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What is Aboriginal English like, and how would you recognise it?

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 is Aboriginal English like, and how would you recognise it?

Aboriginal English often sounds very similar to Australian English, but there may be miscommunication because of semantic or pragmatic difference. Sometimes words have a different meaning in Aboriginal English from their meaning in Australian English and different social contexts may also have an effect.

The most common language spoken by Aboriginal Australians is Aboriginal English


Before European settlement, Australia was a rich tapestry of different speech communities. It’s estimated there were about 250 different languages and perhaps the same number of dialects.

But as we know, most of those languages have been lost and English is now the most common language spoken by Indigenous Australians.

However, it’s not the same English as that used by most other Australians. It’s a new English – Aboriginal English. ‘Ow ya goin’, sis? What you up to?’
‘Naah – nothin’ much …  I’m waitin’ for this girl da ‘urry up …  she’s comin’ from th’ospital there. She’s takin’ ‘er time.’
‘Yeh, you know they drag their feet all the time.’

What is ‘home talk’?


When Aboriginal people use ‘home-talk’ – their own English dialect – non-Aboriginal people constantly misinterpret what they’re saying. Take this scenario for instance.

Kylie: ‘I’m going to lunch now.’
Michelle: ‘OK.’
Kylie: ‘OK, bye.’

[In the cafe]
Michelle: ‘Hi Kylie.’
Kylie: ‘Mmm.’
Michelle: ‘I didn’t know you came here to this cafe.’
Kylie: ‘Mmm.’
Michelle: ‘Do you mind if I join you?’
Kylie: ‘No, that’s OK.’
Michelle: ‘Oh cool. I didn’t know that you came here for lunch.’

Kylie: ‘Yeah, yeah. I normally come in here for lunch. I keep asking you to come with me but …’
Michelle: ‘When did you ask me?’
Kylie: ‘All the time. I say I’m going for lunch now.’

Michelle: ‘I never realised you were asking me. I just thought you were just telling me that you were going.’
Kylie: ‘No ... yeah ... ah, doesn’t matter.’

Aboriginal English is something of a mixed blessing for Indigenous people because it really has no currency beyond their community. That’s why people who speak Standard Australian English treat Aboriginal English speakers like they have a language deficiency.

Yes, well I think this is the irony of the situation that Aboriginal people, in most cases, are managing two dialects in the course of their everyday living and the people, very often, who criticise the way in which they use language are themselves mono-dialectal. So that actually, Aboriginal people are managing a more complex linguistic situation than those that criticise them sometimes.

Aboriginal English just sounds like English to me. Does it really make a difference?

Wendy Hanlen highlights some of the differences between Aboriginal English and Standard Australian English, including non-verbal language differences.

How is Aboriginal English different?:


Well, what is Aboriginal English? Aboriginal English is a dialect of Standard Australian English, in the same way as Scottish English and American Englishes and English Englishes all differ from each other. Aboriginal Englishes are the only regionally distributed dialects of Australian English in this country, which is quite unusual for any country.

It differs from Standard English phonetically, phonemically, in the sense that sounds can be different. For instance, ‘baird’ instead of ‘bird’, you have words in the consonants that are r’s, l’s, n’s, d’s and t’s that are what you call retroflex sounds. It also differs syntactically with the grammar, and with the semantics, with the meanings of words, and also the biggest problem for teachers and students is the pragmatics of how language is used, how is English used. The problem can be that a student or teacher can recognise what the other is saying, the word, but the way it is used may be totally different.

The other thing we need to be aware of, that in Aboriginal Englishes you’re looking at non-verbal forms of language, such as movement of upper body, facial expressions and so on. You also have pitch, intonation and tone. You might have somebody say, “it’s a long way”, or “it’s a lo-o-ng way”, or “it’s a lo-o-o-ng way”, and that’s very hard to write down the differences, but it is in spoken Aboriginal English.

We have 72 different language groups in NSW, and that means 72 different Aboriginal Englishes potentially. With those Aboriginal Englishes, the speakers of Aboriginal Englishes, can range from the influence from their traditional language being more concentrated, through to those Aboriginal Englishes that are more highly influenced by Standard Australian English.

Research is gradually revealing the differences between Aboriginal English and Australian English. Professor Farzad Sharifian has described how these can be subtle underlying features that are not obvious.

Aboriginal English just sounds like English to me


I guess another issue is the fact that a lot of Aboriginal English-speaking students do not sound like they're speaking anything different than Australian English and this would actually make the task for the teachers even more complicated, that they think they don’t speak anything other than Australian English or Standard Australian English, but underlying research has shown underlying the surface features of the variety spoken by children are features of Aboriginal English in terms of conceptualisation and semantic and pragmatic features.

This is where teachers would really need to know, would need awareness, in order to make a distinction between what is at the surface level Australian English and what is not, what is actually, at the deeper level, Aboriginal English, and to link the two varieties that the students are supposed to operate in, which is their home dialect as well as their second dialect, which is Standard Australian English that they are there to learn.

So the aim really is to enable teachers to help students develop bidialectal competence, is competence in the two varieties of English, and this is often quite a challenge for teachers. But the reward I think is significant if we can get there.

In the next link you can hear more about some of the more obvious differences from another linguist, Professor Ian Malcolm.

Aboriginal English has changed the way English is bolted together


It doesn’t look like it, but this was a revolution. The 27th of May 1967. White Australians were voting in a referendum to change the Constitution.

It’s almost unbelievable to think that it took until 1967 for Aboriginal people to be classed as citizens. That’s when Australia held a referendum to decide if Aboriginal people should be included in the census. Even more noteworthy is the fact that it was only in 1992 that the High Court ruled to change the lie that this country was founded on – that it was terra nullius: vacant land. During this time, significant differences became evident in the way Aboriginal people spoke, as Professor Ian Malcolm explains.

If I picked on one thing that is central to Australian English and to Standard Australian English which Aboriginal English has dispensed with, it would be the way in which we use auxiliaries and copulas, that is, we use the verb ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ to link things together.

We are working.
We workin’.

They have gone.
They gone.

There are birds over there.
They got bird over there.

It’s big.
It big one ‘ay.

It was smashed, it was made of wood.
E got smashed, made of wood.

Most people would say ‘Well, they are just dropping words out’. What they’re doing is not dropping words out. They are systematically changing the whole way in which English is bolted together. ‘Be’ and ‘have’ are like the nuts and bolts of Standard English. Aboriginal English has dispensed with them and found other ways to make the same meanings come across.

Is teaching students who speak Aboriginal English the same as teaching students who speak English as a second language (ESL) also known as English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D)?

It is even more important to support students who speak a different dialect, than those who speak a different language. If students come to school speaking a different language, everyone tends to be aware of that and will make an effort to ensure that they are given appropriate support. In the case of Aboriginal English speakers, many teachers do not realise that such children need support, because it is not so obvious that they may not understand Australian English.

Recognising speakers of Aboriginal English in the classroom


In the case of ESL learners, it’s easy to identify who speaks a second language because they already speak Chinese or Japanese or whatever. So identification is straightforward in most cases. And also the system, the educational system, both in Australia and outside Australia, not only recognises this, but provides a lot of support in the form of separate classes, activities, educational kits and everything, books and everything. But we don’t have the same situation with Aboriginal English-speaking children.

First of all, we have the question of, I have been talking about, identifying who speaks Aboriginal English. Sometimes because of the exposure to Standard Australian English and to Australian English, kids on the surface sound like they’re speaking Australian English so a lot of teachers would simply say ‘No-one speaks Aboriginal English in my class’. So identification of who speaks Aboriginal English is an issue. Remember that when someone uses a Chinese word it’s easy to identify, but when someone uses an Aboriginal English word it’s at the end of the day an English word, so it’s easy for teachers to say, ‘Oh these children speak English’.

And of course, in terms of the resources, how much support is there for teachers who teach Aboriginal English-speaking children? Is it comparable to the case of ESL? Do we need a systematic approach, the same kind of support structure that we have for ESL learners? Probably even more, probably even more, again because that sometimes on the surface, not at the underlying level of conceptualisation, on the surface, the distinction between the two varieties is minimal in certain contexts, geographical contexts, that we simply, that the situation becomes much more confusing, both for students and for the teachers.

Therefore, we need actually more support, educational support, not less than ESL, situation with ESL learners.

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