EI urges greater respect for Indigenous languages and culture

published 9 December 2008 updated 9 December 2008

Bilingual and multicultural education is not only “important for the human rights of Indigenous Peoples, but also for all other children, as well as for humanity as a whole, collecting and conserving relevant knowledge to help our planet survive,” EI Vice-President Susan Hopgood told participants in the EI seminar on Indigenous Education in Melbourne.

In a keynote presentation to roughly 100 teacher delegates, Hopgood noted that language has been used by dominant powers to suppress indigenous cultural expressions. Currently, the Ministry of Education in the Northern Territory (NT) in Australia announced last October that from 2009 the first four hours of education in all NT Schools will be delivered in English, putting an end to the 10 remaining bilingual education programme in the state.

She said: “Language is considered to be the cornerstone of culture and the ultimate expression of belonging, as it is through the language that culture is shared and transmitted. The non-recognition and the prohibition of the use of Indigenous languages in the education system and work place have impacted negatively on the lives of many Indigenous Peoples. It has affected them from childhood to adulthood, has limited them in the creation of their own unique multi-identities and has frustrated the development of their communities.” Education, which was used as an instrument of assimilation to the dominant languages in most countries, has helped cause the loss of many Indigenous languages.

“This linguistic genocide is unacceptable,” Hopgood said. “Language is an essential part of the development of diverse identities, as well as being the carrier of Indigenous community values, culture and Indigenous knowledge. It is through bilingual and multicultural education that Indigenous children are made to feel welcome in schools.”

She predicted that with more inclusive policies in schools, the “sometimes still shocking drop-out rates of Indigenous children will then come down.”

“Once again,” she concluded, “inclusion is the answer: Inclusion of all children into child-friendly schools where well qualified, caring and committed teachers are able to use relevant and respectful curricula to meet their needs, learners at the centre of the process.”

In another session, Govind Singh, EI Pacific coordinator and Secretary General of the Council of Pacific Education, also spoke of the common legacy that unites all of the Pacific Island countries: their common experience of colonialism of the British or French type.

“The pre-contact social values and the evolution of a polity was arrested by the Colonizers who used their own system, while still being trained in India, Africa and the West Indies for governing the colonies,” Singh said. “It meant that the education system and the economic exploitation were to serve the colonizers for manpower needs and for administration and trade.”

Indigenous Pacific values, social ethos and cultural nuances remained submerged until the post-colonial period. The search for their national identity will remain an ongoing challenge for the Pacific Island communities, he added.

Singh said that “current research in Pacific Education is questioning the assumptions of Western type learning, parameters and constructs of knowledge in the curriculum offered, and the very pedagogy which has become the norm for training colleges, university teacher training and classroom teaching practices. The extent to which Pacific teachers have imbibed these values remains a matter for research. The dilemma between the old and new will remain a challenge.”