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Language and Identity

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.

Language and Identity

The different ways in which the world is conceptualised in Aboriginal English allows it to remain a vehicle for Aboriginal people to maintain their identity and culture.

Aboriginal people made English their own


Aboriginal people soon made English their own and maintained this new language to replace their traditional languages they were often no longer permitted to use. This language became the vehicle in which their identity and culture could be maintained.

While the distinctiveness of Aboriginal English has made it a carrier of identity for Aboriginal people, for other Australians it may just seem like a slang or a lazy way of using English. It’s important to note that Aboriginal English has evolved separately but at the same time as Standard Australian English, which is now this country’s official accepted language of education, literature and the media.

So, in Australia, we can say we have a language ecosystem: that is, a combination of languages which exist alongside each other.
Each language system is :
a vehicle for carrying the identity and culture of its speakers;
a successful tool for communication;
a mother tongue and home language;
and it has its own ways of working;
each language changes according to the needs of those who use it;
each language represents the mindset of the people who use it;
but it maintains links with the parent language;
each language continues to change, only dead languages don’t evolve.

Language is the most basic foundation of culture


Aboriginal people hold all sorts of jobs and positions of power. When they’re dealing with issues such as Native Title, cultural rights, state and national politics, health, education and housing, they’re often using their own personal points of reference, just as non-Aboriginal people do.

Some people would go as far as saying that language is the most basic foundation of culture and that without language culture doesn’t exist. Language is also one of the very first aspects of our culture that they destroyed in the sense of prohibiting Aboriginal people from speaking language, therefore breaking down those cultural foundations and, you know, the spiritual core of our life.

Obviously the language people speak is an intrinsic part of their identity; is this true of a dialect too, like Aboriginal English?

It can be unhelpful to challenge people over a particular aspect of their identity, so it is important to be mindful that the language varieties we speak relate closely to who we are.

For teachers, labelling students’ language as ‘non-standard’ can impact on the way students feel about themselves and their identity.

Dialect contributes to identity


I think it’s a kind of simple equation, your language is about who you are. Language is part of, as you said, your upbringing. It’s like being a member of this particular family is part of your identity, being part of this country, growing up in this country is part of your identity, speaking this language is obviously again part of your identity.

Often when people are challenged for a particular aspect of their identity, that’s where things go wrong and this is where we are very mindful that language, both at the language level and the varieties of language that we speak, so much relate to who we are. For example, this is how my grandmother spoke, this is how my mother spoke, so this is part of our identity, this is part of who we are. In particular, in certain communities, it’s part of a collective identity, not that I speak this, but my family, in Aboriginal English terms, my mob speaks this way, therefore it’s the way we speak and therefore this is an index to their identity.

It’s interesting that in a lot of cases, Aboriginal English speakers refer to their varieties of English, not as Aboriginal English, and correctly so, for identity purposes they refer to their cultural groups and they say ‘I speak Yamatji English’, ‘I speak Nyungar English’, ‘I speak Warlpiri English’. This is because they understand that this variety of English is now so much tied to their cultural identity and cultural grouping. Therefore they want to foreground and highlight this aspect, that this is part of my collective identity associated with my cultural grouping. But as outsiders we simply refer to them collectively as Aboriginal English and we have this understanding. So this shows you again that connection between language and identity.

And the question for language teachers, I’m sorry, for teachers in general, is that we need to be careful if we say to people, ‘The way you speak is bad, mistake, wrong’. Sometimes we are questioning people’s identity and we are, let’s say, looking down upon people’s identity and the person would say, ‘This is the way my parents, this is the way my grandparents and my family speaks’. So you are basically stigmatising the way their family speaks. 

So this is where we say language and identity becomes much more prominent in the case of the speaking, people speaking varieties of English that are sometimes identified as non-standard, so labelling them as non-standard is something that has got implications for the way they feel about themselves and their identity.

Alienation in the classroom

For many Aboriginal people, language is intertwined with culture and identity, forming a connection to Country and to one’s self. Failing to recognise this, can undermine a child’s self-worth and make them feel alienated in the classroom.

Alienation in the classroom


Is it any wonder Aboriginal students may feel alienated in the classroom? To expect Aboriginal students to learn from textbooks and a school curriculum that comes solely from the dominant Anglo culture, is to ask them to accept their own irrelevance.

Grandmother asked, ‘Where are all you children going?’
The children replied, ‘Grandma, Lana found a new place where we can play. It’s not very far away. She’s going to take us all to this new place so we can all play.’

How often do you hear or see Aboriginal English used in the media or literature? How often is it used in class?
‘Where all you liddle fellahs goin?’
‘Oh, we just goin’ over ‘ere cause Lana wanna show us something. It’s not a long way away Nan, it’s just up ‘ere.’

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