the school year. I never posted it because I felt it was too pessimistic – Donald Thomson’s grim prognosis, which I’ve quoted below, rang too true. Looking back, I can see why I felt that way: most of it was written when I was deep in the throes of culture shock-induced depression about my inability to make a positive difference for my students. On top of that there was the mango madness of the “buildup”, which takes its toll on just about everyone who lives in the tropical north, especially transplanted southerners. I’ve left the post almost entirely unchanged, because it still has much of value in it (even though I now disagree with some of the things I wrote), and it provides a nice overview of my reflections on the challenges facing me. In Part 2 (hopefully later this week), I’ll talk about what I’ve learned over the subsequent eight months, and reflect on my successes (and failures!).

The Christmas school holidays gave me plenty of time to think about my experience teaching in Arnhem Land in the second half of 2012, and reflect on the many – and daunting – challenges associated with remote Indigenous education. The more I thought about it, the more all the little issues came back to one big one: the difficulty of creating an environment in which Yolngu (in my case) and other Aboriginal children can gain a successful level of Western (or Ngapaki*) schooling, whilst also maintaining a strong grounding in their own culture. I’ve been wrestling with this question ever since I arrived here, because at the moment it seems to me that many students are getting the worst of both worlds: they are steadily losing their own culture, but at the same time they are lost when it comes to making sense of mainstream Australia.

* The terms Ngapaki and Balanda are used to describe any non-Yolngu person.

My school is one of the few bilingual Indigenous schools left. The theory is that students should spend their first five years at school learning to speak, read and write in their first language, Yolngu Matha. (This is not in fact the first language for most students, but rather a common language understood by all Yolngu. Children first learn to speak in their respective parents’ clan languages, which are similar to Yolngu Matha.) By high school, they should be fluent in their own language (and culture), and receive the rest of their schooling in English, emerging confident and literate in both languages and cultures.

The bilingual model is controversial; it has been criticised by those who believe it disadvantages students by delaying the age at which formal instruction in English begins. On occasion, the NT Government has tried to impose English-only teaching, but the community has successfully resisted for many years. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual education does not disadvantage students; there may in fact be an advantage in learning in two languages. Nonetheless, the view of many teachers I have spoken to is that the bilingual model is not working. Very poor attendance and graduation rates in the secondary school would seem to bear that out.

However, my view is the problem is not one of language but of relevance and cultural appropriateness. Each day we are required to plough on with a curriculum that students seem to have little interest in, because it has very little relevance to their lives. (This problem is exacerbated by the introduction of the mandatory national curriculum, which is highly prescriptive and even further removed from the local experience of students.) Teaching the mainstream, it is easy to forget that a syllabus is not a value-free document; embedded in it are countless moral and philosophical assumptions, underpinned by a weltanschauung (worldview). Knowledge is not a set of facts that can be plucked from the air like apples from a tree; discrete particles of knowledge make sense only when they are incorporated into our existing knowledge base, based on an understanding of how the piece fits into the whole.

Reconciling the old and the new ways of life is a major challenge for Yolngu

A student uses a camera as part of a digital media skills workshop. Reconciling the old and the new ways of life is a major challenge for Yolngu.

The Yolngu and the Western worldviews are in philosophical conflict; their explanations for natural and social phenomena radically different. Thus an understandable response from some has been to see the two as irreconcilable. The anthropologist Donald Thomson, the first white person to live among and understand the Yolngu, wanted to create reserves that sealed Indigenous people away from the influence of missionaries and other whites, explaining that,

“Culturally the highly specialized and complex organisation of the Aborigines is unstable when it comes into contact with civilization. It begins to crumble, and chaos follows in every case. The Aboriginal is unable to grasp the philosophy of our life; he sees, and is attracted only by the ‘flashy’ and superficial, the less important, the material things – tobacco, clothes, alcohol, and objects of material wealth. He will sacrifice everything to gain possession of these, and when he gets them he loses his own interest in his own culture, he loses his grip, he can get neither backward nor forward, and he dies, ultimately, in a dreadful state of spiritual and cultural agnosticism, adrift in a no man’s land between the world of the white man and the black.”  (Thomson, pp. 191-93)

These words were written in the 1940s. In some ways they were remarkably prescient; in others, overly pessimistic. If Thomson were alive today, I think he would be pleasantly surprised at the resilience the Yolngu people have shown. Where so many others have lost their traditional culture, the Yolngu have remained relatively strong. Part of the explanation might be that the Methodist missionaries of North East Arnhem Land, whilst introducing Christianity, did not seek to wholly suppress Yolngu values and culture, but rather to marry two belief systems (McMillan, p. 288).

Finding a way to bridge the divide is the great challenge of today: how to preserve as much of the traditional knowledge as possible, whilst also equipping Yolngu to deal with the outside world. This is a practical necessity, as Richard Trudgen points out, summing up the view of many elders he spoke to while researching his book about the loss of pride, identity and purpose afflicting many Yolngu:

“It would have been good if Balanda [white people] had never come and we still lived according to the old ways… But Balanda are here now taking over our lands, resources jobs, everything. We must know their ways so we can survive.” (Trudgen, p. 123)

McMillan expands on the theme:

“A certain level of educational success is necessary for Yolngu to practise the kind of self-determination that will bring pride and meaning back to many people’s lives. Too many jobs have been taken over by white people, too many decisions are made by white people without reference to the wishes and interests of the traditional owners of the land. The ability of future generations to maintain their culture and their place in the modern world is being severely compromised by low attendance rates at bush primary schools and inadequate opportunities to pursue secondary education in a culturally appropriate environment [my emphasis]. Sure, the kids would prefer to be out hunting, fishing and kicking a footy around, but a Balanda education is essential if the communities are to overcome the burden of having to employ Balanda town clerks and accountants, electricians, plumbers and builders, medicos and teachers, shop-keepers and entrepreneurs.” (McMillan, p. 288)

Keeping the traditions alive: an elder tells the story of a sacred place.

Keeping the traditions alive: an elder tells stories about a sacred place.

So how do we begin to turn things around? I want to focus on the words culturally appropriate environment in the above passage. The message that has been stressed again and again by my principal and by experienced staff and community members since I arrived is that our teaching needs to start from where our students are at, rather than where a syllabus document says they should be. This means two things. First of all, respecting the knowledge that students have acquired through their traditional culture, rather than seeing them as empty vessels and their culture as a barrier to education. I’ve already spent a day and a half of this term involved in cultural awareness training, learning about things like gurrutu, the complex kinship system which explains how all Yolngu are related to one another. In turn, I’m using the knowledge I’m gaining here to construct a gurrutu matrix for students in my class, to understand how they’re related to one another (and also to me – I’m part of the equation because like many all Ngapaki who live here for a little while, I’ve been “adopted” into a family). I’m also spending time getting students to talk and write about themselves: their clan and totem, their skin name, their homeland, and so on. By doing this, I am hoping to show students that I respect their culture and beliefs; this will establish trust and allow them to be more receptive to the ideas I want to convey to them.

Secondly, we have to take the time to establish exactly where students are on the learning continuum, and teach accordingly. NAPLAN and other data shows that many Indigenous students in Year 9 have literacy levels equivalent to an average Year 3 student. In my experience, that’s quite accurate. The problem is, as my principal has pointed out, there’s a strong tendency to teach where students should be up to i.e. at age level. Thus many students who fall behind are never able to catch up, because they miss all the intermediate steps between where they are and where they should be. I’m not saying we should ignore the curriculum. But must go through the learning continuum, which means working our way back to where students are. After all, no one would try to teach a child to swim or ride a bike before he can walk. So why are we pressured to make students do things they’re not ready for? That only builds an environment in which failure is guaranteed.

The task ahead of educators in this context is daunting, because the logical conclusion to the problems I’ve outlined is that Ngapaki educators who want to make a difference need to become at least reasonably literate in Yolngu language and culture – a hugely difficult undertaking with such a transient workforce in remote communities. But that’s the challenge I’ve set myself.

I take heart from a discussion I had late last year with a very senior elder and teacher, a bicultural and bilingual lady who “walks in both worlds”. She believes it’s possible to bridge the gap between the two worlds. But it doesn’t start by devaluing one culture, by teaching students that their culture is inferior. To be strong in one, they have to be strong in both. In my next post, I’ll talk more about how I’ve tried to do this with my students this year.


A. McMillan, An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land, Niblock Publishing, 2007.

D. Thomson, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, The Miegunyah Press, 2004.

R. Trudgen, Djambatj Mala – Why Warriors Lay Down and Die, Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Inc, 2000.