By Rocio Otoya
Sydney, Australia, Aug 9 (EFE).- Makarrata means ‘a coming together after a struggle’ in Yolgnu, one of the more than 250 indigenous languages of Australia, and the phrase is fitting today given that their teaching is now promoted in schools in order to recover them, to prevent their disappearance and to empower children and local communities.
Those “who have had this opportunity to learn about their own language engage better at school; they are more interested in learning and in being at school,” said Professor Jackelin Troy, a linguist at the University of Sydney and one of the main creators of the first national study plan focused on teaching of the languages of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
But teaching them presents many challenges, including the historical discrimination of indigenous peoples as a result of British colonization, the lack of funding for these programs and even the few people alive who speak these languages.
LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY IN REMOTE COMMUNITIES
Australia – a country with one of the fastest rates of language loss in the world, according to a 2021 study published by the Australian National University – registered some 250 indigenous languages and hundreds of dialects after colonization, according to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
Many of these languages have died out and now linguists are trying to recover dozens of them, while hoping that around 40 will be prevented from disappearing by new generations.
However, the vast majority of indigenous youth, especially in northern Australia, speak Kriol, also known as Aboriginal English, a language with its own grammar and vocabulary that arose as a result of contact in the 19th century between speakers of indigenous languages and English.
“In Australia, we still have a system where there are Aboriginal children who are not English speaking who are forced to learn in English,” Troy said.
The linguist believes, based on the critical pedagogy movement promoted by the Brazilian Paulo Freire in the 1960s, that the teaching of First Nations languages as a first language benefits students and “the wider country in general.”
It’s an opinion similar to that expressed by a group of experts who stated in a study published by the academic website The Conversation that “genuine bilingual education” results in more indigenous children going on to university study and thus closing inequality gaps.
As an example, they cite the case of a school in the remote Northern Territory town of Yirrkala, where children learn Yolngu Matha and English.
LOOKING FOR TEACHERS
The lack of university qualified educators teaching First Nations languages has been one of the stumbling blocks in education.
However, the current government has increased funding – more than AU$14 million ($9 million) over four years – to alleviate the deficiencies.
These contributions coincide with a greater interest in parents of non-indigenous children for their children to learn indigenous languages over other foreign languages, according to a 2022 survey of 650 schools across the country.
With the aim of preserving Aboriginal languages, in the 2000s Troy designed syllables for teaching in New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia.
At that time, schools prioritized the teaching of English and other foreign languages, but Troy’s contribution prompted the teaching of Aboriginal languages to be systematized and formalized for the first time.
Indigenous peoples, who represent 3.8 percent of Australia’s more than 26 million residents, have been dispossessed of their lands and systematically discriminated against since British colonization through policies that included the separation of thousands of children from their families to educate them in governmental and religious institutions. EFE