Professor Behrendt on Bilingual Education

Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, writes in the National Indigenous Times ~  ‘Australian governments need to stop blaming Aboriginal people and start listening to them, especially in regards to the bilingual debate.’

Go Prof. Behrendt! The article continues thus so:

‘It is hypocritical when politicians say they believe that Aboriginal children should be proficient in English, but refuse to support bilingual education.


Since the Howard era, there has been an increasing tendency by conservatives and politicians from both sides of parliament to blame Aboriginal culture for the problems that face Aboriginal communities. It is Aboriginal culture, they say, that leads to the violence and dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. Not neglect of health services, overcrowding, lack of infrastructure and lack of investment in human capital.


The attack on bilingual education takes this same approach and asserts that teaching children in their own language is detrimental to their wellbeing. It seems to imply that the bilingual education model is one that focuses children on learning their own language and culture at the expense of learning the fundamentals to assist with literacy and numeracy. But this point of view suffers from a complete ignorance of what the aims and benefits of bilingual language are.


In fact, bilingual education understands that the children who attend the school have English as a second language. It seeks to teach the basics of literacy by starting with learning how to spell words that children are already familiar with. This is how they learn the alphabet. Once they start to understand that, they will be able to understand how to pronounce words in English and this assists in their comprehension of the language.


The bilingual model also seeks to use examples from the cultural lives of the children in the classroom so they relate to what they are learning and are better able to absorb it. The model also brings members of the Aboriginal community into the school. They have a role to play in teaching children under the bilingual model. This assists with building a culture within the school that children feel comfortable in and it assists with building the relationship between the school and the community.


These things have been shown to increase attendance and performance levels at school. If there is a reason that bilingual schooling has failed, it has nothing to do with the model. When it has been supported and adequately resourced, it has produced excellent results in improving literacy and numeracy levels for Aboriginal children. Its current inability to achieve similar results is not because the model for bilingual language is not right.


While politicians and some policy makers look to the poor performance of children in bilingual schools, they ignore the fact that literacy and numeracy rates of children across the Northern Territory are poor. They also ignore the fact that failure to adequately fund Indigenous education, a lack of investment in educational infrastructure, the failure to attract and keep competent teachers and over-crowding are all factors that contribute to the poor educational performance of Aboriginal children. And these are factors that have nothing to do with Aboriginal parents or Aboriginal culture and everything to do with government neglect.


While they are so busy blaming Aboriginal people and culture, governments continue to overlook their own complicity in the poor educational outcomes of Aboriginal children. There is also something insulting about the way in which politicians on both sides of government imply that the bilingual educational model is part of the problem in achieving better literacy and numeracy rates. When they talk about the primary goal of giving Aboriginal children a better chance in life by speaking English, they imply that Aboriginal parents who have children in bilingual schools do not care about the same thing. 


This patronising assumption overlooks the fact that Aboriginal parents are just as mindful about the importance of being able to understand English as anyone else and that they, more than anyone else, care about the future of their children.


In the typical mode that has entered politics in the shared responsibility and post-intervention eras, the attack on bilingual education wrongly treats Aboriginal families, communities and cultures as part of the problem instead of treating them as part of the solution. In failing to support the bilingual education model, politicians and policy makers are turning their backs on a proven, effective way to improve literacy and numeracy in Aboriginal communities.


Whichever side of politics they sit, it is always easier for a politician to blame the parents and schools that have supported the bilingual education model than to face the fact that government neglect of Aboriginal education funding and infrastructure, poor health and overcrowding can take the primary responsibility for the poor educational outcomes of Aboriginal people.


But it makes a good sound bite – one that plays to the racism of the broader Australian community – to blame Aboriginal parents and culture. And it is cheaper than making the investment in education that Aboriginal children need and deserve.’


1 Comment

Filed under Current social issues, Posts of an unqualified kind

One response to “Professor Behrendt on Bilingual Education

  1. Sds

    As someone who works at a remote bilingual school, I totally agree with what Professor Behrendt has said. During the years our school has been properly resourced with good teachers, it has had excellent results. But this fact is ignored by the Gov’t, along with the fact that the vast majority of poorly performing remote schools are English-only. If shutting down bilingual programs is the Gov’ts only answer to poor performance, what will they do about the other 85% of remote schools which have never run a bilingual program and still have poor results??

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