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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.


Teachers often regard speaking another dialect as a disadvantage, is it?
Throughout Australia, teachers and students come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and speak a variety of different dialects and languages. It is empowering for everyone to learn more about, and accept, the cultures of other people in the classroom and how this leads to different interpretations and perspectives. Being able to switch between different ways of using language is particularly empowering for people whose home dialect or language is not Australian English.

Is speaking another dialect a disadvantage?


My suggestion, if you like, and my humble suggestion really, is to look at language variation. In this case we’re talking about Australian English and Aboriginal English, to look at language variation as a resource within the class.

Let’s say if we have, you know, someone visiting us, and you know someone having dinner with someone from Japan, we are conscious of the fact that this person is from a different culture and language and we keep saying ‘What is this in your culture? What is this in your language? How do you say this? How do you do this?’ And why not, looking at Aboriginal English speaking in the class in the same way that teachers become conscious that now we’ve got students here who have brought alternative ways of understanding and language and culture into the class, why not draw on these and say, ‘Can you repeat this so that I understand what is it in Aboriginal English and how do you say this at home, how do you do this?’ To use it, as I said, as a kind of resource for teaching certain points about language. If you want to teach about language, well, you’ve got language variation within your class. Why not draw on this kind of thing?

Yes, as I said, in general, it would be best really to look at this variation as a kind of resource, or if you like asset rather than a liability, even when we are talking about alternative interpretations of the text, that shouldn’t be really, that doesn’t necessarily need to be framed as a negative thing. If someone is giving us an understanding of a text which is totally different but equally or even more interesting, why not welcome in that kind of thing and say ‘Oh that’s an interesting understanding of this text’.

So again, as I said, we shouldn’t fear diversity and alternative perspectives.

In the following extract you can hear from a lawyer who switches between Australian and Aboriginal English, depending on context.

What is code switching?


To try to survive in both worlds, many Aboriginal people have adopted a practice called code switching. They change the way they speak, depending on who they’re speaking to.

Language is one of the strongest parts of your culture and so keeping Aboriginal English alive, it’s not a matter of keeping it alive, it stays alive and it’s a way of communicating – it’s there all the time

Law graduate Kevin Dolman will use ‘flash talk’ at work, but when he’s at home or in the community, he knows it’s not appropriate. Absolutely. And if I say that word ‘absolutely’ or … I remember one time I said ‘fantastic’ over something and this old bloke said ‘fantastic – what does that mean?’, you know. So, yeah, you get accountable for your language and it does take time to warm up, you know, especially when I go home. I suppose it’s harder when I go home.

Here Rhonda Ashby discusses code-switching and its importance to identity.



Code switching, with any type of language – especially with Aboriginal English – comes back to our identity and our one’s self, how we are comfortable in a situation, whether it be in a community situation, whether it be in an educational institution situation, the importance of switching codes is feeling comfortable about where you are, who you are with. If I’m out in Country or in community, I talk the level with the people that I’m around, whether it’s academia or Aboriginal community members. I think it's very important with identity. It’s just a natural form for some people, and I think it's unique; it’s a unique style of language.

With the switching codes, depending on place, some people can switch codes, some cannot. An example of Aboriginal English I will give, “obba dere”. With the Standard English we would use “over there”. With the ‘gammon’, ‘deadly’, there’s some more standards of Aboriginal English that is known all around Australia.

What do teachers need to be aware of?

Wendy Hanlen discusses how teachers need to be aware of protocols around Aboriginal languages and how they differ from Western protocols in order to avoid misunderstandings in the classroom.

Understanding language protocols


The word for ‘child’, you have ‘jarjums’ up in Bundjalung country, you’ve got ‘buraay’ from Wiradjuri country, you’ve got ‘gaayili’ from Gamilaraay country, so some of these words are sometimes used in Aboriginal Englishes as well, which are traditional words, but because people are speaking English with the influence of their traditional languages, this comes about over a period of time. And the influences are not deficit language, they are easily identified as being rule-governed, so it is important for us to recognise that it is not a deficit form of language.

Also too with the way language is used, you have things like protocols, and for a lot of Aboriginal protocols, they are almost antithetic to those of western culture. Most of you have probably heard about the avoidance of eye contact, and possibly the long silence periods that are so long in fact that for speakers of English they tend to think that the conversation has broken down, therefore they’ve got to jump in and repair it, but in actual fact, it’s a necessary part of discourse in many Aboriginal Englishes.

The other things are that because of the cultural implications, we haven’t needed words like ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in Aboriginal languages.  Most Aboriginal languages don’t have that accommodation, and the reason for that, we have the reciprocal kinship relationships and it wasn’t necessary to use please and thank you. Now because kids in the classroom and their parents are speaking English, it’s quite possible that those kids may not be using please and thank you. And bearing in mind the, “Look at me when I’m talking to you”, or “Answer me when I’m speaking to you”, or the idea that you didn’t say please or thank you, therefore those children must be rude or indifferent, uncooperative, and unfortunately as teachers, it’s very, very easy to form an opinion of a child as being that way based on our own cultural lens.

When we look at protocols through our cultural lens, or if we are looking through the western cultural lens, if children don’t say please and thank you, if they don’t provide eye contact, or if they have long silence periods, it’s very easy to interpret that through the western cultural lens as rudeness, whereas for Indigenous Australians, for Aboriginal Australians, it’s protocol to be reflective in discourse, to not answer immediately or talk immediately after somebody else has, and the avoidance of eye contact - it’s rudeness to look somebody in the eye who is older, of the opposite sex, or a person in authority, and that could involve teachers being that person in authority.

Students who speak Aboriginal English at home and are learning to communicate in Australian English at school, can become bidialectal over time and able to communicate effectively in both dialects. This is helped when teachers are aware of the differences between the dialects and these are made explicit to students. They need to learn that, while there is nothing wrong with speaking a different variety of English, in some contexts their communication will be more effective if they choose to use Australian English. 

There’s more than one way of speaking English


Some Indigenous Australians are bidialectal. They’ve learnt to use two different Englishes – the one they use at home or with their community, and the one they use in school or in non-Aboriginal society.

A lot of people dismiss Aboriginal English as slang, or just a lazy way of speaking. They assume we all speak the same English and that it’s just that some people are better educated and have a better command of the language.

But when this assumption is made, Aboriginal people are greatly disadvantaged. Because they don’t conform to what’s considered ‘normal’, the way they speak is treated as inferior and they’re classed as non-achievers.

Supporting two dialects in one classroom

Here you can hear Michael Jarrett, a Gumbaynggirr language teacher, talk about how he uses Aboriginal English in the classroom.

Using two dialects in the classroom helps everyone feel at ease


There’s some little Aboriginal children in the class as well and I try to make them feel comfortable by talking a little bit of Aboriginal English or the way I usually talk at home.

Because I’ve learned how, like, you know, people do it all the time, switch language, how you talk to your family, how you talk to your friends, how you talk to people who are in high positions and organisations and stuff like that, so I use that language sometimes to put some of the Goori people at ease, that are in the class.  Yeah, and they understand what I’m saying. Sometimes I’ll say it in one way and sometimes I’ll say it in another way, you know what I’m trying to get across to the students. And yeah, I like talking like that, you know. Sometimes, you know, it’s just, when I’m with my family and with my friends, then I just be myself and then I can talk like, you know, Aboriginal English.

Teachers are not expected to teach students two dialects, Australian and Aboriginal English, but to help them to distinguish between them and be able to use Australian English appropriately, in addition to their home dialect.

Supporting two dialects in one classroom


To begin with, I have to clarify our notion of bidialectalism. Sometimes teachers complain about this notion and they say, ‘I can’t teach two dialects in my class, I can’t speak two dialects in my class’. And that’s true, there is a difference between bilingual education, where a teacher will speak two languages, and bidialectal education.

Bidialectal education simply is in favour of giving the chance and providing opportunities for students to develop competence in both the home variety of the language that they speak, as well as the one that they are supposed to learn at school, becoming bidialectal. So again it’s not for the teachers to teach, but to support, to provide scaffolding if you like, for students to be able to develop these two, competence in these two varieties, and to be able to make informed choices when to use what, because the most natural situation for a bidialectal speaker is to switch between the dialects depending on the context, depending on the person with whom you are talking. So if you are talking to your grandparents, probably it’s more appropriate to switch to Aboriginal English. If you’re at school writing an essay, it's more appropriate to use the Standard Australian English that you’re learning at school.

So it’s about, again as I said, the opportunities to be provided for these students to develop competencies in both varieties of the language.

And by empowering the children, and by supporting them and acknowledging their first dialect, they would be in a much better situation and they would be much better supported to learn, and they would be more willing and open to learn, the second variety, which is the Standard Australian English, than when you say ‘Oh, your first language is bad and wrong, now I’m going to give you something’. So you are actually challenging, as we have been talking about, their identity and who they are and who their family is in terms of their linguistic capacities.

So this is what we mean by bidialectal education, again as I said, and that would be through classroom situations, where teachers would provide opportunities for students to be aware of the differences between the two dialects and that’s not only for these students, but that would be good for other students to learn about dialectal variations. It’s actually kind of a resource in their classes.

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