Skip to main content

We should shout about this historic language win

4 January 2016

The new framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in the national curriculum has been released without fanfare, writes Professor Jakelin Troy.

At long last, the Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages has been released by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority as part of the national curriculum.

It's a decisive moment in our nation's story – but don't be surprised if you didn't hear about it.

This landmark framework has been tainted by a lacklustre release. I am bitterly disappointed that this document has almost been snuck into our national history, just as everyone is winding down for the year and paying more attention to fake Santas and imitation snow.

There has been no fanfare or celebration of this remarkable moment, when for the first time the languages of this land – the true Australian languages – are being embedded in our education system.

Learning an Australian language at school should be as much a given as learning Australian history. The main point in studying any language is that it gives a person a window into the mind and world of the people whose language they are studying. For an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander student to study their own or another Australian language, this helps them to engage with their identity as the first Australians. Perhaps more important is the self-esteem it raises in students as they see their own languages, cultures and communities recognised in the national education system.

There is clear evidence that where our languages are taught in schools, racism in the local community decreases. Studies consistently point to the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who learn their own languages are more engaged with their school life and education overall. Research from Australia and Canada is also beginning to show that where indigenous languages are taught in schools and when communities are continuing to speak their own languages, the health and wellbeing of these communities is vastly improved. Such communities report lower rates of chronic diseases, heart disease and diabetes in particular. Suicide, which is an endemic problem in indigenous communities, is also dramatically decreased in language-strong communities.

It has taken six years to bring this framework into being. I worked with the lead writer, Angela Scarino, on the first "shaping paper" to ensure that the Australian curriculum on languages would be practical and community-driven. Together with Dr Michael Walsh from the University of Sydney and Dr Doug Marmion from the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, we created a plan to facilitate the teaching of more than 250 Australian languages to any student in the country, irrespective of where they live.

The final framework accommodates any learner, from school-entry level to year 10. There's scope for all students to engage with Aboriginal languages no matter their prior learning.

At a local level schools across Australia can now use this framework to guide them in developing curriculum to teach an Australian language, and be sure that in doing so they are teaching students using the Australian curriculum standards.

We put a lot of effort into ensuring that schools and teachers understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people expect to have the main say in what is taught about Australian languages in schools. Importantly, this means that communities themselves can help design how the languages are taught and have the chance to include their own knowledge and expertise in the schools' programs. It is all about respect for the grassroots community people who are working hard with very little funding or support to revive and maintain languages.

The success of this framework will ultimately hinge upon the level of government backing and financial support our teachers receive. There is still a huge amount of work ahead to support communities and schools to work together to create local language curriculum. There is also an immediate need for teaching training and support for community language work.

For the first time in our Australian history, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are mandated as part of a national curriculum. An historic achievement – just don't blink or you'll miss it.

Professor Jakelin Troy is director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney and lead author of the Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages. This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Emily Cook

Media and PR Adviser
  • Level 2 Services Building G12