Teaching Aboriginal languages at school

Students are hungry to learn an Aboriginal language, but teachers are few and far between. Aboriginal languages are mostly taught by agreement.

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Curricula don't provide for Aboriginal languages

At schools in Western Australia, for example, the school curriculum includes up to three Asian languages, but there is no formal inclusion of any Aboriginal language. If such a language is taught it is by agreement between individual schools and Aboriginal language teachers or speakers .

But student numbers are encouraging, with 6,400 WA students studying an Aboriginal language compared to 4,000 students learning Mandarin .

Janet Hayden, Nyoongar Elder and language teacher, knows students want to learn an Aboriginal language.

"They wanted more and more, and when we left the teachers all said 'please come back, don't forget us', and that was in a white community. One very distinguished gentleman came up to me and he had tears in his eyes and said I had opened his eyes to Aboriginal culture and what Aboriginal people were all about."

They were just so hungry for the Nyoongar language we taught in school. We taught them the whole program and they just loved it.

— Janet Hayden, Nyoongar Elder and language teacher

Video: Reawakening Australia's Aboriginal languages

Students at St John's High School in Western Sydney learn basics of the Wuradjiru language, including animal names and how to address family.

Benefits of teaching an Aboriginal language

Teaching Aboriginal languages increases the esteem and pride of Aboriginal students, and it has a positive impact on their attendance and participation in school .

At Woolgoolga High School, in North Coast NSW, all year 7 students are required to learn Gumbaynggirr, a local traditional Aboriginal language. The school's Aboriginal education worker, Jo Hine, has noticed that Woolgoolga's Aboriginal students have become noticeably more confident and "more likely to speak up in class."

Some research indicates that it improves their physical and mental health. People who have lost their identity are quite conflicted.

Not enough teachers

But in 2013, there were only 15 Aboriginal teachers of Aboriginal language in public schools in New South Wales , although languages were in a "critical state" and the state was home to more than 200,000 Aboriginal people.

We see the teaching of languages in schools as being critical to the maintenance of Indigenous languages and to the maintenance of our overall cultural identity as Australians.

— Andrew Thompson, spokesman Western Australian Education Department

Story: The antidote to intolerance

At Vincentia High School, about 190 kms south of Sydney in NSW, students are taught Dhurga, the language of the Yuin Nation .

Classes are compulsory for every student in Year Eight, Indigenous or non-Indigenous. By the time students receive their School Certificate they have undergone 100 hours of Dhurga instruction.

In those 100 hours they will have learnt that Dhurga is one language amongst hundreds of Aboriginal languages and given a different perspective through which to view Australia.

Jonathan Hill, a Dhurga teacher at Vincentia High School, reckons that "this type of education is the antidote to the tide of intolerance that infects the modern mind. By sharing this ancient knowledge with our youth, we are giving them the chance to empathise and engage with our Aboriginal heritage."


View article sources (5)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] 'WA support to teach our languages', Koori Mail 472 p.32
[2] 'Project aims to halt loss of Aboriginal languages', AFP 26/10/2010
[3] 'Australia’s endangered languages', Honi Soit 13/11/2014,, retrieved 16/11/2014
[4] 'Give us a chance and success will follow', SMH 6/4/2013
[5] [5a] 'Practical reconciliation', readers letter, Koori Mail 482 p.23

Cite this page

Korff, J 2019, Teaching Aboriginal languages at school, <>, retrieved 26 May 2024

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