W(h)ither language, culture and education in remote Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory?

6 Nov 2008

In different ways, the Northern Territory intervention and the Prime Minister’s apology to the stolen generations have brought some sustained focus on the rights and prospects of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. Health, employment and housing have all been on the agenda, but each of these has rightly been linked to education. A recent Northern Territory policy decision puts education in English ahead of traditional languages and cultures in remote communities and thus raises a number of thorny questions: What criteria does one use to determine the form of education that is most suitable for children in remote Indigenous communities? Whose right is it to decide whether these children are schooled in their first language or English: the local community? The parents? The state government? The federal government? Does bilingual education have any advantages over monolingual education as far as literacy attainment is concerned? Is English language literacy worthwhile, if the means of providing it leads to a loss of cultural identity?

NT Minister for Education, Marion Scrymgour, recently announced that the first four hours of every school day in the Territory will be taught in English. The policy is an imposition that threatens the linguistic and cultural viability of remote communities running active bilingual education programs. In this one decision we find a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of issues relating to the future of language, culture, and education in remote Indigenous communities.

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