Invisible language learners
Beyond the Classroom, Expert Contributors

Invisible language learners

How to make school assessments fairer

Many first nations children do not speak standard Australian english as their first language.  Education systems and educators need to recognise and respond to students language backgrounds, explains Dr Carly Steele, Lecturer and Early Career Researcher in the School of Education at Curtin University.

Of the original 250 plus languages and over 750 dialects spoken by First Nations peoples before 1788, only 12 are being learned by children today (Dixon, 2019). Instead, widely spoken contact languages – creoles and dialects – have emerged (NILS 3, 2020). However, these languages are often not recognised as the full languages they are by some educators and society generally.

What are contact languages?

Contact languages form when two or more languages come together in a context where communication is essential. In Australia this occurred between traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and English after 1788. A variety of contact languages developed which are both similar and different from each other: some more closely related to English, others with more features of the traditional languages. Some examples are Aboriginal English (Rodriguez Louro & Collard, 2020) and Kriol (Dickson, 2016). Many are not officially named. These factors contribute to their lack of recognition in Australian society, including school systems.

Invisible language learners

Little is known about these languages, but children come to school speaking these languages as their first language. Often, the children’s languages are “invisible” (Sellwood & Angelo, 2013) to educators and not recognised as different languages. Consequently, the students may not be treated as second language learners of Standard Australian English (SAE) and their language learning needs not considered.

To improve educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who do not speak SAE as their first language, their language backgrounds must be recognised and valued.

Our study

In our research (Steele & Wigglesworth, 2021), we sought to quantitatively show some of the language differences to help make the SAE language learning needs of many First Nations children “visible” to educators.

First, we compared the short-term memory capacities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who speak Indigenous contact languages with native monolingual SAE speakers. The short-term memory capacities of the two groups were the same showing that both groups are equally able to process language.

Next, students orally produced a range of simple sentences in SAE to gauge their proficiency. The SAE speaking ability of the two groups differed significantly. We also examined students’ knowledge of four SAE grammatical features:

  • the prepositions at-in-on
  • plural ‘s’ on nouns e.g. cats
  • simple present tense with 3rd person singular ‘s’ e.g. she runs
  • simple irregular past tense e.g. they ate.

The two groups differed significantly in all aspects but the prepositions at-in-on. This finding highlights the close relationship that can exist between Indigenous contact languages and SAE. It demonstrates how speakers of Indigenous contact languages may be proficient in some aspects of SAE, but not others. These similarities can mask students’ status as language learners.

Why does it matter?

Our findings showed the SAE speaking ability of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students improved over the primary school years but did not reach the levels of their monolingual SAE speaking peers.

As children progress through school, the SAE language and literacy demands increase at such a rate that the language gains made are unlikely to be identified in many classroom-based or standardised assessments (e.g. NAPLAN). Consequently, students’ achievement may not be visible and go unrecognised in the classroom.

The impact can be seen in the deficit positioning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners in educational and national public discourse (Patrick & Moodie, 2016). The educational and social implications are considerable and the outcomes for First Nations children who speak contact languages a national disgrace.

What can be done?

To meet the SAE learning needs of students who speak Indigenous contact languages, their language backgrounds must be recognised and valued in the classroom. Students’ first language/s play an important role in learning (Oliver et al., 2021). Contact languages need to be treated with respect and understanding, and not viewed as incorrect forms of SAE.

All teachers need to understand how language is learned and how it works to effectively teach SAE alongside curriculum content. Language skills are the cornerstone of literacy and educational development. Teachers should explicitly teach of SAE and provide students with the opportunity to practice their language skills (Angelo & Hudson, 2021).

Targeted training needs to be delivered in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) degrees and in professional development for teachers already teaching. In the current climate of heavy responsibilities on time-poor teachers, sufficient funding and time must be given for teachers to gain the skills required.

Dr Carly Steele is a regular contributor to Education Matters Primary and Secondary Magazine. This feature was first published in Education Matters Print magazine April 2022.


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