First Nations students and the English curriculum area: differentiating with a language ecology perspective

Denise Angelo, The Australian National University
Jasmine Seymour, Darug Custodian Aboriginal Corporation
Sally Dixon, University of New England



  • Introduction
  • Facts about First Nations language ecologies 
  • Language ecologies and differentiation
  • Differentiating uses of literature in classrooms 
  • References

Dr Denise Angelo

Dr Denise Angelo is a qualified primary teacher and linguist. She works with First Nations peoples in different language ecologies on their traditional languages, new contact languages and English as an Additional Language/Dialect.

Dr Denise Angelo

Jasmine Seymour is a Dharug woman, a primary school teacher, an award-winning author/illustrator and Dharug language activist.

Dr Denise Angelo

Dr Sally Dixon is a Linguistics lecturer at the University of New England. Her research centres on language use in sites of language contact with a focus on the multilingual repertoires of First Nations students.

Think of all the missing books. The books that have not been made because their stories are too painful. The books that are not made because a publisher does not believe its story is one that will be bought. Indigenous peoples are natural story tellers. Let us tell our stories from our places in our own voices. 

Jasmine Seymour


First Nations students of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds bring different language strengths and language learning needs to the classroom depending on a range of factors, such as where they live and their family’s history, as well as unique opportunities they might have had individually. This means that different First Nations students can have different experiences of English and of other languages too, which clearly impacts on how teachers engage effectively with their students’ learning. It also means that, from a language perspective, there is no one-size-fits-all teaching program that could possibly encompass all First Nations students. Fortunately, there are tools to help teachers navigate this rich and dynamic language landscape, and ‘language ecologies’, the focus of this paper, is one of them. ‘Language ecologies’ are what we call the language contexts associated with particular places. A language ecology refers to the array of languages that is spoken in an area, and how much of each is spoken. This framing of on-the-ground language situations is useful for schools and teachers because it draws attention to the patterns of how languages are used in a location, such as a community, suburb, town or city. Most primary schools service a particular area and thinking in terms of a language ecology can help us attend to how languages are used by First Nations students’ communities. 

In this paper we take a look at the major types of First Nations language ecologies on a national scale and show how this translates into teaching considerations in schools. Our intention is to inform teachers, and so assist us all to differentiate our planning, pedagogy and resources accordingly. We are building on, but also updating and augmenting, previous PETAA Papers. These have described inclusive practices that give broad guidance about responding to Aboriginal students’ cultural backgrounds or have addressed just one kind of Aboriginal student language background, Aboriginal English(es) (PEN 093, PEN 120, PEN 150). This paper also adds an Indigenous perspective to PETAA Papers on pedagogies that acknowledge multilingual classrooms and harness students’ multilingual repertoires (PETAA Paper 213).

A language ecology obviously exerts a major influence over the different kinds of languages that students are exposed to and interact in, and consequently how much they know of them. However, a main aim of this paper is to explain that First Nations students are a linguistically diverse cohort, so while we emphasise that the local language ecology is an (important) factor that accounts for students’ language strengths and learning needs, it is not the only one. Family members might hail from other places/other language ecologies and students themselves might also have spent considerable time with them or been living elsewhere too.

First, we’ll do a deep dive into facts about First Nations language ecologies. Then we will look at the ramifications of language ecologies for guiding teaching, particularly English teaching. Finally, we’ll look at different uses of literature depending on each ecology.

1. Facts about First Nations Language ecologies

About language ecologies 

The American linguist Einar Haugen is generally credited with developing the idea of a language ecology. He was interested in understanding the position of standard, regional and written forms of Norwegian, his heritage language, in Norway. A ‘language ecology’ is what he dubbed his holistic view of how language varieties are used: who is speaking/writing which languages, how much, for what purposes, with whom, with what institutional/media resources and with what attitudes. We applied this language ecology way of thinking to First Nations contexts for the purpose of researching the connection between well-being and Indigenous languages (Angelo, O’Shannessy et al, 2019) for the 2020 National Indigenous Languages Report. We developed a model showing how the type of language spoken as fluent first and main languages between community members is a predictor of the type(s) which are spoken less often, less fluently, with fewer people etc (Angelo & Poetsch, 2019). Using 'types' is helpful on a national scale, as otherwise there are so many different individual languages and varieties that it is difficult to form an overview. You can hear First Nations people speaking about their experiences in their different language ecologies at Language Ecologies Explained.

Table 1. L1s and L2s in First Nations language ecologies
spoken as the first and main language  
language(s) usually learned in addition to the L1
a traditional language  standard Australian English 
a ‘new’ contact language  traditional language(s) Standard Australian English 
an English  traditional language(s) 

About L1s

L1 is a common abbreviation for the first and main language which children acquire from birth from family/caregiver interactions. Sometimes this is termed a mother tongue. When talking at the level of a community, the main spoken language used between members of a language community is called the vernacular. Children can learn more than one language from birth; sometimes these are both equal/balanced in their language repertoire; often one is used more than the other, a perfectly natural aspect of multilingualism. Note that in Indigenous contexts, the term First Nations has a counterpart First Languages (capitalised). These terms draw attention to the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as Australia’s first, original and continuing inhabitants and owners of lands, since before English colonisation to the present day. So, First Languages means ‘traditional languages’ (see below). While all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students would be connected to one or more First Language through their family inheritance, many would not speak them as their L1. As a general rule of thumb, it is considered pedagogically sound practice that children have their first experiences of education including literacy in their L1. A small number of schools in remote areas have a long history of providing this service to their First Nations students.

About L2s 

L2 is a common abbreviation for any other languages learned in addition to the L1(s). The terminology in this space is plentiful, and includes second, subsequent, other, additional etc languages. Compared to L1 acquisition, L2 learning has more variable outcomes, depending on the learning context. Second language learning in schools can be differentiated using many different parameters, including:

  • ecology: whether exposure to the target language is only in the classroom, or additionally outside in everyday interactions;
  • intentional teaching: whether there are planned lessons about the target language, or it is used and supported in more unplanned or incidental ways;
  • proficiency: whether the 'amount' of the target language that learners have already acquired is catered to, for example, via curriculum differentiated for stages;
  • relationship to classroom curriculum: whether the target language is a standalone curriculum component, such as a language subject, or is incorporated into learning other curriculum areas, for example, a Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approach to teaching some curriculum subjects or EAL/D support across the curriculum;
  • extent: how much the target language is used in the classroom, for example, full immersion (or possible submersion if the medium of instruction is untaught and unsupported), dual language programs for a sizable proportion or standalone language subject taught once a week.

Although L2 can be used as a generic designation for a language learned in addition to an L1, this does not capture the special connectedness that many First Nations peoples feel when they are learning their traditional language as an L2. 

About traditional languages

Traditional languages, also sometimes called First Languages (not to be confused with L1s, see above) or Australian languages, are the original languages belonging to particular tracts of Country and their peoples. Between 250—600 traditional languages were spoken prior to colonisation and the imposition of settler-colonial society. These languages are complex and entirely unrelated to English. You can hear spoken examples on the 50 words project and see written examples on the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages (LAAL), which houses many decades of Aboriginal language texts produced for school programs in the Northern Territory (including Kriol, a ‘new’ contact language, see below).

As Table 1 shows, in some places, First Nations peoples may speak:

  • a traditional language as their L1 and use it as their main everyday form of communication with each other;
  • other languages as their L1, and so learn their traditional language as their L2, perhaps informally from family or perhaps in formal settings like school.

Where traditional languages are learned as L2s rather than L1s there is a range of learning situations, such as:

  • an older generation of fully proficient speakers can teach younger generations (revitalisation);
  • adults are researching their language from rememberers and archives so the whole community can learn (reawakening). 

In all situations, there is likely to be more than one traditional language represented in the community, including those traditional languages which are:

  • the language of the traditional owners for that area; 
  • languages from surrounding areas with long-term associations with the area; 
  • the languages of incomers who have moved or been moved to the area

The traditional languages in a First Nations individual’s personal family heritage can be drawn from all of these contexts.

About 'new' contact languages 

In some First Nations communities, a ‘new’ Indigenous contact language might be the type of language which is usually spoken between community members and learned from childhood as the L1. They are collectively called ‘contact languages’ because they have a fusion of influences derived from historical contact between speakers of one or more traditional languages, English and English-based varieties, and/or other languages. In the 2020 National Indigenous Languages Report, contact languages are termed ‘new languages’, emphasising that they have a more recent history when compared to traditional languages. Some of these contact languages are widespread and fairly well recognised, like Kriol and Yumplatok/Torres Strait Creole. Others are more local like Light Warlpiri, Gurindji Kriol, Lockhart River Creole, Yarrie Lingo, Alyawarr English etc. While awareness and acceptance of Kriol and Yumplatok/Torres Strait Creole as full and proper languages have been growing for over four decades, recognition of other new languages is often very recent and in many cases still developing.

About Englishes

Most First Nations peoples speak an English as their L1 learned as babies and it is the main language used between community members, and with others every day, at work or school. Where a traditional or contact language is the L1 of community members and their main language of interaction, then English is learned as an additional language, to the extent that there is opportunity and support to do so. Standard Australian English is the variety of English that is generally utilised in Australian institutions, government services, the media and private enterprises, and in schools. There are also Indigenised Englishes that are spoken almost exclusively by First Nations peoples, ‘Aboriginal English’ and ‘Torres Strait English’ varieties. These Indigenised Englishes are a marker of identity, often a local identity, as most Indigenised Englishes have elements that signal a particular area. There is a great range of Indigenised Englishes. Some are very close to Standard Australian English and rarely cause miscommunication due to language differences; some are so different that teachers and students need to work at understanding each other. Like contact languages, Indigenised Englishes can also be misjudged, for example, as (erroneously) careless or deficient English.

About First Nations communities

In this paper, we use the term 'community', as in 'First Nations community', to mean the local network of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples who share common language practices. The First Nations 'community' will be the entire population in some places. In other places the 'community' might be less easy to identify from an outsider non-Indigenous perspective. For example, it might consist of several different families in the area, or there might be a few groups with different backgrounds who form different communities. 

2. Language ecologies and differentiation

The framework of language ecologies alerts us to the broad patterns in the languages acquired by First Nations students and used with their community. On this basis we can think about how we might work with the language strengths First Nations students bring to school and the language learning needs we can support them with.


The full version of this paper is available to PETAA members only. To gain access to the complete paper, either login to your member account or sign up for membership today.

Sign up for membership                 Existing member login