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Mapping the early English speech of very remote Aboriginal children July 1, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Primary Education.
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 from Lawrence Kenny

“Dis one crying get football” (6 year old Central Western Desert child).

At first glance this description of a child upset because their football has been kicked into a creek on a family outing may appear clumsy and unsophisticated for a six year old speaker. However, for this very remote Aboriginal child this sentence is one of many milestones in their journey to becoming a competent and meaningful speaker of English. It is one of a number of major linguistic steps in their journey from being immersed and fluent in their own homeland Aboriginal language, to becoming a bilingual or multilingual speaker that includes English.

It is important to map the linguistic journey of these very remote Aboriginal English as Foreign Language (EFL) speakers as they are repeatedly identified and reported as having the poorest educational results of all Australian school children, yet they begin their Western education journey arriving at school being competent speakers of a very complex language system.

For many early childhood educators it is widely accepted that language is the key factor for all higher level cognitive functions and that language development and comprehension does affect the development of later literacy skills. As an early childhood educator in a very remote Aboriginal context for more than 7 years I have had the privilege of being immersed within a cultural and linguistic context unique within the wider Australian social milieu. During these 7 years I was involved for a year with the Indigenous Language Speaking Student (ILSS) program funded by the Australian Commonwealth Government. A major part of the ILSS program is the reporting and assessment of the English oral language abilities of 6 year old very remote Aboriginal children enrolled in the ILSS program.

During my year within this program it became apparent that there was no systematic or culturally appropriate method for the collection of English oral language data and, more disconcertingly, that no English oral language profile existed for these EFL learners. When educators and education systems within this unique educational context can understand and identify the development patterns and milestones in English oral language for these EFL learners, the better able all involved can cater for and to the education of these unique Australian EFL learners. 

It is important that education providers and curriculum developers in the Northern Territory and throughout Australia recognise that the education and linguistic contexts of very remote Aboriginal communities throughout Australia are extremely distinct from non remote Aboriginal and non Aboriginal communities. This distinction is important as it recognises that very remote Aboriginal children are English as Foreign Language (EFL) learners as opposed to English as Second Language (ESL) learners. The term EFL is distinct from ESL as EFL learners are not immersed within the broader social milieu of the language being learnt, whilst ESL learners are surrounded by the social and cultural elements of the language being learned.

Unfortunately this recognition is not apparent with the consistent application of mainstream English as first language and ESL developmental profiles in the very remote Aboriginal context. The application of these developmental models or profiles creates a language disparity and a deficit model for the assessment of these unique learners. This leads to a dislocation or a content/context divide that does not recognise the appearance and consolidation of emergent developmental behaviours and indicators for oral SAE that are common to very remote Aboriginal school children in their first few years of formal Western schooling.

The application of these developmental profiles is problematic as they are undertaken in mainstream urban and/or rural communities where SAE is the taken for granted first language, and they do not include many of the emergent developmental behaviours and indicators that are the foundations of more advanced SAE speech.

As the Australian education landscape undergoes a dramatic shift towards a National curriculum framework, a part of this new direction in the Northern Territory is the introduction of the Diagnostic Net for Transition to Year 9 (NT DET, 2010) [now called by NT DET the Diagnostic for Transition to Year 2]. The language profile within this document identifies six areas in the development of SAE oracy and although comprehensive, this developmental profile clearly reflects mainstream education developmental profiles and does not encompass any early and emergent language behaviours or indicators. These early emergent language indicators are what many very remote Aboriginal students display in their first few years of school, and this is the content /context divide for these English as a Foreign Language learners.

The T-9 Diagnostic Net provides an incomplete view of the developmental process as it begins with a description of learners that have mastered the emergent SAE oral behaviours and indicators. For example, the Transition speaking and listening profile describes students as speaking in sentences of four to five words and that they are able to join these short sentences using the words and, or, but, and because. This is the ‘expectation’ for these students by the end of their Transition year, which is the first year of school contact for many of these very remote Aboriginal children who are at least five years old but no more than six years old (NT DET, 2010, pp.30-31).

After their first year in Transition children move into first grade or year one and are now in their second year of schooling. Table 1.1 outlines the expected “grammatical markers” and “little words” (NT DET, 2010, p.30) that students must be able to use by the end of this year.

Table 1.1 Grammatical markers and little words
Present progressive Driving
Plurals Balls
Regular past tense she walked
Irregular past tense broke, fell
Possessive daddy’s…
3rd person present tense regular he works…
3rd person present tense irregular she does
Contractions he’s…, she’s…
   
Little words a, the, is, am, are

NT DET (2010) Diagnostic Net for Transition to Year 9. The Continua. Oral Language Development in the Curriculum. Speaking and Listening (p.30).

 The Diagnostic Net T-9 Continua (2010) does not cover emergent oral development as it begins with Transition students being able to speak and link four to five word sentences together by the end of their first year of school contact. The Diagnostic net then sees students progress to year one or first grade and depicts students using grammatical markers for tense and contractions in their speech by the end of this year of schooling.

The anticipated developmental progression over the first two years of school envisions these very remote students acquiring the previously discussed oral SAE abilities, yet does not acknowledge that beginning learners of a second language need time for exposure and consolidation in the learning process that may begin with an extended silent period before moving through holophrases and into the stages of telegraphic speech in their use of SAE (Ellis, 2009).

To conclude, very remote Aboriginal children in the NT arrive at school with little or no experience with English and the application of mainstream and ESL developmental models in the very remote Aboriginal context fails to recognise that developmental profiles must complement learners to be useful documents for teachers.

References:    Ellis. R. (2009). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. (2nd Ed). Oxford. Oxford University Press.    NT DET. (2010). Diagnostic Net for Transition to Year 9. Retrieved on the 29th September from http://www.det.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/13969/DiagnosticNetT9.pdf

Lawrence Kenny has two degrees from the University of Western Sydney, graduating in 1998 with a Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood), and with a Bachelor of Education [Honours 1st class] in 2000. Lawrence is currently enrolled in the School of Education’s PhD program and is conducting research on the development of Standard Australian English in the early school years in four very remote Aboriginal communities in the Central Western Desert region of the Northern Territory. Lawrence is an employee of the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training and has worked as a teacher and teaching principal in this context for more than 7 years.

Comments»

1. Brenda Dobia - July 12, 2012

Hi Larry, Fantastic to see your work in this area! The application of highly inappropriate standards to remote Aboriginal children’s development is a prime example of the institutional racism that Aboriginal communities STILL face. It is all the more shocking when you consider that Aboriginal children are the only ESL learners to be judged according to these standards AND that they are speakers of highly endangered languages. Let’s hope your research can help to change this serious violation of human rights.


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