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

David P. Wilkins, Language and Linguistics Consulting

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?


It is now 35 years since the Commonwealth government, under Gough Whitlam, established bilingual education programs for Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. In the Northern Territory, the purpose, structure, needs, outcomes and educational validity of these programs have been a matter of much heated public and policy debate ever since. Despite strong continuing support from local communities, bilingual education in the Northern Territory was hobbled right from the beginning by a consistent lack of official support (Nicholls 2005). In recent years, however, supporters of bilingual education were encouraged by a statement in 2005 by then Minister for Education, Syd Stirling. Mr Stirling promised that the NT government was:

… putting bilingual education back on the agenda. It is another important teaching methodology, with some initial evidence that results from bilingual schools appear generally better than other like schools. More evidence is being collected and evaluated. The program will be discussed within the community engagement process, not imposed on communities, and, given its resource-heavy nature, will be carefully rolled out.

The evidence Mr. Stirling refers to can be found in the report Indigenous Languages and Cultures in Northern Territory Schools: Report 2004–2005 (Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training 2005). This report compared bilingual education programs and like schools in the Northern Territory on a number of measures and found better results on some measures, and no disadvantages overall, for bilingual programs.

Bilingual education in the Northern Territory was hobbled right from the beginning.

More recently, the NT’s Indigenous Education Strategic Plan 2006–2009 lists ‘revitalising the bilingual approach’ as one strategy to be pursued in addressing the number 1 priority of delivering ‘sustainable high quality school literacy and numeracy programs’ (Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training 2006, p. 24). The Plan recognises that ‘bilingual programs are effective overseas and give an indication of positive results in the Territory. DEET will strengthen the bilingual program and improve its effectiveness and sustainability to deliver outcomes’ (p. 25).

This strategic plan was, of course, produced before the NT election of August 2008 and the changes in its wake. One key change is that the current Northern Territory Minister for Education and Training, Marion Scrymgour, herself a Tiwi woman, is taking bilingual education off the agenda again. On 14 October 2008, Ms Scrymgour announced a redirection of curriculum targeted at remote Indigenous schools; specifically, she announced that there would be a greater focus on the teaching of English, and that ‘the first four hours of education in all Northern Territory schools will be conducted in English’. Despite acknowledging the contentious nature of her decision, the Minister justifies it by stating: ‘I support preserving our Indigenous languages and culture – but our Indigenous children need to be given the best possible chance to learn English’ (Scrymgour 2008). Missing from the release is any appeal to evidence or a prior community engagement process, and it clear that this directive will be imposed upon all communities.

The Minister’s media release does not directly mention the Northern Territory’s bilingual education programs. However, it is obvious from the reference to all schools that they will be most affected by the new policy, since it is these programs, in remote Indigenous communities, that the Department originally supported for what they considered ‘language maintenance’ or ‘language revitalisation’. At least officially, the medium of instruction in all other schools under the Department is already English.

Although there are many models of bilingual education, the one that the Northern Territory government officially settled upon was a transfer model. In this model, children begin the early years of schooling in their first language and learn to read and write in it. As literacy becomes established, their skills are transferred over to English and, eventually, English becomes the main medium of instruction. In other words, over the course of the primary school years, there is a transfer from the Indigenous first language to English (as second language) as the main means of instruction. Depending on one’s perspective, one could see this type of bilingual program as (i) a sound recognition of the children’s language and cultural heritage and the principle of teaching from the known to the unknown, (ii) a ‘Trojan horse’ approach, in which the native language is but a means to the ultimate end of English-only education; or (iii) an unnecessary delay in English-only instruction with the ultimate aim of giving students the tools to be part of the wider society. It seems that Ms Scrymgour favours this third view. But is this view realistic, equitable, evidence-based and/or consistent with her own stated positions?

Preserving Indigenous languages and cultures

Linguists estimate that, before European colonisation, there were 200–300 distinct Australian languages, and about 600 land-based communities. Currently fewer than 100 languages (as linguists define them) have any remaining speakers, and there are probably fewer than 20 languages that continue to be learned as a native language by children. Each of the remaining languages has at most a few thousand speakers and the remote communities that still maintain language and culture are in constant danger of language and culture loss. Significant outside forces are undermining the social relevance of those languages and cultures. As a consequence, communities will be unable to maintain their linguistic and cultural heritage if they are unsupported by local, regional, NT and federal government policies and provisions.

Before European colonisation, there were 200–300 distinct Australian languages.

The languages still being acquired by children as their first language include Pitjantjatjara, Warlpiri, Yolngu Matha, Burarra, Ndjébbana, Arrernte, Murrinh Patha and Tiwi. These languages are as different from one another as French, German and Russian, and each constitutes one of the mediums of instruction in an NT government or non-government bilingual education program. The ten NT bilingual education (language maintenance) programs service children who are native speakers of five of the remaining viable languages, but there are also three Catholic schools and one independent school which run bilingual education programs and cover several other languages.

The Minister’s declaration in support of preserving Indigenous languages and cultures is welcome, but putting English first for these children does not send that message. Non-Indigenous Australians are often told they should respect and support the continuity of Australian languages and cultures because they are important knowledge sources. In fact, in her Charles Perkins Oration in 2007, Ms Scrymgour herself noted that, on the positive side, ‘[t]here has been some recognition of Aboriginal knowledge, and the role it may play in biodiversity protection—and indeed in combating greenhouse gases’ (2007, p. 24). Such knowledge, however, does not survive or thrive without governments’ support for the continuity of cultural and linguistic practices in education and elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, in the remote areas where those few languages have managed to survive, standard Australian English is a third, fourth or, for all practical purposes, non-existent language. Imagine learning a foreign language from an outsider to the community, for four hours a day, without practical recourse to your native language, and imagine the government (not the community), through school practice, telling you that English (and resourcing for English) is more important to your future than your family’s languages. Communities that have chosen to run bilingual education programs have not denied the importance of English or literacy for their children. They have just stressed the need to give priority to their own language and cultural, especially in the early years of schooling.

Consultation with local Aboriginal communities

In her eloquent criticism of the Northern Territory intervention, Scrymgour noted with great distaste that ‘at the heart of the federal government’s dismissal of the [Little Children Are Sacred] report is its deliberate rejection of the very first of those 97 recommendations: “that governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities”’ (2007, p. 10). Earlier, in an interview with George Negus about ‘the future of Aboriginal Australia – mixing black and white politics, and passing on the knowledge’, she explained why she believes it is so important to involve Indigenous people in policy that affects them: ‘If you allow that control, you actually get the outcomes that not only benefit the community, but also benefit government’ (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2004). It is laudable that Minister Scrymgour, like other Indigenous leaders such as Pat Dodson (see Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2007), strongly supports consultation in the design of initiatives for Aboriginal people. But there is no evidence that her current initiative has started with that same style of consultation—instead, it appears to be yet another policy presented from on high.

There is no evidence that Ms Scrymgour’s initiative started with community consultation.

One important reason for community-by-community consultation is that there is no clear pan-Indigenous ‘experience’, except by virtue of opposition to non-Indigenous occupation. The use of the terms ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Indigenous’ allows governments to try to devise one-size-fits-all policies, rather than doing the hard work of recognising the important differences at regional and community levels. We are talking different cultures and different languages and different communities and different concerns. Distinct regional, socio-cultural, socio-linguistic, socio-economic, contact-historical and personal-historical factors create a widely diverse population.

Indeed, many of the traditional landowners in central Australia do not consider themselves ‘Aboriginal’. Rather, they consider themselves to be Arrernte or Pitjantjatjara or Warlpiri or ‘from Yuendumu’ or ‘from Hermannsberg’ and so on. For them, talk of ‘Aboriginal’ initiatives is irrelevant—they are concerned with local effects. A new school in the top end or housing in Cape York brings no sense of victory shared—it is just about different families in different countries.

Further, the majority of contemporary Indigenous political leaders are monolingual native English speakers, or, at least, English-dominant speakers. This does not deny their community and family ties, or their concerns, or their heritage, or the reality of their experience as part of the Indigenous minority of Australia. But it does tell us something about their background experience, an experience quite different from that of the children of the Northern Territory who live in places where bilingual education programs exist. The developmental experience of such leaders has both formed their view of how to succeed in Australia and has allowed them to achieve success. However, different developmental contexts may demand different views and different routes to achievement. The choice of English-only, English-first, and bilingual education should not be seen as a choice of competing educational ideologies so much as the community-based selection of the best educational method, taking into account (i) the developmental context of the children and (ii) the aspirations that the community has for their children. Each will succeed or fail depending on its context of application (and the degree to which it is supported in real terms).

When The Australian reported the Minister’s new directions, it suggested that ‘Ms Scrymgour argues from her own experience as an Aboriginal child, when she learned English at school and was exposed to her own culture at home’ (Toohey 2008). While true, it is also quite misleading. The Minister was born in Darwin, her father was stolen from central Australia, and she is a Tiwi Islander woman through her mother. She did her primary and secondary schooling in English in Darwin. English is clearly her first language, and she is not bilingual. This is not in any way a criticism of the Minister; hers is very much one of the myriad of importantly distinct experiences and backgrounds just outlined. But it is not representative of the experience of children living in remote Indigenous communities, where they speak languages other than English and where standard Australian English has a very marginal social niche. This is why consultation is necessary: personal experience is little guide as to what can or will work, or as to what community and individual aspirations are.


By an odd quirk of timing, two books directly relevant to the realities of child development in remote communities in the Northern Territory were launched in the weeks before the Minister’s announcement: Children’s Language and Multilingualism: Indigenous Language Use at Home and School, edited by Jane Simpson and Gillian Wigglesworth, and Contexts of Child Development: Culture, Policy and Intervention, edited by Gary Robinson, Ute Eickelkamp, Jacqueline Goodnow and Ilan Katz. If the Minister had read these books carefully, she might not have proposed that all schools in the Northern Territory start with four hours of English education.

Many traditional landowners in central Australia do not consider themselves ‘Aboriginal’.

One aim the books share is to explore, and demonstrate, how cognitive, linguistic and social competence develop interdependently in children, and how these competences are situated in, and shaped by, a cultural matrix. Both books have chapters that examine the role of families, communities and schools in processes of child socialisation. That is to say, they explore how children (as novices) are able to (or unable to) participate in various cultural practices under the witting or unwitting tutelage of older members of the society (as mentors) and how this leads (or fails to lead) to their becoming fully participating member of each of the communities and cultures to which they belong. Both books provide compelling evidence that one must fully understand the local linguistic, cultural, environmental and socio-economic landscape if one is to propose sensible policy measures relating to children in Indigenous communities, and that advantages accrue for the family, the local community and the broader community when children are given a strong foundation in their own language and culture.

The clear message from both books is that messing unthinkingly with child socialisation processes, especially language socialisation processes, means messing with children’s cognitive and personal development, familial and community cohesion, and cultural and linguistic continuity.

Language socialisation and the benefits of bilingualism

Language socialisation is critical to development of several important cognitive self-regulatory mechanisms, including ‘[t]he ability to resist temptations, distractions, destructive high-risk situations, as well as the facility for holding information and skills in working memory’ (Heath 2008, p. xii). Bambi Schieffelin and Elinor Ochs explain language socialisation in the following terms:

The notion of language socialization is premised on two assumptions about the nature of language, culture, and socialization. First, the process of acquiring language is deeply affected by the process of becoming a competent member of a society, and the second, the process of becoming a competent member of society is realized to a large extent through language, by acquiring knowledge of its functions, social distribution, and interpretations in and across socially defined situations. This is largely achieved through participation in exchanges of language in particular social situations. From this perspective, language is seen as a source for the children to acquire the ways and world views of their culture. (1996, p. 252)

Of particular interest is the fact that successful language socialisation into more than one language seems to enhance many of the skills mentioned above (Bialystok 2007a).

Kimmo Kosonen (2005) provides a comprehensive review of the international research on the educational benefits using the home language in bilingual education for linguistic minorities. I will mention just a few of the dozen or so advantages that he lists. Teaching in the language of the communities does not slow down learning of the second language, whether that be the national language or an international language (p. 90). Using the home language for instruction across a range of subject matters and for the introduction of literacy helps learning and literacy acquisition in the second language (pp. 90–91). Acquisition of literacy and reading skills is faster in the first language, and these transfer readily to the second language (p. 91). Kosonen reports that ‘[s]everal studies show that children in well-designed bilingual education programmes acquire academic second language as well as, and often even better than, children in programmes that use the second language only’ (2005, p. 91). From a family and community point of view, use of the home language in education allows the parents and other family and community members to participate in the education of their children.

Children need a strong foundation in their own language and culture.

As for the cognitive effects of bilingualism, Ellen Bialystok (2007a) reviews a series of empirical studies across the age span which compare bilinguals with monolinguals. At all stages, the studies reveal a cognitive advantage for bilinguals relative to monolinguals with respect to executive cognitive control functions, in particular the ability to ignore irrelevant task information while attending to relevant task information. Bilingual preschool children are better at staying on task and filtering out distractions than their monolingual peers, this advantage remains in adulthood, and bilingualism appears to play a role in preventing cognitive decline in people over 60. Looking at the cognitive dimension of bilingualism and literacy acquisition, Bialystok (2007b) reviews studies of how monolinguals and bilinguals develop three key skills needed for successful literacy acquisition—oral language proficiency, phonological awareness (metalinguistic awareness), and understanding of the symbolic nature of print. She finds that the cognitive developmental path to literacy is not the same for bilingual and monolingual children, and identifies two broad consequences of bilingualism in relation to literacy:

First, both the ability to read and some of the components of reading that prepare children for that ability transfer across languages and systems. Therefore, children who have learned skills in one language can potentially benefit from that mastery by applying them to the other. Even though such transfer is neither automatic nor assured, it does happen, and the consequences are always salutary. Second, the differences between monolinguals and bilinguals that occur are invariably to the benefit of the bilinguals. Knowing more has never been a disadvantage when compared to knowing less. (Bialystok 2007, p.71; emphasis mine)

In short, there is no evidence of a bilingual disadvantage in literacy development, and, if anything, there is an advantage. Moreover, there appear to be broader educational and cognitive advantages of bilingualism that last across the lifespan.

My own experience

In the 1990s, at the request of some bilingual school communities and an early literacy development program, I undertook several studies of the efficacy of bilingual education programs, with an emphasis on assessing whether English was encroaching too much on the children’s first language abilities. These were confidential reports for the organisations that requested them and so I won’t be providing any citations. I am, however, able to discuss my findings in broad outline.

There is no evidence of a bilingual disadvantage in literacy development.

My own studies are consistent with the findings of Bialystok and Kosonen, and suggest further directions and solutions for language and literacy education in the Northern Territory. First, children who were strongest in their native language were strongest in English. Second, these same children had the most consistent school attendance. Third, students with poor attendance had both poorer native language and standard Australian English language skills. Fourth, attendance appeared to have less to do with child motivation than with family mobility (that is, children weren’t wagging school; they were moving around country with their family, or they were being moved around from family member to family member for their care). Fifth, children who were strongest in their native language and in English literacy had parents who were involved in the schools, and who themselves had those skills and were asked to use them in the school environment. Students in kindergarten to year 3 did much better when relatives were in the classroom as either teachers or teacher aides. Sixth, relatively speaking, both native language and standard English abilities were better at the remote school than the town school investigated. Seventh, standard Australian English was not always a reliable medium of instruction when non-Aboriginal people were teaching the English side of the curriculum, and results improved every time a local adult was there to either co-teach or to act as a teacher aide.

So, yes, attendance is important and can affect both native language and English language abilities. And no, it doesn’t appear that children will necessarily gain or maintain strong native language abilities just by home exposure—the school seems to have an important role to play in validating and consolidating the first language and providing an environment in which students can identify with bilingual (and biliterate) role models. Not surprisingly, a child’s family situation can significantly affect language and literacy gains in both the first and second languages—it can be an important factor in attendance, role modelling, and comprehension of curricular activities.


It is clear that the decision by the NT Minister for Education and Training to have the first four hours of schooling in all NT schools conducted in English will have a severe impact on the curriculum of NT bilingual education programs in remote areas. Not only will the decision impact negatively on the survival of Indigenous languages and cultures, but it will also impact negatively on the acquisition of standard Australian English language and literacy. Further, it goes against Minister Scrymgour’s own stated view of prior community-by-community consultation in the development of local initiatives and in giving local communities control of those initiatives.

Given the embattled and fragile nature of the few remaining languages still being actively acquired by children, it seems hard to reconcile the Minister’s decision with her claim to ‘support preserving our Indigenous languages and cultures’. Putting English first, without community endorsement, without communities’ help in designing such initiatives, and without balancing the need for English with the needs of linguistic and cultural preservation, clearly sends the opposite message. Of course, the implicit message of her decision is that English will be far more important to the children’s future in Australia than their native languages and cultures, and that their own native languages and cultures have little important role to play in active literacy development. But, as I have sought to show, evidence on this point is to the contrary—and the NT Department of Education has recognised this.

Minister Scrymgour’s decision goes against own stated views.

We know that interference with natural language socialisation disrupts cognitive, personal and literacy development and that this can have profound consequences for familial and community cohesion and for cultural and linguistic continuity. Moreover, without a proper understanding of the local linguistic and cultural landscape, non-Aboriginal teachers in remote communities have a near impossible time teaching in English (see Moses & Wigglesworth 2008). Literacy and language transmission works best where there are good models that belong to the community, and the family is an important determinant of success. For literacy and standard Australian English to take hold, they must find their own significant niche within the community practices of remote Indigenous Australia, and not merely be tied to school, or court, or whitefella business. Intergenerational transmission of literacy practices, both in the vernacular language and in English, appears to have an important role to play in establishing such niches for the everyday use of literacy skills (see Kral & Ellis 2008). It is only through such natural routes of transmission that languages and their developing literacies can remain strong and develop side-by-side. While child education is important, perhaps more important is the preparatory work of teacher education for Indigenous teachers from remote communities, and adult education that leads parents to become active models of bilingual or multilingual competence.

No matter how you look at it, from the perspective of her own stated positions, or from the perspective of the evidence, the Minister’s decision is an imposition that threatens the linguistic and cultural viability of remote communities running active bilingual education programs. It is these programs that offer the best way for the students in these communities to both acquire English language skills and to maintain their own connection to family, community, language, country and culture. 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 of the Northern Territory specifically, and of Australia more generally. It is an awesome responsibility having the future of children in one’s hands—a responsibility that needs to be shared across families and communities and, hopefully, directed by sound evidence.


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Heath, S.B. 2008, ‘Foreword’, in Children’s Language and Multilingualism: Indigenous Language Use at Home and School, eds J. Simpson & G. Wigglesworth, Continuum, London, pp. ix–xiii.

Kosonen, K. 2005, ‘The role of language in learning: What does international research say?’, in First Language First: Community-based Literacy Programmes for Minority Language Contexts in Asia, ed. UNESCO Bangkok, UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok, pp. 87–95.

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Simpson, J. & Wigglesworth, G. (eds) 2008, Children’s Language and Multilingualism: Indigenous Language Use at Home and School, Continuum, London.

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Toohey, P. 2008, ‘Northern Territory kids get four hours a day in English’, The Australian, October 15.

Dr David P. Wilkins is a linguist. He spent many years working with Aboriginal communities in central Australia, including working to help communities develop bilingual education programs and materials. He currently works for Language and Linguistics Consulting.

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