• University of Sydney's Professor Jakelin Troy expresses her solidarity with Australia's Muslim population over the discrimination they have collectively faced (Supplied)
As passionate she is about her language, Professor Jakelin Troy is planning to discourage her daughter from studying an Aboriginal language at high school. The University of Sydney academic explains why the move is currently in her daughter’s best educational interests.
By
Professor Jakelin Troy from University of Sydney

4 Dec 2015 - 10:13 AM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2015 - 4:51 PM

When my now 13-year-old daughter is old enough to study for the NSW HSC, she will have the chance to study our family language Ngarigu as a subject counted towards her final exams.

For this I will be forever grateful to the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES) and all the teachers, schools, communities and language champions that have fought for the Aboriginal Languages syllabus.

This development in our education system is an extraordinary step forward – and one that was inconceivable to me when I was in high school.

Back then, the focus of any studies about our peoples was on the centre and the north of Australia, where we learnt that the ‘real’ Aboriginal people were dark, primitive and isolated, culturally and linguistically.

Passionate as I am about my language, and there is nothing I would rather see my daughter study than an Aboriginal language, I would discourage her if it was going to compromise her capacity to gain entry to university.

Urban Aboriginal people were at best a diluted version of this romanticised vision, and our languages were not even on the schools’ radars.

However, it is a great disappointment to me that BOSTES has not worked with universities to ensure that students studying our languages for the HSC will be able to have their studies counted towards university entrance through their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

Passionate as I am about my language, and there is nothing I would rather see my daughter study than an Aboriginal language, I would discourage her if it was going to compromise her capacity to gain entry to university.

I am sure I am not alone, as the number of Aboriginal students seeking entry to our universities increases exponentially each year. Students will be faced with a distressing choice between studying an Aboriginal language and potentially jeopardising their overall ATAR.

How can this be? Studying Classical Greek and Latin for the NSW HSC, neither of which have had native speakers for millennia, can help a student get into university. However, studying an Aboriginal language will not.

How far have we advanced, really?

Aboriginal languages, many of which are in healthy revival mode and have recent and continuing connections with living communities of speakers, are still in the ‘too hard’ basket.

The education system is daunted by the number of languages in NSW, where as many as 70 languages are documented, and the lack of native speakers who could teach and help develop assessment tasks. Yet this is not an obstacle for other long ‘dead’ languages that have been kept artificially alive by scholars.

In contrast Aboriginal languages, the true Australian languages, are offered at HSC level almost as a curiosity: something to be engaged with by students who are not so invested in university entry.

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Ironically, those who do engage with it will learn more about their Australian heritage by studying an Australian language than they ever will by studying English.

BOSTES has consulted widely on this new initiative and listened to Aboriginal communities, teachers and schools. However many of their concerns are not impediments to making the study of our languages ATAR-rated.

For example, making the study of our languages acceptable for ATAR won’t in anyway compromise community leadership in teaching them.

It is not too difficult to work out ways to assess students’ language proficiency, and many other languages are already taught by teachers who are not native speakers of the languages they teach.

How can this be? Studying Classical Greek and Latin for the NSW HSC, neither of which have had native speakers for millennia, can help a student get into university. However, studying an Aboriginal language will not.

Indeed these have all been concerns my colleagues and I have grappled with recently in developing the soon-to-be-released ‘Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages’ as part of the new national curriculum.

I suspect that once again, as often happens with all things Aboriginal in the education system, it is perceived as too hard to have our languages sit beside all the others on offer for ATAR.

Indeed, more than a decade ago, I faced the same arguments with the Board of Studies NSW, when I proposed a syllabus that would enable schools in NSW to teach any of our Aboriginal languages.

Now the NSW Aboriginal Languages Syllabus K-10 is old hat, and the number of schools teaching an Aboriginal language has risen from around 30 to many hundreds across all years of study to year 10.

I hope BOSTES will work with universities to see the teaching of our languages in NSW schools become ATAR-rated in the very near future. No student needs to make the difficult decision to compromise their university entry in order to study an Australian language.

This commentary was written by Professor Jakelin Troy: a proud Ngarigu woman whose country is the Snowy Mountains of NSW. She is also the director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney.