The case for Bilingual Education has never been comprehensively challenged

This is the document that I attached to the Submission to the NT Education Review.

I am not posting because this is ‘my best writing’.  It is not.  It was put together in a rush to support a key aspect of my submission to the NT Review of Education.  I am posting it here to ‘finish the process’.

One of the key frustrations I experienced in trying to develop this ‘literature review lite’ was caused by the mysterious disappearance of all the Submissions sent in to the important Parliamentary Inquiry into Bilingual Education.  I had to rely on my less that adequate notes.  All references to Submissions relate to this Inquiry.

The case for bilingual education. Key extracts

Source: Lisa Waller, “Learning in both worlds,” Inside Story, 27 October 2011

The actions of the NT govt in removing any possibility of Indigenous children having their early education and achieving initial literacy in their own language goes against all the research from The World Bank, UNESCO and the testing carried out over many years within the NT itself. 
In addition, it slows the development of an Indigenous teaching service and threatens the survival of the childrens’ languages and their cultural identity. 
It is an action that in years to come will result in a second ‘Sorry’ day. At that time the NT Govt. will not be able to claim they didn’t know because the research that they commissioned makes the requirements for the education of Indigenous minorities quite clear: Educate these children in their mother tongue while they are learning the dominant language. Then when, and only when, children are confident in this additional language should they begin to learn in this language while they continue the development of both languages. – Beth Graham a noted bilingual expert.

Joe Lo Bianco, cites over 1200 international studies “that provide empirical evidence of the effectiveness of bilingual education for students who do not speak the dominant language when they start school”. (Indigenous Languages in Education: What the Research Actually Shows).

Fogarty and Kral are highly experienced researchers who specialize in working with Indigenous youth and communities on issues surrounding Indigenous languages, literacy, lifelong learning, education, enterprise, employment and development in remote contexts.

Their submission focuses on the role of Indigenous languages in emergent development activity in remote Australia, and the out-of-school language and literacy needs of Indigenous adolescents and young adults, with a focus on the digital economy.

However, they summarise the broad findings from their research in relation to bilingual education and the teaching of Indigenous languages in schools as follows:

  • conceptual development in children is enhanced when students are taught in their first language;
  • education of Indigenous students in their first language is a critical component of students well-being, self esteem and personal development at school;
  • Indigenous communities, parents and teachers overwhelmingly support the teaching of Indigenous languages Indigenous schools. In part because this is a crucial factor in the engagement of Indigenous families in education generally and leads to improved school attendance;
  • there is no evidence that learning in an Indigenous first language has a negative effect on English language acquisition;
  • there is no credible evidence that ‘English only’ remote schools perform better than bilingual schools; and
  • evidence of the benefits of Indigenous language programs for Indigenous students overwhelmingly supports their continuation and development.

Submission No. 80 from Michele Rowe who has extensive Australian and international experience in applied linguistics – including in the NT Community of Wadeye where she worked as a teacher linguist for some time.

She makes the following observations, which help to explain why the bilingual program is not as successful as it should/could be:

Following my sabbatical, I returned to Australia to work at Wadeye, to try and support educational developments and address the huge gap in Indigenous student achievement that had widened since I left Australia in the 1970‟s. After four and a half years, one of the biggest problems I had found was not only the high turnover of non-Indigenous teachers that affected continuity and development, but also the lack of understanding of first and second language acquisition. An expectation for students to achieve national benchmarks in English through numerous initiatives in short time, scales of “stop and start” programs, provided little scope for continuity and progression for generational change. Furthermore, the Indigenous language program, in comparison to English was marginalized. Where English had a range of outside experts and school based coordinators, the Indigenous language program in comparison received limited support and had had periods without being supported at all.  

The understanding that supporting language learning in first language bridges learning in a second language, is something that is understood internationally, but from my experience, not by most teachers recruited to teach in remote Indigenous communities.

In prioritizing the learning of English, with the best of intentions, for Indigenous students to access the same opportunities as other Australians; this results unfortunately in compromising Indigenous language programs and not acknowledging the importance of linking student’s first language to learn English as an additional language. 

Unfortunately, too many teachers that work on remote communities, do not have the training or experience of teaching in high ESL schools, and using first language to strengthen the transition to second language learning as well as the links between family and community learning. This not only ignores children’s wealth of language learning and cognitive development before coming to school but also results in a void in linking home-school learning, learning for continuity and strengthening students cultural heritages and identity.

Submission No. 81 from Dr Brian Devlin from Charles Darwin University, an active ACE member who has worked extensively with remote schools in the NT.

His submission is collaboration with colleagues in academia and from schools across the NT.  This gave voice to those who felt that they could not speak out in their own names.

One of his contributors, a principal from a two way school points out the ridiculousness of assessing the success of the bilingual program using year 3 or even year 5 NAPLAN scores:

The foremost indicator that is used to measure the educational gap is the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests.

These tests are designed to test the literacy and numeracy skills of mainstream Australian students who speak English as their first language [editor’s note – children who are ESL 1 or 2 stage learners in schools in other states are excluded from sitting the NAPLAN tests based on their new arrival status]. There is a great deal of focus that the NT Department of Education has placed on improving the Year 3 NAPLAN results of indigenous students. 

However, for students who begin school not speaking English, achieving theYear 3 NAPLAN benchmarks is not a realistic goal. They must read and understand the content of the test and then respond in writing or by selecting the correct answer from multiple choices. International research in to language learning shows that it takes three to five years to gain basic interpersonal communicative skills in a second language (where face-to-face contextual support and props are required to assist in meaning) and five to seven years to gain cognitive/academic language proficiency, where higher order thinking skills are required, such as for analysing, synthesising, evaluating and classifying (Hakuta et al., 2000). The Year 3 NAPLAN tests require cognitive/academic proficiency. Year 3 students (8 years of age) from non-English speaking communities have simply not had sufficient time to acquire the level of English required to read, understand and respond to questions in the NAPLAN tests, given that they begin learning English when they are five years old. It is not an indication of a shortcoming in their learning. It is frustrating and disheartening for my Year 3 students who attend school daily and work hard in class to be forced to sit a test, without any support, which is well beyond their level of English.  

Aiming at Year 3 NAPLAN benchmarks is a reason why bilingual programs are not supported by the NT Department of Education, as it has made a commitment that 75% of NT students will meet the Year 3 NAPLAN benchmarks by 2012/13. 

Submission No 31 from the Human Rights Commission (Mick Gooda) which reminded Governments of Australia’s commitments under human rights, in particular, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This instrument interprets how Australia’s existing human rights obligations apply to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, especially articles 13.1 which explicitly includes the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures…. And 14.1 which commits States to, in conjunction with indigenous peoples, take effective measures, in order for indigenous individuals, particularly children, including those living outside their communities, to have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language. 

The controversy has also been profiled in the Guardian UK thanks to the publicity provided by Jack Thompson who after attending the annual Garma Festival in August this year joined the campaign against the NT Government’s position.

To read this article go to

Indigenous languages in education: what the research actually shows Charles E. Grimes, Ph.D.

“Children learn better if they understand the language spoken in school. This is a straightforward observation borne out by study after study (Thomas and Collier, 1997; Dutcher, 1995; Patrinos and Velez, 1996; Walter, 2003). Even the important goal of learning a second language is facilitated by starting with a language the children already know. Cummins (2000) and others provide convincing evidence of the principle of interdependence—that second language learning is helped, not hindered by first language study. This leads to a simple axiom: the first language is the language of learning. It is by far the easiest way for children to interact with the world. And when the language of learning and the language of instruction do not match, learning difficulties are bound to follow.” (World Bank 2006:3)

“The level of development of children’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development.” (Cummins. 2000)

“The most powerful factor in predicting educational success for minority learners was the amount of formal schooling they received in their L1.” (Thomas and Collier, 1997, reporting on an 11-year study of 42,000 minority language speakers in the USA.

The gap in the Northern Territory

With something like 30% of the population of around 200,000 of the Northern Territory being indigenous, and those indigenous citizens speaking several dozen heritage languages, it is clear that the Northern Territory is multilingual, perhaps to a greater degree than any other state or territory in Australia. (See for a listing of languages in Australia.) This presents special challenges for education, health, the job market and the criminal justice system, just to name a few key sectors.

But with something like 80% of the prison population being disproportionately indigenous, and the disproportionate lack of indigenous people employed in the mainstream community (also as a result of being educationally disadvantaged), it is clear that past and current policies and practices of the Northern Territory government (both current and past) in relation to the role of language in education, and cross-cultural communication in other sectors such as health and the criminal justice system, are for the most part ineffective. And as the addage says, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you will keep getting the results you’ve always gotten.” So it is time for the NT government to show the courage of taking a fresh look and a more informed approach to education in indigenous communities, and pursue a better understanding of the role of language in undergirding current problems in education, health, the job market, and the criminal justice system.

Around the world (including Australia), the fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, and English as a Second Language (ESL) have made huge advances in the past several decades, as have studies of issues facing speakers of minority languages in mainstream education (see attached bibliography). But there is a big gap between these fields, and the attitudes and practices of general educators, policy-makers, and the national curriculum in education for the subject of English as it is taught in schools, which has for the most part been fairly static for decades and assumes that students are native speakers of Standard English. The latter field is either ignorant of, or chooses to ignore the developments in the former fields, even though the demographic of English-speaking countries such as Australia is increasingly multilingual, and the proportion is increasing of children in schools who do not come from homes where Standard English is the primary language. There is a move in some countries to force the educators through legislation to become aware of and accommodate many of these advances in related fields which are directly relevant to the language-related challenges faced in education and society.

This gap between what the research actually shows and the policies and practices in Northern Territory schools relating to language issues is quite glaring. The specifics of this are well documented in Simpson, Caffery and McConvell (2009), and in Devlin (2009). It does not speak well of the NT government, nor of its commitment to making a real difference in indigenous communities. It is time for a significant change in direction—but one that is better informed on the issues.

The World Bank (2005:1) observes:

“Fifty percent of the world’s out-of-school children live in communities where the language of schooling is rarely, if ever, used at home. This underscores the biggest challenge to achieving Education for All (EFA): a legacy of non-productive practices that lead to low levels of learning and high levels of dropout and repetition.”

The Northern Territory government ultimately wants their indigenous citizens to be part of:

  • ·  stable communities, who are
  • ·  both literate and competent in the national language—English;
  • ·  have a strong sense of identity and pride in their unique ethnic heritage (there can be no

community stability without this);

  • ·  stay in school at least through most of secondary school, and preferably beyond;
  • ·  are productive and contributing members of society in whatever rural or urban

community in which they live.

Worldwide experience and decades of research (including in Australia and the Northern Territory—see attached bibliography) show an overwhelmingly unified picture that:

  • ·  People who speak more than one language competently are not only enriched by it, but true bilinguals can also see the legitimacy of and appreciate multiple perspectives in ways that monolinguals can’t. They have greater opportunities of participation and advancement in multiple communities.
  • ·  People who can function competently in both the national (majority) language and the local (minority) language tend to „succeed‟ in both worlds (bilingual). They are the ones who become respected community leaders within the community, can represent the interests of the community to outsiders, and can also participate fully in mainstream society.
  • In contrast, members of indigenous communities who are not fully competent in either the national language nor in the local language (semi-lingual), tend to be frustrated. They do not have a complete or mature cultural or linguistic framework for problem-solving, and they also aren’t accepted by their own societies as having a legitimate voice in community affairs. Semi-linguals are often involved in anti-social behaviour.
  • Where the government and educational system promotes only the national language and does not make space for or actively discourages the legitimate roles and use of local languages, this has been shown to contribute significantly to lack of self worth, marginalisation, and for some, active resentment. These also contribute to anti-social behaviour.
  • Literacy is far more effective when the basic skills are done in the „mother tongue‟—the language most actively used in the home. The research supporting this is overwhelming
  • Education that bridges from the local languages, eventually transitioning fully into the national language is far more effective and far less destructive than education that only functions in the national language from the start. This is especially true for communities in which a local language continues to have important roles for communication and identity, and the national language (i.e. English) is not the main language used in the homes. Again, the research supporting this is overwhelming.

Perceptions contributing to the problem

Bilingual education (or multilingual education), like other programs, can be done well or be done poorly. Policy-makers often dismiss the whole idea of bilingual education where it has been poorly thought through or poorly implemented, even though the poor practice may be in only a small number of communities. This seems to be true in the Northern Territory as well.

There is a misconception among some policy-makers that „bilingual education‟ means the local language is taught, and the national language isn’t. However, the „bi-‟ in bilingual means „two‟. The goals of well implemented bilingual education programs are to help the students achieve full competence in both languages—not just one or the other. And this is healthy for the whole of society. Poorly implemented bilingual education programs may get this wrong.

Summary of research findings

The World Bank (2005) summarizes the findings of extensive and recent research relating to educating children initially in their own language and transitioning them to the national language. These are all outcomes that we assume would be valued in the Northern Territory.

  • ·  Children LEARN BETTER. This is supported by study after study.
  • ·  Children in rural and/or marginalised populations STAY IN SCHOOL LONGER.
  • ·  Children in rural and/or marginalised populations REACH HIGHER LEVELS OF EDUCATION


  • ·  Children in rural and/or marginalised populations INCREASE SOCIAL MOBILITY.
  • ·  End-of-primary PASS RATES ARE HIGHER in statistically significant ways where effective

The research also shows that indigenous students are MORE LIKELY TO LEARN ENGLISH BETTER if they have a well-designed and well-implemented bilingual education program in their indigenous language.

Furthermore, to try to claim that indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are the exception to the patterns found in similar communities throughout the world, elsewhere in Australia, and even in the Northern Territory itself, is not only ill-informed, but it is irresponsible.

Informal polling of teachers over a period of ten years around the NT shows that many can teach for years in communities like Tennant Creek and Katherine without ever realising that their indigenous students are not native speakers of Standard English. So the teachers never dream of approaching their students as second-language speakers of English, or benefiting from the many language-in- education studies that would help them be more effective teachers. The same informal polling also shows that many school teachers in the NT are unaware of the existence of Kriol and Aboriginal English, both of which are well recognised by sociolinguists—these varieties based on English are not Standard English, but have their own grammar and vocabulary. And therefore, these teachers also do not benefit from lessons learned about creoles in education that even have professional journals dedicated to the topic.

Many school teachers also do not recall having been given even basic orientation to the multilingual and multicultural nature of the Northern Territory. Surely there is room for improvement here.

Without the political will to implement good MLE programs, the best policies (which we don’t yet have in the Northern Territory), the best curriculum, the best materials, and the best teachers, with full community support cannot pull off what is known to be the „best practice‟ for education in indigenous communities. The research is unified and overwhelming. So it is puzzling why it continues to be ignored by government policy-makers and general educators in the Northern Territory.


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