Bilingual teaching programs in Northern Territory

Jun 1, 2009 | Advocacy | 0 comments

One of the main concerns on our political agenda has been the bilingual teaching environment in Northern Territory, where Aboriginal languages has been reduced to a bare minimum.  Last week a delegation from Alice Springs took more than 50 letters of concern to three federal ministers: Minister for Education Julia Gillard, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin and Minister for the Environment Peter Garrett. Letters came from all over the country. Our ATESOL ACT committee also wrote a letter on behalf of our members, expressing our whole-hearted support for a bilingual approach and our concern that English learning needs now come at the expense of education in Aboriginal languages. See below for full text of our letter. As a consequence the minister for environment has now commenced drafting an Indigenous Languages Action Strategy. For more info on indigenous issues go to

LETTER TO MINISTERS10 June 2009The Hon Julia Gillard MP, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion
The Hon Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
The Hon Peter Garrett MP,  Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRADear Deputy Prime Minister and Ministers,On behalf of the Association of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in the Australian Capital Territory (ATESOL ACT), I am writing to you to request your strong support for bilingual programs and approaches in the Northern Territory.  This letter will be delivered to you by representatives of the Ngapartji Ngapartji group in their meeting with you.ATESOL ACT whole-heartedly endorses quality indigenous language and bilingual approaches to meet the learning needs of indigenous students. We therefore deplore the undermining of these approaches by current policies in the Northern Territory.Supporting indigenous students’ English learning need not come at the expense of the indigenous languages. All reputable and long-standing second language acquisition research clearly demonstrates the multiple benefits of additive bilingualism in promoting individuals’ cognitive, social and cultural development. This research also shows that maintaining the child’s mother tongue can significantly enhance his/her learning of additional languages, including English. Further, there is no evidence to show that removing support for the child’s mother tongue translates into gain in any other language, including English.ATESOL ACT understands that data from literacy testing by the NT Department of Education showed that indigenous students in schools using bilingual approaches achieved higher standards in the Years 5 and 7 national literacy benchmark tests than did their counterparts in ‘like’ English-only schools. This evidence supports claims for the advantages of bilingual approaches over English-only approaches for indigenous students, and suggests that enforcing English-only approaches will do nothing to assist these students and is likely to further erode their educational performance.In addition to enhancing literacy and numeracy outcomes, mother tongue maintenance has been linked to improvements in mental health. Conversely, research also suggests that where English has replaced or sufficiently weakened mother tongues in indigenous communities, speakers cannot access traditional epistemologies (that is, fundamental elements in indigenous value systems and understandings of the environment, and the ways in which values and knowledge are passed on) and that language loss can play a significant role in depression, hopelessness, mental breakdown and even suicide.ATESOL ACT therefore strongly supports the teaching of indigenous languages alongside English and the use of quality bilingual approaches and programs. A balanced approach is key to unlocking indigenous students’ potential in remote communities where their languages are still in use. It will enhance these students’ participation and success in education, not least in English. It will provide a solid foundation from which they can look to the future, make choices and contribute to Australian society overall.Regards,
Lona Thwaites,
President ATESOL, ACT

See more on this issue on ACTA’s website: