The Evolution of Aboriginal English: Language, Learning, and Cultural Identity

The experiences of an Aboriginal person or group can greatly diverge based on whether their family was confined on a mission or reserve. Across generations, government agencies, often supported by missionaries, actively suppressed the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Cultural markers like language were prohibited, with reports of severe consequences—beatings or food denial—meted out for speaking their ancestral language. Consequently, English became the lingua franca, birthing a new language known as Aboriginal English.

It’s crucial to recognize that those not fluent in the language of education face disadvantages. In Australia, Standard Australian English (SAE) holds the power as the language of learning, and for many decades, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have aimed for their children to celebrate their heritage while navigating the dominant culture. Language is pivotal in expressing culture and fostering educational success.

Yet, the language that reflects Aboriginal identity doesn’t necessarily align with educational success. Many Aboriginal adults, hindered from adequate education, encounter hurdles in achieving educational milestones. Proficiency in SAE literacy and speech must be supported by teaching methodologies respectful of individual cultures and histories.

Professor Paul Hughes AM, FACE, a member of the National Consultation and Evaluation Project (NCEP) Team, sheds light on this in the Langwij comes to school (McRrae, 1995) foreword, emphasizing the importance of valuing students’ existing language to foster a deep grasp of English.

Effective teaching strategies for SAE and literacy in Aboriginal adults can draw from research with Aboriginal adolescents. In the mid-’90s, the research by Howard Groome and Arthur Hamilton highlighted that a strong Indigenous identity enhances Aboriginal students’ academic performance.

However, it’s not a uniform solution. The Groome-Hamilton report (1995) underscores the diverse cultures thriving within Aboriginality, shaped by individual and collective histories, aspirations, and experiences, all within the persistent backdrop of racism.

Regional diversity further influences language projects, such as the Koorie English Literacy Project, a Victorian-specific initiative funded by the National Professional Development Program in 1994. This project led to the development of “Deadly Eh, Cuz! – Teaching Speakers of Koorie English” by the Goulburn Valley Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Incorporated, showcasing the varied approaches in addressing linguistic nuances within Aboriginal communities.

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