Global Lessons: Indigenous languages and multilingualism in school programs

Samantha Disbray, Carolyn Barker, Arathi Raghunathan and Faith Baisden

Around the world, Indigenous languages are taught in a range of program types, with schools playing an important role in language revitalisation and maintenance. In this paper, we present four international case studies; New Zealand (Maori), Canada (Secwepemctsin), the United States (Ojibwe and Dakota) and indigenous languages in Timor Leste. We examine successful elements and challenges faced by the language communities, schools and systems as they work to provide strong academic programs, revive and maintain Indigenous languages, and foster multilingualism. Nationally, we look at five language groups — Guugu Yimidhirr, Gumbaynggirr, Kaurna, Yawuru and Warlpiri to examine ways that Australian communities are working with schools and education systems.

Through the case studies, we see the power of schools, communities and language champions to develop programs which build community expertise and control. Among the challenges are small numbers of language speakers, lack of institutional support and access to teacher education. Overall, the case studies show that when schools and communities collaborate to teach language in a way that is intensive, available at all levels of learning and sustained over time, language proficiency and use increase. This fosters language vitality and multilingualism.

Table of Contents

What is multilingualism and how do people become multilingual?

Defining multilingualism in just a few words is not easy, as each individual has different multilingual characteristics. For the purpose of this discussion, multilingualism is defined broadly as the ability to express oneself in two or more languages for the purposes the speaker has for each language. Multilingual speakers are not necessarily perfectly or equally fluent in their languages; in fact, it is quite common to have a dominant language.

Often multilingual speakers use a language for particular audiences or purposes. For speakers of revitalised languages, this might begin with particular performances, such as welcome to country speeches, creative projects such as Kaarljilba Kaardn (Kylie Farmer) who uses her Noongar language skills to perform Shakespearean sonnets, or when musicians such as Trent White , the Stiff Gins and Yamani share their languages through song.

Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company are invited to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to translate and perform Shakespeare’s sonnets in Noongar.
Trent White sings what he believes is the first song to be written in Darumbal language for hundreds of years.
Yandool by the Stiff Gins is sung in Wiradjuri, the language of Kaleena’s people.
Six language workers from across Queensland have written and shared contemporary songs in their languages.

People usually become multilingual because they hear and need different languages in their day-to-day lives. Some people grow up beginning to speak more than one language because they live in a family or community where people routinely speak more than one language. It is a commonly held myth that children who grow up speaking more than one language have delays or language difficulties. Research says otherwise (Baker, 2011). Humans are great communicators. There are advantages to acquiring and learning new languages early, and it is never too late to become bilingual.

Some people move from one place and language situation to another and learn a new language at different stages in their lives. Some people learn a language in a classroom as a second language (when the learning takes place where the language is spoken) or as a foreign language (away from where the language is spoken).

Learning and speaking more than one language has many benefits such as being able to communicate with other speakers, and knowing cultural norms, knowledge and history. Learning and speaking another language also improves language skills in a person’s first or other language(s). Learning a second language makes it easier to learn new languages. Language learning among colonised peoples can also improve health and well-being.

Being able to express yourself in two languages takes input (hearing) and interaction in more than one language. This takes time, opportunity, and if not surrounded by communities of speakers also requires passion and dedication.

Language activists and educators in Canada have described some of the challenges for adult Indigenous language learners. Often such learners have little opportunity to hear the language around them. They may be learning a language very different to the language they speak, with limited learning resources and historically negative views towards the language. They are learning and developing old languages for new purposes in contemporary settings. Many in the global network are willing to share their experience and their resources. Onowa McIvor and Peter Jacobs from Canada share a tracking tool to help adult language learners see their progress on their language learning journey.

Multilingualism and revitalising Indigenous languages

The impacts of colonisation have placed enormous pressure on Indigenous people and their language practices. Often times people have been forced to take up coloniser languages at the expense of their ancestral language and multilingual practices that encourage the use of both or all languages.

Encouraging multilingualism is important for speakers and for the survival of languages. The greater the number of speakers, the stronger the language for the future. Speakers keep languages and culture alive, and speakers revive languages.

For many Indigenous people, teaching and learning their heritage language(s) is especially valuable because of the deep connection people feel towards their language, its connection to cultural knowledge, land and kin, as well as expressions of contemporary identity. Having language and cultural knowledge is more than simply an intellectual achievement, but is part of a process of de-colonisation.

All over the world, Indigenous communities are revitalising languages at different stages of vitality, from languages with few records, to those with many speakers. Leanne Hinton has researched and advocated for language revitalisation projects in the US. Her work and her many publications, and the work of many others have informed a global movement, which has helped many Australian reclamation and revitalisation programs.

Leanne Hinton has described language revitalisation as giving new life to a language that has been declining in use or has ceased to be used altogether, and its nature as a community process, or a community effort. However, in a 2015 talk, she also argues that:

a good deal of language revitalisation, and indeed success in revitalisation takes place below the community level and even below the level of what we might define as a program. [Language revitalisation and] its successes are individual, varied, evolving and often small, yet leading toward growth.

Hinton and Hale (2001) propose five main approaches to language revitalisation: school-based programs, out of school programs for children (after school, summer programs), adult language programs, documentation and materials development, and home-based programs. In this paper, we are focussing on the role that schools can play in supporting their students’ multilingualism. However, the case studies show that successful school programs are attentive to, and interact with, all five of the approaches.

Traditional Indigenous language revival, revitalisation and maintenance in Australia

There are many different Indigenous language situations in Australia. Some communities are beginning to teach and learn languages that have not been spoken for some years. This is called language revival, or reclamation. In other communities only older generations know and use the traditional language, and the language is under threat of dying out. Their efforts focus on revitalising language, by increasing the number of active and proficient speakers. In some communities, children still speak a traditional language as their first language, and communities are seeking to maintain language transmission and use. Schools, and increasingly early learning centres, play a critical role in most of these programs.

In recent years, recognition of traditional languages and the need to plan for their revival, revitalisation, and on-going use through education programs has become almost mainstream in public discourse, with some policy backup. One state, New South Wales, passed legislation in 2017 to recognise and revive Aboriginal languages.

Most states and territories have developed curricula and other policy materials for Aboriginal languages teaching and learning. In addition, the Australian Curriculum Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages was launched in 2016, giving programs national recognition. It offers a formal learning framework aligned policy for every student to learn an additional language. It is also part of broader action towards reconciliation in Australia.

In addition to the case studies which follow, Re-awakening languages: theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages is recommended reading for anyone interested in Australian languages. The chapters that comprise Part 4 highlight the ways many communities around the country work with education systems.

Traditional first language instruction in Australia

In Australia, a small number of traditional Indigenous languages continue to be acquired as first languages by children, particularly in regional and remote locations. However, these children are overwhelmingly taught in English-only programs. This sends the message to children that their home languages are not valued in learning, and it allocates children’s learning time away from learning through, and deepening, their language skill. There are enormous pressures on the remaining traditional languages. In addition to resistance to their teaching and learning by education systems, issues of language status, small speaker numbers and social and intergenerational changes pose threats. Many people advocate for mother tongue languages in schools programs, such as Anmatyerr educator April Campbell and Warlpiri educator Valerie Patterson. They wish to keep these languages strong and to make sure that children learn their traditional language fully.

Australia has a significant history of teaching through traditional first languages, with programs in Queensland, South Australia, and most wide-spread and long-lasting, the Northern Territory Bilingual Education Program (Devlin, Disbray & Devlin, 2017). The Northern Territory Bilingual Program ran in around twenty-five Northern Territory schools between 1974 and 2008, and was designed as a transfer bilingual program. That is, it aimed to teach through the students’ mother tongue in the early years, allowing children to learn skills in their home language and ensure a strong conceptual and linguistic base, and then, as they would gradually learn English, to transfer these skills to this additional language, which became the language of instruction in the upper primary years. Aboriginal educators and community members, however, saw the program as a means for language and cultural maintenance (Walton and Eggington; xi). In 2017, nine schools were receiving funding through the program (Kathryn McMahon, pers. Com 31/5/2017). Of these, four schools in the Top End were recognised as operating staged bilingual programs and two in the Centre were ‘on the way’ to operating bilingual programs. One of these, the Warlpiri-English Bilingual Education Program at Yuendumu, is discussed further as a case study below. A further three were operating Language Enrichment programs. Enrichment programs dedicate time to teaching cultural knowledge through first languages but do not operate as a coordinated and staged program of additive bilingual and biliterate development.

The Northern Territory Bilingual Program was controversial, with staunch proponents and opponents, though no rigorous evaluation of the program was ever carried out. It faced the challenges of remote education delivery alongside significant political pressure and an ever declining budget, and now has very little strategic resourcing and momentum within the NT Department of Education, in comparison to its strongest period in the 1980s. Today there is great emphasis on national standards in English literacy, and home languages are seen as ‘in the way’ rather than part of a child’s multilingual fund of knowledge. The narrowing of attention to basic English literacy attainment has not yielded improvement in academic achievement or retention in remote schools.

International examples indicate that students in well structured bilingual school programs reach the same level of their peers across subjects, but achieving academic proficiency in the second language requires 5–8 years of formal, structured tuition (May 2004; 50). They have the benefit of being multilingual.

Multilingualism and new Indigenous languages

Attention only to Traditional Indigenous languages overlooks the great range of new languages spoken by many Indigenous children and their communities. Contact languages in Australia, varieties of the Aboriginal English, creoles and mixed languages such as Light Warlpiri, are rarely counted as languages or part of a multilingual repertoire and they are rarely recognised in education. Yet, they are the first languages many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children learn, and are the language of daily communication and expressions of individual and local identity across Australia. Recognising the importance of home languages, Denise Angelo and colleagues from the Language Perspectives team, Education Queensland have designed and advocated a ‘three-way strong’ model, to promote children’s strong mastery of traditional languages, contact languages and English in schools (Angelo & Carter, 2015).

Figure 4. 3 way strong: Placing traditional, contact and standard languages in education. From Schooling within shifting langscapes: Educational responses in complex Indigenous language contact ecologies.

For language revival and revitalisation communities these new languages are also a strong bridge to traditional languages. For example, Wumpurrarni English spoken in the Northern Territory has been described as a ‘purnu’ or coolamon, as the contact language acts as a vessel that carries Warumungu features, sounds, words, structures and ideas (Morrison and Disbray, 2007).

Though the focus of this paper is traditional Indigenous language teaching and learning, we recognise that a split between traditional and contact languages makes many mother tongues and multilingual practices invisible. Extensive research on Aboriginal Englishes and creole languages have shown the ill-effects of this invisibility in terms of the education system’s neglect of student’s language repertoires (for instance Dixon and Angelo, 2014), poor teaching of English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EALD) and missed opportunities to foster multilingualism. Research in legal contexts has similarly shown the ill-effect of this invisibility on the justice system (cf. Eades 2016). Thus we encourage readers, in particular teachers and policymakers, to find out more about contact languages and their significance in education practice.

Achieving multilingual goals

As discussed earlier, traditional Indigenous language programs operate in a range of contexts, with different aims at different stages — revival, revitalisation and maintenance. Improving language proficiency at each stage, thus fostering multilingualism is a shared goal.

In revival programs, the language is being re-learnt by all speakers involved. Initially, the broad aim of such programs may be re-awakening the language and reconnecting the community with their heritage language and culture. The goal for students may be to develop communicative competence and knowledge of their heritage language, culture and history, and become part of a community of new speakers (O’Rourke & Pujolar, 2013). In Australia, students in these programs are first language speakers of Standard Australian English, a local Aboriginal English or creole variety.

Language revitalisation programs involve learners with little or no fluency in the language though they may use some words and often have some passive knowledge, that is, they understand more than they can produce. Learners may know some traditional and contemporary local Indigenous culture and cultural practices. There may be some speakers of the language, often elderly, in the community. The aim of these programs is to restore the speech community by developing communicatively competent speakers, with associated cultural knowledge. The goal for students may be to interact easily in a range of situations and topics, both traditional and contemporary. In Australia, students in these programs can be first language speakers of Standard Australian English, a local Aboriginal English or creole variety.

Language maintenance enrichment and bilingual programs are for students who speak the target language as their first or a main language, true for other members of their community. These programs seek to teach through the language and to enhance students’ proficiency in more advanced and sophisticated language and cultural knowledge. Language maintenance enrichment programs seek to deepen the students’ knowledge of their home language and culture, and ensure mastery of all language structures and important areas of knowledge in their home language. Bilingual programs explicitly seek to develop communicative, literate and cultural competency in the home/community language(s) and in English.

What time is required?

Indigenous reclamation and revitalisation programs differ in many ways to programs for foreign language teaching (Hinton, 2011). Their histories, prestige, available resources in terms of speakers, teachers and teaching materials, and their profile in everyday life is often very different from that of metropolitan and national languages. However, there are some general commonalities between successful Indigenous and foreign language programs.

In schools, successful language learning is linked to the quality of instruction in terms of strong and appropriate pedagogy, including cognitively challenging tasks tuned to learners’ age and level, plus access to quality resources (Enever, 2011; Nikolov & Djigunović, 2006, p. 246). Interesting and meaningful activities, outside of the classroom, to hear, use and learn meaningful exchanges as part of the school program and home environment are important (Enever, 2011, p. 78; Hinton, 2013). Other factors involve an interaction between in and out of classroom elements, such as exposure and access to and use of the target language in the learner’s everyday life, the language status in terms of its prestige in the local and broader community, and learner, family and peer attitudes and motivation to language learning (Nikolov & Mihaljević Djigunović, 2011) and the involvement of community members in the program and teaching. Finally, instruction and learning time are crucial.

Just how much time should be devoted to languages teaching and learning depends on the goals of the program and learners. Research on foreign and second language teaching shows two factors are strong predictors of high language proficiency achievement; the number of teaching hours per week and continuity of teaching across the school years (Nikolov & Mihaljević Djigunović, 2011, p. 100; Enever, 2011). The wide-reaching review of primary school language programs in European languages in seven European countries (Enever, 2011) found that consistent, high-quality programs with between two to four lessons per week over the first four years, and three to five lessons in the upper primary years, developed communicative competence in these high prestige and highly available metropolitan languages.

Studies that show a clear correlation between foreign language learning and improved academic performance across all subject areas, found such gains were made only where students took part in at least three lessons per week (Taylor & Lafayette, 2010).

Again, considering foreign language programs in mainstream classes, where schools seek ‘to generate high-proficiency outcomes’ there is ‘a move towards maximising the key variables of ‘time’ and ‘intensity’ through immersion and CLIL [Content & language-integrated learning] or CBI [Content-based instruction]’ (Johnstone, 2009, p. 213). That is, to get good language outcomes, programs find ways to boost the time allocated to learning, and learning through, the target language.

Indigenous language programs in New Zealand and the United States operate immersion programs alongside less time-intensive programs. Research has repeatedly found the immersion type programs, with intensive and rigorous staged target language learning are most effective for language revitalisation, student language learning and overall school achievement (Hinton, 2011; Indian Affairs Council State of Minnesota, 2011; McCarty, 2003; 2011, p. 154; May. et al. 2004; Ministry of Education New Zealand Government, 2017).

An overview of bi- and multilingual program types, with goals and time dedicated to each language, is included for reference.

Lessons from the case studies

For this study, we selected four international examples of education programs that actively support multilingualism in Indigenous languages. The case studies are from Maori in New Zealand, Ojibwe and Dakota in the United States, Secwepemctsin in Canada and Indigenous minority languages in Timor Leste. Three of the four are wealthy, western countries, which share a British colonial history, with devastating impacts on the traditional language ecology (New Zealand, the US and Canada). The languages in these settings are being revitalised, with education programs that will create new speakers of the languages (Maori, Ojibwe and Dakota, Secwepemctsin). Although all have their origins in the broader movement for language rights and renewal in the 1980s, they vary in terms of the level of institutional support, the intensity of programs and the time since their inception. The fourth case is Timor Leste, with a very different historical and economic backdrop. Here mother-tongue instruction is promoted so that students can learn in the language they know best, and these languages can be maintained with a place in the contemporary world. The four case studies were selected as each bears important similarities to the Australian context, as well as differences. They also capture two different language situations — language revitalisation and language maintenance, important for informing languages in education policy and practice in Australia. We reviewed the goals, structures for, and approaches to, developing and implementing languages programs and identified successful elements and challenges from each. We then synthesised the important lessons from the four case studies.

We also reviewed five Australian language education programs (Guugu Yimidhirr, Gumbaynggirr, Kaurna, Yawuru and Warlpiri), similarly reviewing their goals, structures, strengths and challenges. In doing so, we provide an overview of some programs, program types and community language planning in Australia, and relate lessons from the international case studies to the Australian context.

The individual case studies can be accessed via the direct links throughout this paper. They have also been summarised at this link for easy reference.

Language program types and outcomes

Our case studies illustrate that language teaching that is intensive, available at all levels of learning, and sustained over time, produces new speakers and fosters multilingualism. This is true for learners of an Indigenous language who are first language speakers of another language, as well as those who grow up speaking an Indigenous language at home. Immersion programs and partial immersion programs are most likely to be rigorous, in that they are time intensive, staged and sustained. The case studies of Maori in New Zealand and Ojibwe in the United States show that these have a profound impact, improving language revitalisation and reversing language shift (from Traditional languages to new languages).

First language speakers of an Indigenous language also benefit from mother tongue instruction and sustained quality teaching of their second language. Learners in quality mother tongue instruction, dual-language, (sustained) bilingual or multilingual programs all achieve first and second language proficiency and academic success. These programs foster language maintenance of small and endangered languages by developing full mastery of a first language, and cultural and academic proficiency, including first language literacy. Six years of second language instruction is generally required for second language learners to develop proficiency to achieve academically in their second language. The case study in Timor-Leste shows direct benefits of mother tongue and bilingual instruction to students, and via greater community involvement.

Second language enrichment programs that are delivered for little time in the week and/or do not continue year to year are not sufficient to yield proficiency or fluency in a heritage language. First language enrichment programs contribute less to full language proficiency and do not foster academic proficiency. However, even the strongest school programs have had small beginnings.

Schools cannot be the sole player in fostering multilingualism and teaching new generations of speakers, but they can play a vital role by providing critical sites for language reclamation, revitalisation and maintenance activities; especially when connected with community activities.

Community activities

Communities undertake a range of activities over the stages of reclaiming, revitalising and maintaining languages. These include: research and development of language resources, including historical documentation of the language; documentation of remaining or strong speaker’s knowledge; and the development of spelling systems and reference works such as dictionaries, learner’s guides and grammar and teaching materials. This work is often carried out with support from linguists and language centres, and is vital to teaching languages in schools.

In many of the contexts we examined, communities actively evaluate and/or prioritise specific language revitalisation and maintenance efforts to improve programs. They also advocate within and outside the community.

The case studies show that efforts to foster multilingualism, and revive and maintain languages, are best supported by activities at all levels of learning; in homes, community and in school programs from early childhood to tertiary and vocational levels.

Yuendumu educator Shirley Martin teaching on a bush trip. Courtesy Yuendumu School

Communities also invest in adult language and literacy learning, and in teacher training. Adult language learning program types include Master-Apprentice models, Community Learning programs, Vocational Training programs and University courses. All are shown to foster new speakers and skilled language workers, and all thrive on the motivation of individuals and groups.

Structural support

Fostering multilingualism requires structural support within a community and more broadly. Political and societal support for multilingualism and official recognition or status of languages are foundational. Commitment to education infrastructure, through clear and consistent policy, implementation strategies and resourcing, allow schools and communities to get on with teaching and learning and improving the quality of their outcomes. Highly successful programs also must have access to locally-relevant high-quality curriculum, teaching and learning standards, monitoring and assessment materials, and teacher training, accreditation and specialist professional learning.

Teacher training and pathways

Local teachers who are well-skilled in the language, its cultural content, multilingual development and language teaching methodology are crucial. In many contexts teachers also require skills in community outreach and collaboration. Innovative approaches such as team teaching pedagogy can support bilingual teaching and learning, and professional learning among staff.

Access to appropriate teacher training and accreditation for teaching, and teaching through Indigenous languages is a challenge in many contexts. Dedicated teacher accreditation programs are necessary to build strong speakers and language educators. Developing a professional pool of educators and the infrastructure to achieve this is a core goal and challenge in many contexts.

This paper is a companion to the National Indigenous Languages Teaching and Employment Strategy which outlines the current needs in relation to training Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language teachers nationally.

Some specific implications for the Australian context

The international case studies we have reviewed provide many insights for the Australian context, however, some significant differences in this context must be noted. Canadian and US education provision models differ greatly from Australian, with community and charter schools having greater school autonomy and being much more common and possible than in Australia. At a further structural level, unlike the international case studies in New Zealand, the US, Canada, and Timor-Leste, Australian languages have official status in only one state, New South Wales. In recent years, developments in the national discourse and policy around Indigenous languages, have resulted in recognition and resourcing of Indigenous languages through the funding of programs such as the Indigenous Languages and the Arts program and the inclusion of the Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages as part of the National Languages Curriculum. However, this remains contingent on political goodwill.

The languages ecology of Indigenous Australia is similar to Canada’s, but more complex than the other countries represented in the case studies (see Ball and McIvor, 2013: 22–23). The relatively small size of the Australian population, both overall and of the speaker communities of each language, is also significant. This poses additional challenges to broad delivery and up-scaling, as efforts and resources need to be language specific — created by and for small groups of people. Language reclamation and revitalisation efforts require a critical mass to frame and meet community goals. Certainly, we can look to the Kaurna and Gumbaynggirr case studies to see that small numbers of people can have significant impacts over time.

The languages ecology is complex also in that Australian Indigenous students in different situations have very different language learning needs (again, see Ball and McIvor, 2013). Some speak Standard English as their first language and are learning their heritage language as a second language. Others are speakers of a contact language, learning or keen to learn their heritage language(s) and Standard Australian English as an additional language and language of instruction. Others speak one or more traditional languages as their first language(s) and are learning Standard Australian English. For Australian communities and education systems to foster multilingualism amongst its young people, high-quality teaching and the inclusion of traditional languages, contact languages and English in classrooms are required.

This complexity also involves a particular urgency, as those languages still spoken as first languages have small speaker numbers and are under enormous pressure. Remoteness has supported intergenerational transmission until now, but remote communities face many structural challenges (economic, social and physical) and top-down policies to ameliorate these currently encourage migration to urban centres and provide English-only or, at best, English-dominant education, with very poor outcomes. There is a real risk that these vibrant languages will become languages in need of revitalisation, a task more difficult than fostering and maintaining multilingualism.

Finally, concerns about low levels of academic achievement among Indigenous people in reporting by education systems has become of key national concern, with an on-going discourse of Indigenous failure and the gap that needs to be closed. This discourse also plays out in other settings, such as Canada and the US. In Australia, the gap is measured by the comparison of statistics from Indigenous populations to a non-Indigenous baseline. Ignoring a range of potential concerns for such an approach, the variables on this baseline do not include language competence beyond English literacy. This baseline leaves no room for multilingualism or a three-way strong model. This, along with the structural challenges noted above, means it is difficult to truly establish multilingualism as a priority in education discourse.


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Global Lessons: Indigenous languages and multilingualism in school programs

Around the world, Indigenous languages are taught in a…

Global Lessons: Indigenous languages and multilingualism in school programs

Around the world, Indigenous languages are taught in a range of program types, with schools playing an important role in language revitalisation and maintenance.

First Languages Australia

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First Languages Australia is the peak body committed to ensuring the future strength of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Global Lessons: Indigenous languages and multilingualism in school programs

Around the world, Indigenous languages are taught in a range of program types, with schools playing an important role in language revitalisation and maintenance.