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Thursday, 13 October 2011 14:23

Promoting bi-lingual teaching at Wadeye

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Wadeye (Wad-Air) is a remote town a few hundred kilometres from Darwin at the western edge of the Daly River. A population just over 2,000 people, with seven different languages from 20 different tribes make up the townsfolk. In fact, Wadeye is the largest Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.  The town itself is totally cut off during the wet season, and only accessible by sea or air.

Thamarrurr (Tam–ah–Rrah) School has a dedicated unit to develop educational resources in the dominant Aboriginal language of the town, Murrinh Patha.

Murrinh Patha (Moor–in–Putt–ha) is taught to each and every student. It is the predominant language used in Early Learning Literacy for all students’ right through to year three. English is a language they speak orally until then.

From year four, students can only learn Murrinh Patha in Religion class.

Sr Teresa (Tess) Ward OLSH has been teaching at Thamarrurr School for many years and says, “It is very important for the students. They have a right to learn in a language that is their own mother tongue.” English, for them, is not a second language, but a foreign one.

So they begin at school only speaking English, so they can understand it and have a comprehension of what they are saying.

“It is impossible to learn in a language you can’t speak.” Sr Tess says. “You need to understand the meaning of what you’re saying. Educationally and ethically, it is important for the children too. Research tells us that it is important for a child’s development if they are learning in a language that they speak at home.”

Even though they continue to learn Murrinh Patha in Religion classes Sr Tess would like to see the return of both languages taught right through until Year 12, as once was the case, rather than ending at year three.

Sr Tess is not afraid to say that she is “Pushing the point, but not having much success. This is doing a great disservice to the children.”

Once all students were taught Murrinh Patha right through to year 12, and Sr Tess says “those former students have significant jobs because they learned right through.” This includes one of the school’s teachers who qualified with a Bachelor of Arts in Teaching.

For now, they at least learn their Religious classes in their native language.

“From their point of view, the child’s development is better when they are learning in the language they speak at home” says National Director of Catholic Mission, Mr Martin Teulan,

“They learn spoken English before they begin literacy in English which gives the students a context to understanding. From then they are learning their Religious studies in Murrinh Patha which speaks to their heart, their spirituality in a way that English cannot.”

This World Mission Month, Catholic Mission is focusing on Indigenous people of Australia and Guatemala. “We are many people speaking many languages that express one faith.” says Mr Teulan.