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Victorian Aboriginal Languages

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Learning in Victorian Aboriginal Languages

Victorian Aboriginal Languages

Languages can be identified differently, depending on if one is taking a community or linguistic perspective. The two views are complementary, allowing understanding of different aspects of language.

From a community perspective, a language is identified with a particular area of land and a group of people who traditionally own or belong to that land. In this view, around 38 languages are identified in Victoria, many of which are further divided according to clan groups and their traditional lands. While many words are shared between groups of Languages identified in this way, there are important differences as well, which may also be reflected in choices such as spelling.

From a linguistic perspective, a language is identified by a distinctive set of core vocabulary and elements of grammar. This view focuses on which languages form part of the same group or family, sharing words and grammar. In this view, eleven distinct languages are usually identified for Victoria, each of which can be further divided into dialects (for a list of languages as identified in this way, see Indigenous Languages of Victoria: Revival and Reclamation).

Language Revival

All Victorian Aboriginal Languages are revival languages. The Victorian Aboriginal Languages curriculum provides opportunities for students to study Victorian Aboriginal Languages that are being revived by their owners or custodians and are in various stages of reclamation.

Schools teaching revival languages will most likely be located broadly within the geographical region of the language and culture. Classes may include students who relate closely to the language and culture as well as students with varying degrees of affiliation with the language and culture, including some with no connections to the language and culture. A key expectation of this curriculum is that students will have opportunities to interact with respected community members and particular places on Country/Place (for more information, please see the 'Principles and Protocols' section below).

A context statement should be developed for each specific language to describe the distinctiveness and nature of that language, including its use in the community, the place of the language in Australian education, the nature of learning the language, and the diversity of students who will be learning the language.

For more information on language revival, see Language reconstruction, revival and reclamation (on the Aboriginal Languages and Cultures Victoria website), or the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages website.

Principles and Protocols

Appropriate consultations with relevant Aboriginal communities are always central to the development of language-specific curricula and the provision of language learning programs in schools.

Victorian government schools are required to act in accordance with the protocols set out on the DET website under 'Koorie Cross-Curricular Protocols for Victorian Government Schools'. 

For all schools, the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc (VAEAI) has produced the Protocols for Koorie Education in Victorian Primary and Secondary Schools. These protocols have been designed to assist schools to provide a welcoming environment for Aboriginal community members and how to work respectfully with the Koorie community to enrich schools' teaching and learning programs.

Establishing a Victorian Aboriginal Language program in a school

To establish a Victorian Aboriginal Languages program in a government school, approval for the program must be sought and received from:

  • the School Council of the school intending to teach the program
  • the local Aboriginal community through the Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (VAEAI can assist where there is no active LAECG)
  • the Traditional Owners of the land on which the school stands.

For more details on establishing a Victorian Aboriginal Languages program, see 10 Steps to Getting Started, on the 'Aboriginal Languages and Cultures Victoria' website.

Each Victorian Aboriginal Language is recognised as belonging to a group of people who are its owners or custodians. This means that permission and consent must be sought from the owners when developing language-specific curricula and planning language programs, including visits, excursions to the Country/Place and use of cultural material as part of the teaching and learning program.

Sufficient time and resources should be allowed for thorough and ongoing consultation processes in accordance with local contexts and situations. Sometimes there will be more than one Aboriginal Language represented in the local setting, so a decision needs to be reached as to which language or languages will be developed and taught and who is appropriate to teach and learn the language(s). The ultimate authority regarding the choice of language rests with the Traditional Owners/Custodians.

The development of a language-specific curriculum that is not the language of the land on which the school stands also requires consultation with both the local community and the community that owns the language. For assistance in identifying the appropriate people to consult, please contact VAEAI. Government schools can also seek assistance from the Department of Education and Training’s Koorie Education Coordinators; Catholic schools can contact the Education Officer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in their relevant diocese. The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) can also provide assistance.

Allowance should be made for the possibility that a different language to that preferred by the curriculum development team or the school may eventually be requested and/or chosen by the local community, or that there may be no agreement within the local community as to the choice of language. In cases where there is no agreement, the teaching and learning program would not proceed.

Schools should also ensure that language and cultural materials produced by their language programs are kept in safe-keeping places with appropriate deposit and access processes in place. In these ways, schools will be supporting communities to build, access and keep safe a range of resources for their language programs.

The diversity of Victorian Aboriginal Languages and language learners

Many languages may only be known from wordlists, which are typical of widely varying quality. Some may have sketch grammars; others may have recorded texts from which some grammar may be extracted; some, which have slipped from everyday use, may have audio and film resources. In the case of poorly documented languages where speakers no longer exist and sound or film resources were never made, there will be many gaps to fill. Source materials will need to be interpreted through comparison with each other and with closely related languages. Many revival languages are only known from written, historical records, which may need interpretation and the application of historical and comparative linguistics when rebuilding the language, with the understanding that the revived language will not match precisely the original language in structure, vocabulary and usage.

Intercultural understanding

In the languages curriculum area, the focus is on both language and culture, as students learn to communicate meaningfully across linguistic and cultural systems, and different contexts. This process involves reflection and analysis as students move between the target language and their own existing language(s). It is a reciprocal and dynamic process that develops language use and intercultural awareness and understanding.

For students learning a Victorian Aboriginal Language in a school language program, a key dimension of the curriculum involves understanding the cultural dimension that shapes and is shaped by the language. The curriculum has an intercultural language learning orientation to enable students to participate meaningfully in language and cultural experiences, to develop new ways of seeing and being in the world, and to understand more about themselves in the process.

Concepts and Skills

Concepts are the big ideas that students work with. For example, a description of a house can lead to a consideration of the concept of 'home' or 'space/place'; a description of a landmark or waterway can lead to a consideration of the Aboriginal concept of 'Country/Place' or 'kinship'. The use of concepts is necessary because concepts lend themselves more fruitfully to intercultural comparison and they engage students in personal reflection and more substantive learning.

The key concepts and knowledge for Victorian Aboriginal Languages include:

  • Country/Place: links to land, water, sea, sky
  • Identity: individual, social, cultural
  • Relationships: family and kinship, skin, totem, moiety, sections
  • History/story/journey
  • Community life: past and present
  • Ecology: management of natural resources, land-care
  • Natural environment: seasons and cycles, topographical features of the region, land-forms, plants and animals, category systems, fire, water, night sky and stars, meteorological phenomena, tides and the moon, bush tucker
  • Built environment: artefacts, tools, shelters/houses and urban environments
  • Artistic expression: story-telling, music and dance, visual design
  • Health and well-being: physical, spiritual, mental; cultural safety, body parts, age, change and growth (social, emotional)
  • Language as a system: sound, grammar, orthography, conventions in speaking, writing and signing, ways of communicating
  • Register, variation and structure: age-, gender-, and relationship-appropriate language use; regional variation; loans and cognates; Creoles and young people's talk; structural relatedness
  • Language ecology: language diversity, growth, endangerment
  • Language and cultural revival: language building, reconstruction, maintenance and development, advocacy
  • Cultural protocols: values, respect, reciprocity.

Processes include skills (for example, listening, speaking, reading, viewing, signing, writing, performing, classifying, noticing), as well as higher-order thinking processes (such as, conceptualising, interpreting, reasoning, analysing, explaining, comparing, reflecting) and the processes of collecting, describing and recording language.

Texts and resources

Text-types include oral, written, visual and multimodal texts. Country/Place, sea and sky are also considered by communities to be texts. The selection of texts is important because they define and reflect past and present, and linguistic and cultural identity, helping to make the people and experiences of a particular culture distinctive. They also provide opportunities for intercultural dialogue.

The teaching and learning program developed for a school may draw upon a variety of historical and contemporary types of text. Individual language teaching programs will benefit from incorporating a diversity of support and enrichment materials and experiences, community knowledge and individual expertise, all of which serve as texts.

While oral texts provide the rich experience and engagement characteristics of live performance, visual texts, such as ground paintings, tracks, body painting, as well as work on stone, wood or canvas, guide the learning of Victorian Aboriginal Languages.

For revival languages, historical texts form a crucial starting point for developing new language forms and uses, even though available written texts may vary greatly in detail and accuracy. However, archival sources may be skewed by the interests, intentions and biases of the original recorders and writers.

Care should also be taken to check the authenticity of archival sources: recorders can assume the speaker is from one language group when they are actually from a different group; some are attributed to locations, but the speaker might be from a different location; the meaning of some English words has changed over time; the accent of the recorder makes a difference to the way they write the word; one word in a Victorian Aboriginal Language can be translated into many different words in English, for example, generally one word is used for positive attributes, such as good, well, beautiful, handsome etc; and some recorders tried to force the grammar of Victorian Aboriginal Languages into a familiar structure, such as Latin, thereby glossing language forms with grammatical concepts that do not exist in Aboriginal Languages.

Use of a Victorian Aboriginal Language and English

Students are encouraged to use the target language as much as possible for classroom routines, social interactions, structured learning tasks, and language experimentation and practice. English is used for discussion, explanation and reflections, enabling students to develop a language for sharing ideas about language and culture.

For revival languages that are at the ‘beginning’ end of the revival spectrum, English or another community language might be used in a complementary fashion, for example, to fill in for missing words or expressions. Alternatively, language owners and the community, in general, may decide to side-step these gaps altogether, thus avoiding the need to use other languages for these purposes.

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