University of Adelaide head of linguistics Rob Amery has warned a Parliamentary Standing Committee that outcomes for Kaurna language programs were “far superior in the mid-1990s, when we had little by way of resources, than they are now”.
The Associate Professor and convenor of Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi has been instrumental in the push to revitalise Kaurna – the First Nations language of the Adelaide Plains – after it was wiped out in the late 1800s following colonisation.
Introduced disease, contamination of the River Torrens (Karrawirra Pari) and a push from Europeans to prohibit Kaurna people from speaking their language meant the number of speakers rapidly plummeted.
The revitalisation movement, launched by Amery in the 1980s, used recordings of the last speaker of Kaurna – who died in 1929 – as well as early documents from German missionaries to bring the language back to life.
Since then, a handful of Kaurna people have learned the language and have begun to teach it in schools using a learner’s guide, alphabet book, videos, stories, songs and other resources created by Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi.
But according to Amery, the number of Kaurna people who are able to teach their language in schools is decreasing, with only five or six community members currently available.
“At the moment, we don’t have to stir up interest – we get inquiries almost every week from schools wanting us to supply a teacher of Kaurna (but) we can’t supply them at the moment,” Amery told an Aboriginal Lands Parliamentary Standing Committee hearing last week.
“We desperately need to put the pieces in place to build this career path.”
Amery told the committee that while Aboriginal languages were designated as priority languages in the Australian curriculum, “education is found wanting”.
He said a growing focus on NAPLAN and a lack of professional development for teachers of Kaurna language meant schools were unable to dedicate the same time to Kaurna teaching as they did in the mid-1990s.
“Sadly, there is no professional development within the Education Department anymore. There used to be in the 1990s, but it is not happening now,” he said.
“We have provided some training outside that, particularly through the TAFE Certificate III in Learning an Endangered Aboriginal Language, and Certificate IV in Teaching an Endangered Aboriginal Language, but the Education Department does not recognise those qualifications.”
Amery told InDaily the Education Department was initially receptive to the Kaurna revitalisation movement, providing a grant of $7000 to help launch a course at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s.
We desperately need to put the pieces in place to build this career path
He said the Department also created an Aboriginal Language Standing Committee, which met several times a year, but that committee was abolished in the 2000s.
“Things have declined dreadfully,” he said.
“We called meetings in around 2010 with the Teachers Registration Board, we held meetings with the Education Department, the Australian Education Union and people from the TAFE and university sector, but we’re powerless from outside the Department to make things happen.
“The Kaurna community are the ones who should be teaching the language and if they do the Cert III or Cert IV they should be remunerated for that.
“There should be some incentive to do that training.”
Teachers Registration Board state branch registrar Peter Lind said the board had the ability to grant special authorisations for unregistered teachers to teach in particular roles.
“Anangu language teachers in the APY Lands for example don’t need registered authorisation but there are special authorisations that allow them to teach,” he said.
“In the five and a half years I have been with the Teachers Registration Board we haven’t had anyone apply with us for the Kaurna language courses.
“Clearly, there needs to be a position taken by Rob Amery to explore how they might be seeking a special authorisation.”
But Amery said he had approached the Education Department about the TAFE qualifications, but was told they were not “sufficient” to allow Kaurna people to be reimbursed to teach in schools.
He also pointed criticism at the State Government’s 10-year Aboriginal Education Strategy, launched last year, which outlined a goal to “strengthen and reinvigorate the learning of Aboriginal languages in children’s centres, preschools and schools, including language revival and maintaining strong active languages”.
“There’s motherhood statements about Aboriginal languages but there’s no milestones, there’s no concrete objectives,” Amery said.
“Whilst Aboriginal languages are designated priority languages there’s no pathway to implementation.”
In a statement to InDaily, a spokesperson from the Education Department said in the 1990s, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Adnyamathanha and Arabana language teachers received general curricular and language-specific support. For other Aboriginal languages, the Department said it teamed up with “local expertise, language groups and the tertiary sector”.
The spokesperson said the Department introduced an Aboriginal Community Language and Culture Partnerships (ACLCP) program in 2012 “in which formal, funded collaboration was established between the department and several incorporated South Australian Aboriginal language groups”.
“There is potential in each ACLCP agreement to address such matters as cost of training and other professional learning for community members wishing to work with their languages,” the spokesperson said.
“This year the department provided $982,000 in funding to Aboriginal language groups and schools through the ACLCP program, the Aboriginal Languages Programs Initiatives program, the First Language Maintenance and Development program, and the first language program on the APY Lands as part of the Aboriginal Education Strategy.
“The Department’s $11.9 million (Aboriginal Education) strategy will work to create opportunities for communities to engage in the teaching and delivery of Aboriginal cultural knowledge and languages within education settings.”
We want them to walk alongside us and not for us
Kaurna teacher Jack Buckskin, who was taught the language by Amery in the early 2000s, said Kaurna language learning had “grown heaps”, but the lack of teachers was a “massive issue”.
He said he was inundated with calls from schools, preschools and tertiary institutions to provide classes.
“We’re going a bit backwards because people are wanting it (Kaurna education), they want to learn about it, but there’s just not enough people to help,” he said.
“When I went along (to the Kaurna language classes) I noticed that the gap between the elders and everybody else was something like 20, 30 years at a minimum.
“I could see that potentially in time there would be nobody that could take their place and continue their work.”
Buckskin said the problem was exacerbated by the fact many Kaurna people have connections to other Aboriginal language groups and “people don’t want to put the effort into the one (language) because it might seem like it’s favouring one over the other”.
He said the Kaurna community was broadly open to non-Aboriginal people teaching the language “as long as they’ve been endorsed by our community and are not just reading a book and watching a video”.
“We want them to walk alongside us and not for us,” he said.
“We will definitely need the support from the (mainstream) teaching staff.”
An ongoing study by researchers at the University of Adelaide and South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) has found links between the revitalisation of Aboriginal languages and improved mental health and wellbeing.
The study found language revitalisation reduces suicide rates and delinquency while improving people’s appreciation of and sense of connection with their cultural heritage.
“Schools must relate to Aboriginal languages – the regional Aboriginal languages – as a priority,” said Professor Ghil’ad Zuckerman, one of the researchers involved with the study.
“What I’ve noticed is many schools prefer to teach a European language or not teach a language at all.
“It’s shocking to me that that happens.”
According to the Education Department, there are six public schools that currently offer Kaurna language schools.
Three schools – Golden Grove High School, Lake Windemere School and Salisbury North School – plan to establish new programs next year.
Approximately 80 per cent of South Australian public schools are located on Kaurna country.
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