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What is Aboriginal English?

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this resource may contain images and voices of deceased persons.

The BOSTES would like to acknowledge that some of the video clips used in this resource have been reproduced from the Education Department of Western Australia's resource, Ways of Being, Ways of Talk (2007) with their permission.

Aboriginal English became a stable variety of English that Aboriginal people used to communicate with the white settlers and also among themselves.

It’s not a distorted version of English. It refers to Indigenised varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal people around Australia. There are enough similarities between the different varieties of Aboriginal English for us to refer to them collectively as Aboriginal English.

In more urban areas where Aboriginal people have a lot of exposure to Australian English, Aboriginal English sounds fairly close to Australian English. For Aboriginal English speakers who have regular exposure to their ancestral Aboriginal languages, the sounds system of their English is closer to the traditional Aboriginal ancestral languages. 

What is Aboriginal English?





Transcript

We use the term Aboriginal English to refer collectively to the Indigenised varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal people in Australia.

When the new settlers came to this continent, Aboriginal people needed a linguistic code to communicate both with the new settlers as well as amongst themselves because to start with they spoke more than 250 different languages and when they were displaced from areas, their areas of settlement, they needed a common language, a lingua franca – processes such as creolisation and pidginisation – and became a stable variety of English that Aboriginal people needed in order, as I said, not only to communicate with the white settlers, but also amongst themselves. Now I use the words, such as ‘pidginisation’ and ‘creolisation’, and it sounds like I’m using jargon. What I’m basically trying to say here is that historically the development of Aboriginal English has been through systematic processes.

It’s not just a distorted version of English. Aboriginal English has gone through systematic processes of language contact that has happened in many other contexts. So, Aboriginal English, as I said, refers to varieties of English, indigenised varieties of English, spoken by Aboriginal people around Australia. There are enough similarities between different varieties of Aboriginal English for us to refer to them collectively as Aboriginal English. Of course there are differences between different varieties of Aboriginal English, for example, the words that are borrowed from different local Aboriginal languages obviously are different in each case, but again, as I said, the Aboriginal cultures and the world view underlying these varieties have got enough similarities for us to call them collectively as Aboriginal English. Aboriginal English is a truly Australian variety of English because it’s been really developed in Australia as a matter of language contact.

Now one of the things that I have to mention here is that when we talk about Aboriginal English, we are really talking about a kind of continuum, a continuum of Aboriginal English that sounds more like Aboriginal languages, to Aboriginal English that sounds more like Australian English, so we have a continuum here. And within each community, people can be speaking either, or can switch between these variations, between the local Aboriginal varieties of English.

The continuum that I’m talking about here sometimes depends on really geographical areas of residence of Aboriginal people. For example, in more urban areas where Aboriginal people have got a lot of exposure to Australian English, their Aboriginal English sounds more like Australian English, whereas Aboriginal English speakers who have a lot of exposure to their ancestral Aboriginal languages sound more like, the sound system of their English is closer to the traditional Aboriginal ancestral languages. So the contact with Australian English and ancestral Aboriginal languages has got influence on how Aboriginal English sounds.

Who speaks Aboriginal English?

Many Aboriginal people speak Aboriginal English, even though it may sound as if they are speaking Australian English. The way different groups of people conceptualise their world may be reflected in their use of language.

Who speaks Aboriginal English?





Transcript

Probably a lot of Aboriginal people speak Aboriginal English, whether or not they themselves are aware that they speak something different from Australian English.

In Western Australia, the survey showed that about 80% of Aboriginal people spoke English as their first language, but this is all they said; they said they speak English as their first language. When I was conducting my research project in Perth, a lot of teachers simply said ‘My students don’t speak Aboriginal English, Aboriginal English is spoken in remote areas’. And that was exactly the motivation for me to look at the features of - the conceptual level of the features of - English spoken by Aboriginal children in metropolitan areas to see if they speak Aboriginal English at the conceptual level and this is what came through, that even in those areas and schools where the teachers would say ‘My kids don’t speak Aboriginal English’, it was at the semantic conceptual level that they actually spoke Aboriginal English.

So it’s not an easy thing for teachers to identify who speaks Aboriginal English on the basis of sound system only, and this is exactly why we’re talking about the complexity of the situation with Aboriginal English.

How did Aboriginal English develop?

Aboriginal English and Australian English began to evolve from the time of first settlement in New South Wales when British colonists and Aboriginal people first began to communicate with each other.

Learn about how Australian English and Aboriginal English began in Australia





Transcript

Let’s start by looking at how Australian English and Aboriginal English have developed.

Before colonisation, there were over 250 Aboriginal languages, with at least as many dialects spoken in Australia.

[Nigale Lawford sings a traditional song.]

When the British colonised this country, Aboriginal people used their own pronunciation and rules when communicating with English speakers. Out of this communication, in which neither side knew the language of the other, developed a pidgin.

[A group of Aboriginal stockmen listen to a non-Aboriginal man speaking in pidgin about cattle.]

In some settings, when pidgin was used more widely, children grew up using it as their first language and so it expanded into a new language – a ‘creole’.

In Australia, forms of creole spread right across the top of the continent. In Western Australia, it’s mainly spoken in the Kimberley.

[Nigale Lawford speaks creole.]

But in regions where Aboriginal people have had more concentrated contact with the English-speaking settlers or where their traditional languages were forbidden, Aboriginal English developed instead.

Wendy Hanlen, a Gamilaraay woman, explains the historical context in which Aboriginal English developed in NSW, referring to a study by Donaldson (1980).





Transcript

To understand the context of and the beginning of how Aboriginal English developed, we need to have a little look at the human face of it as well.

If we have a look at the Ngiyambaa people in central New South Wales, Tamsin Donaldson did a four-generational study with the help of the Ngiyambaa people. Around the turn of the century, last century, 1900, the Ngiyambaa people in their own country were working on the properties of so-called pastoralists or the owners of the properties, and in order to communicate with the white people, there was a pigin developed - a pigin is not the first language of anybody, but it is a language used with bits from both the languages of the people who are trying to communicate with each other. When it becomes a first language of people, it then becomes a creole.

In New South Wales unfortunately the invasion and following colonisation was so sudden and so brutal that there was no time for creolisation between traditional languages and Aboriginal English. So families had remnants of culture, remnants of kinship relationship and remnants of language, but could not necessarily articulate what they knew as their traditional culture. Bearing in mind that Aboriginal peoples in New South Wales learned language orally, they listened to other people speaking it, and that was the only way that they learned it. Often too, the people that they learned English from were shearers or labourers or mission managers’ wives or people who were definitely not trained as teachers, and even when they were on missions, the children on missions were getting an education, mainly they got about two hours of literacy a week, and the literacy they were taught was to make them manageable, not necessarily functional.

So there are a lot of issues in the way that language was acquired and how that impacts on literacy learning today. Just reflecting back on how Aboriginal English developed, the impact of traditional languages, while the kids today may never have heard their traditional language spoken, the grammar and the sound system and the semantics and the pragmatics are very often highly influencing the English that they speak today.

Why do teachers need to know about Aboriginal English?

Effective teachers build on what their students already know and they are aware of the student’s language use. Many students speak a variety of English at home that is different from the language found in textbooks. For students to understand schoolwork, they need to understand the variety of English used in educational texts and contexts, and the teacher’s role is to explicitly teach students the language of the classroom, and the language of the particular subject area they are working in.

Teachers need to recognise that students may speak Aboriginal English at home as their ‘first’ dialect, that this dialect is not wrong, it is just different, just as American English and Singapore English are different. If teachers are not aware of this and do not acknowledge different varieties of English in their classrooms, miscommunication occurs and their students may feel alienated.

Why do teachers need to know about Aboriginal English?





Transcript

I guess as a general principle, teachers would need to know about their students, where they come from. The basic principle in educational areas is to start where students are at the moment and to build on what the students bring to the class.

So if the students bring a variety of English into the class, as their home variety, knowing how they speak, what is it that they speak, would help teachers understand where these students come from and help them learn a new variety of English.

So again, build on what they already know as their first and home variety of English to be able then to make a bridge to the second language, I mean second variety, or second dialect. This would really empower both the students as well as the teachers.

In general, a lot of teachers have in the past been correcting the features of the home dialect of Aboriginal English-speaking children, so they have been using red pen and marking features of Aboriginal English as mistakes. So if teachers know about this home variety, this first language and dialect background of their students, they would be able to make a distinction and say ‘This is your first dialect, now you’re here to learn another dialect’, rather than to punish students for speaking their home dialect, to make a distinction between what is a mistake and what is their home dialect.

I think that’s absolutely crucial in order to again empower teachers and to achieve what they are there to achieve.

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