My crazy dream

Give our aboriginal kids an unfair advantage – teach them good, plain English.

Letter to Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Country Liberal Party (NT), 2.229 McMillans Road, Jingili NT 0810

Dear Jacinta,

I’m writing to you in the hope that you can put me out of my misery. For years, now, I’ve had a recurrent dream about the advancement of those of my fellow Australians who are descendants of the original inhabitants of this continent.

It goes a bit like this:

A working command of the English language is the greatest gift we can give to our children. No other language on earth comes close to English as a mutually intelligible medium of communication. The ability competently to use basic English confers priceless advantages upon the user, in terms not just of employment, but of citizenship and social agency. Australian indigenous languages, notwithstanding their cultural significance to their users, have almost no practical utility

So great is the utility of English that it has an undeniable propensity to extinguish its less powerful neighbours. I once sat in the lobby of a smart Copenhagen hotel, and listened to two Danish businessmen discussing a project, and was intrigued to hear them slipping between Danish and English, according to which language best suited the ideas they were trying to articulate.

Where indigenous languages have been preserved within a largely Anglophone society, however, it has invariably been thanks to the efforts of native speakers who were also masters of English. Welsh, for instance, is extensively used today, thanks to Welsh speakers such as David Hughes Parry.

Parry spoke only Welsh in his childhood, but learned English when he went to school. He went to university first in Wales, but after service in the army went to Cambridge, studied law, and became a distinguished barrister at the English Bar. He was far from the first Welshman to champion his language, but it was his 1965 report which formed the basis of the 1967 Welsh Language Act, which set up the Welsh Language Board, with its duty to preserve the tongue. Scots Gaelic has not fared as well as Welsh, but it survives, again in large part through the advocacy of speakers who are also masterful users of English.

Perversely, the teaching of English in Australia has deteriorated markedly over the last few decades. To read AB Facey’s ‘A Fortunate Life’ is to be struck by the sheer competence with which he, a boy who never went to school and taught himself to read and write, sets down the story of his remarkable life.

Those teaching English to aboriginal children, in particular, seem to me to have all but given up the challenge of teaching formal English skills, instead being encouraged to ‘support’ their pupils in the use of ‘Aboriginal English’. The effect of this must be to burden these children with the bigotry of low expectations, and to mark them out for life as a member of a distinct subculture, with diminished life chances.

So, here’s my recurrent, nagging dream. It takes place in a remote aboriginal community, where a handful of parents have seen the light and got jack of being talked down to by well-meaning but misguided white folk. They’ve been given the opportunity for their kids to be taught Standard English in the way it used to be taught throughout Australia until the 70s, by the many retired teachers who still remember the rules of grammar and syntax, and who rue their neglect. Their kids are encouraged to use their indigenous language, and to translate between it and Standard English. Their use of ‘Aboriginal English’ at home and among their peers is not deprecated, but they are shown how Standard English enables them to communicate functionally with people all over the world, for whom English is not their first language. They, and their families, also come to appreciate that learning good English is not an act of submission to the whitefella, but a powerful way of equipping themselves, and their language and culture, to contend with the world at large – to escape subordination and dependency, not to succumb to it.

My scheme, as I dream it, develops legs, and soon kids in remote communities all over Australia are participating.

In my mad dream, these kids come to adulthood with a firm grasp of simple, written and spoken English, and of the rules that govern it. They can correctly name the subject, object and predicate in a simple sentence. In this, they have an advantage over the great majority of Australian schoolchildren.

My dream is nothing if not ambitious. Some of the kids find that their English skills equip them for jobs and careers in which they outperform their less well-educated contemporaries. Better still, word gets about, and employers start actively recruiting young aboriginal people who have graduated from my mad scheme. Their distinctive twang is no longer a marker putting a lowly ceiling on their achievement, but a mark of excellence, inspiring trust and confidence in their customers. They are free to choose whether they move closer to Australia’s centres of population, where they have every chance of prospering, or to continue to live in the community in which they grew up, where their language skills, together with internet connectivity (another feature of my dream which I neglected to mention earlier) enables them to live productive lives, and to contribute, by their straightforward articulacy, to their society’s betterment, and to the preservation of its cultural and linguistic heritage.

Am I crazy?


Tom Forrester-Paton

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