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What are the Educational Implications for Aboriginal English Speakers?

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.

What are the educational implications for Aboriginal English speakers?

Professor Farzad Sharifian, Director of the Language and Society Centre at Monash University, has led several major projects on Aboriginal English and the implications for Aboriginal students of speaking Aboriginal English. In particular, he has worked closely with educators to find out how to help teachers work effectively with students who speak Aboriginal English, or other varieties of English.

What are the implications of Aboriginal English in an education setting?


When I started doing research on Aboriginal English, I realised how much language is embedded in culture and worldview. It was fascinating.

Aboriginal English was to me was like an archive that reflected really the relationship, as I said, between culture, worldview and language. For example, in 2004, we conducted a research project looking at how teachers would understand the stories told by Aboriginal English-speaking children. The question was simple, for non-Aboriginal teachers to listen to the stories told by the kids and to retell these stories. It was very interesting. A number of teachers, when recalling the stories that Aboriginal children had told, they changed the elements of the stories. What I mean by changed the elements of the stories, it was not just a memory issue, that they didn’t remember, because they had a chance to listen twice and straight away they recalled the stories, and the stories were not long and they were real stories that Aboriginal children had told.

There were some cultural elements. For example, children referred to some spiritual ‘elements’, which are very much known to Aboriginal people, and teachers in a lot of cases did not understand them, and therefore replaced these elements by other things. So, for example, in one case there was, the Aboriginal child was talking about a ghost of a woman in the kitchen and the teacher was talking about a grandmother cooking in the kitchen, totally different thing. So it was very interesting that, for example, in one case the child was talking about hunting kangaroos and the teacher was talking, recalled a cave, and there was no cave in the original story, so the teacher must have relied on her own perspective, probably by watching movies, or her own experience in other contexts where hunting involves mountains and caves and things like that.

So this is where the conceptual understanding and the notion of cultural schema, the frameworks, the mental frameworks that you have collected over the years in your life, help you to understand what you hear.

So partly you hear what is already in your mind. It’s not always that you hear the stories that people tell you. You actually, if you’re not familiar with some of those concepts and elements of the stories, you compensate by relying on your own experiences, and this is what we found in this project. Obviously, with this project that I’m talking about, we realised that there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication in classes where there are Aboriginal students, so teachers may not fully understand the stories told by Aboriginal children because of the cultural elements involved.

So we asked the reverse question in a more recent project that was funded by Australian Research Council in 2008. So this time we wanted Aboriginal English-speaking children to listen to some of the stories, the usual children’s books that are used with these students, so we asked teachers to read these stories to children and then we asked them to simply repeat the stories to see what happens now this time that the roles are reversed. And it was very interesting again, in a number of cases, that Aboriginal children added, changed things in the stories. I remember clearly one case where there was this story about a tornado and the wind, and apparently this mention of the wind and the tornado evoked a spiritual concept in the mind of the Aboriginal child. So the Aboriginal English-speaking child added a lot of spiritual elements to this story, so it became like a different story. And in a number of cases children did not produce much recall, and I have to mention that these stories were very typical sort of Western stories, such as the fairytales and things like that.

So, the question was that if you’re listening to materials that may not be so much culturally accessible to you, what would happen then? As I’ve said, in a number of cases the students changed the stories, whereas in a number of cases there was not much recall, and as we probed to get something out of these children, they said a couple of sentences that had nothing to do with the original story. So to us it was as if you don’t have anything in your mind to relate this to, therefore you can’t construct anything to produce.

Professor Farzad Sharifian compared the ways that speakers of Aboriginal English and Australian English understood stories told in both dialects. He found that the different ways that Aboriginal-English speaking and Australian English-speaking people conceptualise, led to miscommunication in the classroom.



To give you some quick examples about conceptualisation, take the word ‘family’. It’s not just in Aboriginal English the word ‘family’ has got a different meaning, it’s a whole set of conceptualisations or what we technically call cultural schema associated with the notion of family in Aboriginal English. Aboriginal English notion of family encompasses first of all the extended family, but it’s not just the extended family in terms of who is your extended family. Aboriginal English speakers may use the word ‘Mum’ to refer to not only biological mother, but also women of the same generation as mother, including aunties, and that’s not just a matter of label, it’s because of certain social and cultural responsibilities. We have seen even in context where a person can use the word ‘Mum’ to refer to uncle, again based on cultural responsibilities. Again, the notion of who is family, it’s not just a matter of relationship but what are the responsibilities, what are the obligations, questions of respect, who can talk to who, who should respect who, in terms of kinship and the hierarchical understanding of the kinship, so it’s a whole new way of understanding.

A lot of times Aboriginal people living in urban areas when they see, meet each other, they start with identifying where they stand in relation to the kinship with each other and often you understand, ‘Oh you’re my cousin’, which might mainly mean second cousin. And this notion of family and extended family and kinship revolves around the mobility of Aboriginal people, moving around, and funerals.

There is so much understanding and issues of guardianship. For example, the school often in Western Australia did not recognise someone’s uncle as their father, whereas with Aboriginal people their uncle might actually be called dad and might actually have that kind of role. So we had to educate the school to understand that the notion of family in Australian English, which is largely nuclear family, may not work in the same way, both in terms of the cultural categorisations of who is family, but also obligations, as I said, and cultural responsibilities as well.

The notion of 'home' on the other hand again in Aboriginal English, is not so much just associated with the building, but again it’s around family and kinship, so ones auntie’s place of residence may also be called ‘home’. And I remember an Aboriginal English-speaking child getting into trouble by saying ‘I was home’ and at the same time he said that he was at his uncle’s, sorry auntie’s house and the teacher said ‘So you’re contradicting yourself’ and no, he wasn’t, because auntie’s home, or house, was also called home. So, again, as I said ‘home’ is not so much constrained within the building and my nice little room or something like this but it’s mainly again around the notions of kinship.

So when, in my research, I use the word ‘home’ and ask Aboriginal children to tell me what comes into their mind, it was members of the family, nanna, pop, and cousins and aunties, so that means basically for them home is the company of the extended family. Whether or not it’s their parents’ place of residence, or cousins’ and aunties’. So, as you can see, these are simple everyday words of English, but they are associated with different conceptualisations in Aboriginal English.

Concept of ‘shame’ in Aboriginal English

‘Shame’ is associated with a different system of conceptualisation in Aboriginal English. It is associated with a different set of emotions from the Australian English concept so that a person feels ‘shame’ when being singled out for attention, whether positively or negatively.

Concept of ‘shame’


One of the most interesting concepts that I have come across in Aboriginal English is the concept of ‘shame’. ‘Shame’ is really associated with a different system of conceptualisation in Aboriginal English. Of course we have variation in different Aboriginal varieties of English, but in general it’s associated with a different set of emotions evoked. For example, a person feels ‘shame’ when being under a spotlight, positively or negatively, for punishment or for praise, or coming across a very novel situation of seeing someone you’ve never met, a very, as I said, novel situation. Or in some cases coming across a sacred site or something. It’s a kind of a feeling, it's a kind of emotion, again as I said, associated with being under spotlight and being singled out even for praise, or novelty of a situation.

So in my study, a lot of Aboriginal students said things such as, ‘When you get a prize’, ‘When the teacher asks you to go in front of a class’. Whereas for non-Aboriginal children, ‘shame’ was so much associated with the feeling of guilt and wrongdoing, so you can see that even one simple word can be associated, and it was very interesting in one case one of the Aboriginal English-speaking children said ‘You shame of your teacher, you shame of your parents, you shame of everyone’, and imagine if it's interpreted in the wrong way, the teacher might think 'What have you done that you’re ashamed of everyone?’ But of course we need to be mindful that of course ‘shame’ here in Aboriginal English, you are, you’re ‘shame’, so it’s not that you are ashamed, so it’s a different lexical configuration altogether.

How does speaking Aboriginal English impact on students’ performance in standardised tests?

It is important to keep in mind the fact that standardised testing can work against speakers of Aboriginal English because standardised tests may not allow for linguistic and cultural diversity.

Standardised tests don’t allow for linguistic and cultural diversity, which can work against speakers of Aboriginal English


I think we need to keep in mind that the notion of standardised tests, and the national-level standardised tests, is very likely to work against speakers of Aboriginal English because these standardised tests do not allow for linguistic and cultural diversity.

So it’s very likely that Aboriginal English-speaking children will be penalised for using Aboriginal English in the national standardised tests. But, as teachers, well let’s think about at least our own micro contexts and see in what ways we can help the students if they use Aboriginal English. At least to begin with, when they're trying to show us their improvement, we need to make sure that we're not punishing them simply for using Aboriginal English to express, and to show us their improvement in terms of literacy and other parts of knowledge.

It might be a matter of progression from expressing literacy in Aboriginal English to expressing literacy in Standard Australian English and we have to be careful not to, as I said, disrupt this progression by simply stopping this progression by punishing and penalising the students at this stage of expressing literacy in Aboriginal English.

Just we need to be mindful of the fact that, again as I said, in many cases it’s not a matter of choice for children, this is the only thing that they have, the linguistic repertoire that they have, and they use it to express what they have learned in the class, but it takes time for them to become competent in the two varieties, to express literacy skills in the second variety that they are learning.

How can teachers deal with the breakdown in communication that often occurs with Aboriginal English-speaking students?

Teachers need to be aware, and to help students to become aware, of differences between the dialect that they habitually speak and the language of the classroom, and make these differences explicit. This makes it much easier to avoid miscommunication.

Wendy Hanlen discusses the importance of supporting Aboriginal English-speaking students in the classroom.

What can teachers do to support Aboriginal English-speaking students?


There is also some issues too with word segmentation, for instance you might have a word like ‘butterfly’ in some Aboriginal Englishes could be ‘butt-fly’, or ‘caterpillar’ could become ‘cat-pulla’ and one way to get around this is take a note of it, don’t correct the child at the time you hear it, but in classroom conversations with the whole class, you can say things like, “sometimes we can say grub, sometimes we can say caterpillar and sometimes we can say cat-pulla, but in the classroom we always say caterpillar, because that’s the language of the classroom, we say things differently sometimes at home and outside of school in our communities”, and it’s not making the child feel like, “oh, I’ve bombed out again”, “they hate me”, “I can never do anything right”, that we’re building their confidence.

And allow them times in the classroom, for instance in an early childhood setting, to give their news in Aboriginal English. The evidence is world-known and world-accepted in the sense that children who do their early learning in their home language or dialect, achieve better outcomes than their peers who are forced to learn in the second language or the second dialect.

Here Anthony Galluzzo speaks about the importance of support for Aboriginal English-speaking students.

The importance of support for Aboriginal English-speaking students


Prior to teaching, I worked in my home community in schools as an AEO [Aboriginal Education Officer] or an AEA [Aboriginal Education Assistant], as it was previously known, and as an in-class tutor working with Aboriginal students from Kindergarten up to Year 12, and I sort of found that I could relate to the students, for one because I was from the community and I knew the family structures. But I had a knowledge of the Aboriginal community and I had that commonality which was our language and that was something that we connected on and I found that it was really important when I worked with those students.

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Educational Implications for Aboriginal English Speakers