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Attack on bilingual education in the Northern Territory (cont'd)
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19 January 1999



A Matter of Survival

In 1994, the Senate of the 36th Australian Parliament published its Report A Matter of Survival, the findings of an inquiry undertaken, in its own words, "because of widespread concern over language loss amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people." i The Deputy Chair of the Senate Committee, and a member of the sub-committee which conducted the inquiry was Dr Michael Wooldridge, MP, the current Health Minister. Other members included Mr Les Scott, MP, (Chair) and Mr Garrie Gibson, MP. Among the members of the full committee, which endorsed the report, was the current member for the NT, Warren Snowdon. The report in its opening pages recognised that

The importance of a language to its speakers and descendants is much more significant than the linguistic aspects alone (because) language goes to the very core of a person's identity
This was one reason why the Committee paid particular attention to school based language programs, especially bilingual education:
Schools have a very large impact on language and in the past this has been a quite destructive one. It is important that they play a constructive role in language maintenance wherever possible. A major way in which schools have been involved in language maintenance has been through bilingual education.
It also noted in its findings that there were "sound educational reasons for establishing literacy in the child's first language before developing literacy in English", while also recognising that schools should " maintain a child's first language and not supplant it." The committee described as "intolerable" the fact that "while most migrant children with a first language other than English have been able to study that language up to matriculation level, Aboriginal children cannot study their language at high school." It also argued that not only was the provision of a basic education is an "essential human right", but that as a further human right:
education should be available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in a way which reinforces rather than suppresses or contradicts their unique cultural identity. This includes an understanding and respect for their home language (emphasis Bob Boughton)
The Report included some specific recommendations re school-based language programs, calling on the Minister for Employment, Education and Training, in cooperation with the relevant state and territory ministers to
  • 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.
  • ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language communities serviced by a school determine which model of language teaching is appropriate for their school
  • ensure that bilingual education is clearly based on the maintenance model rather than the transfer-to-English model
In the light of these recommendations, and given that the Australian Senate spent considerable amounts of time and resources, including taxpayers money, in reaching these conclusions, it seems fair to ask what new evidence the NT Education Minister Peter Adamson had before him when he chose last week to phase out bilingual education. Or are such inquiries of the national parliament simply to be disregarded once they are concluded?

Dr. Bob Boughton, MSHR, Alice Springs 11 December 1998


Message from Jeff Siegel (

Dear Colleagues,

The miserable news about NT cutting bilingual programs reached us here in Hawaii last week. Helen Fraser just forwarded some correspondence about it and a copy of Peter's draft letter on behalf of ALS. It's great that our organization is taking a stand, but as Helen has pointed out, it will take more involvement and publicity to get people to even begin to understand the issues.

Earlier this year,the LSA Committee on Social and Political Concerns wrote a response to the Unz initiative (which proposed to virtually get rid of bilingual programs in California). The response contains some valuable stuff about the advantages of bilingual programs and some references. I've extracted bits (below) that may be helpful to ALS members as they (hopefully) write letters to newspapers, volunteer to talk on local radio programs, etc. (I have the text of the full resolution if anyone wants it.)

Also, as you're probably aware, there are several evaluations of Aboriginal bilingual programs which report positive effects on school achievement and acquisition of English, as well as social benefits. These are by Gale et al (1981), Murtagh (1979,1982) and Devlin (1995). There are also evaluations of immigrant bilingual programs (Clyne 1988, 1991; Foster et al 1984). (Refs below)

If anyone needs any further information, my report for AusAID on vernacular education has a 10 page appendix written by Jean Harkins which contains a review of literature and research findings on bilingual ed from around the world (nearly all positive). The reference is: Siegel, J. 1996. Vernacular education in the South Pacific (International Development Issues No.45). Canberra: Australian Agency for International Development. I can send the appendix as an email attachment if anyone wants it.

I hope for better success than LSA had against the Unz initiative, which was approved overwhelmingly by California voters in November.


From the LSA Resolution: In opposition to the Unz/Tuchman California Ballot Initiative: 'English Language Education for Immigrant Children'

Bilingual programs in the USA have had a major positive impact on children's success. SInce they were intitiated thirty years ago, they have led to rising test scores, increased college attendance, and brighter career paths for students of non-English speaking background. A growing body of research evidence shows that well-designed bilingual programs are academically effective--without holding back students' acquisition of English (Crawford 1995; Genesee 1987; Cummins 1984, 1988).

Crawford (1997) points out that bilingual education is based upon three simple premises: (1) Knowledge is more easily acquired if a teacher communicates with a student in a language that the student understands. (2) Concepts and academic content learned through a student's native language don't need to be relearned in English. (3) Language skills such as literacy, like concepts and academic content, need to be learned only once. There is no justification for putting acquisition of knowledge on hold while a student who already has perfectly good mastery of a first language learns a second. Cognitive development in general, like language, is subject to maturational constraints (Lenneberg 1967, Newport 1990). The earlier certain concepts and methods of problem solving are learned, the better equipped a child is to assimilate that knowledge and to use those concepts as stepping stones to further development. Delaying nonlanguage aspects of the educational curriculum of children until they master a second language simply serves to place them at a greater disadvantage.

References (supplied by Jeff Siegal and Bruce Sommer)

Crawford, J. 1995. Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice. Los Angeles: Bilingual Education Services.

_____. 1997. Best Evidence: Research Foundations of the Bilingual Education Act. NCBE Special Report. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (

_____. 1998. The UNZ Initiative: Extreme, irresponsible, and hazardous to California's future. [Online] National Association for Bilingual Education. Available:

Cummins, J. 1984. Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.

_____. 1988. Second language acquisition within bilingual education programs. Issues in second language acquisition: Multiple perspectives, ed. by L. Beebe, 145-66. New York: Newbury House.

Genesee, F. 1987. Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education. Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.

Lenneberg, E. H. 1967. The biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley. Newport, E. 1990. Maturational constraints on language learning. Cognitive Science 14. 11-28.
Refs evaluating bilingual ed in Australia:
Clyne, M. 1988. Bilingual education - what can we learn from the past?. Australian Journal of Education 32:93-111.

Clyne, M. 1991. Bilingual education for all: an Australian pilot study and its policy implications. In García 1991:253-270.

Devlin, B. 1995. The evaluation of bilingual programs in the Northern Territory, Australia, 1973-1993. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 113:23-36.

Foster, L., R. Lewis, M. Rado & G. Rowley. 1984. Evaluating bilingual education. Melbourne: Clearing House on Migration Issues. (Multicultural Australia Papers, 29.)

Gale, K., D. McClay, M. Christie & S.G. Harris. 1981. Academic achievement in the Milingimbi Bilingual Program. TESOL Quarterly 15(3):297-314.

Murtagh, E.J. 1979. Creole and English bilingual education: Some research findings. Darwin: Summer Institute of Linguistics, Australian Aborigines Branch. (Adapted from his EdD thesis, Stanford University.)

Murtagh, E.J. 1982. Creole and English as languages of instruction in bilingual education with Aboriginal Australians: some research findings. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 36:15-33.

Sommer, B.A. Yesterday's Experts: The Bureaucratic Impact on Language Planning for the Aboriginal Bilingual Education. Special Publication No. 8, Australian Review of Applied Linguistics. 1991, pp109-134. (Bruce Sommer adds: this paper predicts just the sort of event that we are witnessing)


Letter from the President of the Australian Linguistic Society, Professor Peter Austin

(letterhead: Department of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, University of Melbourne)

8th December 1998

Hon. Peter Adamson,
Minister for Education,
Parliament House,
GPO Box 3146,
Darwin, NT, 0801

Dear Minister,

I am writing to you in my capacity as President of the Australian Linguistic Society. The Australian Linguistics Society wishes to express its concern at the Northern Territory Government's proposal to dismantle the bilingual-bicultural education programmes in Aboriginal schools. A number of our members have worked in these programmes, or served them, or given support, often unpaid, to them. These programmes are a shining light in Northern Territory education, and have acted as models for programmes elsewhere in the world.

We do not understand the reason given for the dismantling, namely that this will enable better teaching of English as a Second Language (ESL). It suggests a misunderstanding of the nature of bilingual education programmes. ESL teaching is a fundamental part of bilingual programmes. We do not understand why sensible, staged, ESL teaching cannot be carried out in bilingual schools. The premise of bilingual education in the Northern Territory, that indigenous and materially disadvantaged children learn better in their first language, is backed by the findings of a wide range of international second language acquisition research. We therefore do not understand why the Government believes that Aboriginal children will acquire English better in English-only schools.

We recognise the right of indigenous communities to decide the medium of instruction for their children. However, we believe this decision rests at the level of the individual community. Some communities may wish for English-only instruction for their children. That is their right. But those communities who want to continue bilingual instruction should be able to do so.

Three side benefits of the NT bilingual education programmes deserve mentioning.

  1. the bilingual education programmes have allowed the entry of Aboriginal people into the schools in a way that truly values their knowledge and skills, and accords them dignity. It is hard to see how the English-only programmes can provide such opportunities;
  2. the indigenous languages of Australia and the cultural heritage and knowledge of indigenous people are part of Australia's heritage. The bilingual programmes have encouraged collaborative work between indigenous people and researchers in documenting indigenous knowledge of the natural world which is of great scientific value, and in the case of plants, potentially of great economic value.
  3. the loss of the language diversity that the world is currently undergoing has been compared to the tragedy of the loss of biological diversity. Bilingual education programmes such as those in the Northern Territory have been one of the major instruments for halting language and cultural loss.
We respectfully request you to reconsider the decision and to allow each affected Aboriginal community to decide whether they prefer bilingual-bicultural programmes or English-only programmes.

Yours sincerely,

Prof Peter K. Austin
Foundation Professor in Linguistics
Head of Department
President, Australian Linguistic Society

cc. Hon. Tim Baldwin, Minister for Aboriginal Development and Community Government Hon. Shane Stone, Chief Minister, Northern Territory


Support message from Alasdair MacCaluim, campaigns officer of Comann Ceilteach Oilthigh Dhun Eideann (Edinburgh University's Gaelic society)

As speakers of Scottish Gaelic, we are very concerned to hear about the current threat to bilingual education in the Northern Territories of Australia. Bilingual education has been a great success in Scotland, Wales and Brittany and the numbers of parents choosing such an education for their children has been increasing steadily. We urge the government of the Northern Territories to reverse their decision to abandon bilingual education. Campaigners for the retention of bilingual education can count on the support of Scottish Gaels.


Letter of concern from Dr David Wilkins, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
P.O. Box 310, 6500 AH Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Hon. Peter Adamson, MLA
NT Minister for Education and Training
Parliament House
State Square
Darwin NT 0800
21 December, 1998

Dear Sir,
I am writing in regard to your media releases and announcements of December 1 which in part stated that the NT "bilingual program will progressively make way for the development of ESL programs" in Aboriginal Schools, and that the withdrawal of the Bilingual Education Program will allow "the schools to share in the savings and better resource English language programs". I implore you to reconsider this course of action. As far as I am able to determine, the NT Department of Education's decision is based on a false understanding of the desires of Aboriginal communities themselves, and represents a total lack of understanding of the international research on bilingual education and the relations between first and second language acquisition. While your move may have economic advantages it is thoroughly detrimental to the social, cultural, cognitive and educational development of those Aboriginal children whose first language is not English. It is your Department's sworn duty to act for the benefit of these children, but your actions will now endanger their futures.

Attached please find a copy of a petition which was prepared by the Australian Education Union and signed by linguists, anthropologists and psychologists affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Among other things, our institute is internationally renowned for research into first and second language acquisition, bilingualism, and the relationship between language and cognition. International expert opinion is clearly against the move you have taken. While it makes sense to build better ESL programs into existing bilingual programs, the replacement of the latter with the former goes against informed policy trends for indigenous education world-wide.

As an Australian citizen living overseas, I am saddened to see Australia, once a trendsetter in indigenous education, taking such a big step backwards. Moreover, as a linguistic researcher with 16 years of experience working with Aboriginal educational institutions in Central Australia, I find your reading of community desires with respect to the directions that should be taken in Aboriginal education to be totally at odds with my own understanding of what communities want and need. Finally, I find it strange that, while the worldwide trend is towards the increased protection and preservation of endangered languages and cultures, you are taking actions that will certainly contribute to linguistic and cultural loss.

To conclude, I request that you postpone any further action in this matter until: (1) all affected communities have been properly consulted, and a full public report on their stated desires has been made;
(2) a full review of the available research on indigenous bilingual education has been made; and
(3) a sound projection of the educational, social and cognitive consequences of simply replacing bilingual education with ESL programs in each affected community is given.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. David P. Wilkins
Senior researcher
Language and Cognition Group
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen
The Netherlands


Resolution passed by the Board of the Faculty of Education and Languages at the University of Western Sydney

The Faculty Board of the Faculty of Education and Languages at the University of Western Sydney Macarthur this morning passed the following motion unanimously:

That the Board deplores the proposal of the Northern Territory Government to phase out bilingual education in Northern Territory schools, and strongly urges the Minister for Education and Training and the Minister for Aboriginal Development of the Northern Territory to reconsider the proposal. The Board believes that the proposal contravenes good educational practice and opposes the spirit of reconciliation, and will result in Australia being held in contempt internationally.
16 December 1998


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