Aboriginal English (AE) is the first and ‘home language’ of many Aboriginal people. It is through this language that Aboriginal students learn about central aspects of their lives and their Aboriginality. An important point to note about AE is that it has derived from Aboriginal languages with an English influence, and that in many situations was an imposed language. A most potent example of this occurred when the Government placed Aboriginal people onto reserves and missions, where they were forbidden to speak in their traditional language, and were given no educative process to assist them to learn English. Those who spoke their traditional Aboriginal language were often punished by being removed from their family and expelled from the reserve or mission. AE is easily identifiable to those who use it. It is a common, diverse and unifying language.
A useful introduction to the linguistic features of AE is found in PEN 93: Aboriginal English by Diana Eades, which discusses the diversity of AE and how it differs from Standard Australian English (SAE) in systematic ways, by:
- phonology (accent and pronunciation)
- morpho-syntax (grammar)
- lexico-semantics (words and their meaning)
- pragmatics (the way that language is used in sociocultural contexts).
We do, of course recognise that there is an ongoing debate about whether AE should be considered a dialect or a language. It is important for teachers to have a fundamental understanding of AE as that knowledge will encourage them to recognise and accept that this is a dialect or language that is as linguistically valid and correct as SAE. AE is not ‘bad English’, ‘lazy English’ or ‘uneducated English’ to be corrected and eliminated.
It is worth considering, that within many school contexts, teachers cater for students who come from diverse cultures and speak a first language other than English. Their first language, pronunciation and attempts to use the English language are generally accepted, appreciated and encouraged. They are given classroom experiences that help them practise language and interact in ‘natural and meaningful contexts’ (Gee 1996: 88).
In addition, teachers regularly provide support and develop curricula to assist these students in learning their second language of SAE. However, for Aboriginal children, their home language of AE is often unappreciated, unaccepted, not heard, misinterpreted, discouraged and corrected. This hardly seems fair. There are some helpful resources for those teachers who aim for social justice. These resources will support them in valuing and ratifying the AE used by their students and enable them to reflect on its implications when making decisions about their classroom curriculum. Among these are Supporting Early Language Acquisition (1994), the Aboriginal Literacy Resource Kit (1995) and A Place of Belonging (1996).
What this PEN intends, is to acknowledge the information that such resources are able to deliver, while also drawing attention more closely to how AE is played out in everyday classroom interactions between Aboriginal students and their teachers. This is done through the theoretical underpinnings and presentation and analysis of data generated from the Baiyai Research Project.