Aboriginal kids judged below average in the Western education system, yet - how many languages can you speak?

Imagine just for one second, what it would be like; that every day you wake up, you have to go to work and speak an entirely new language, learn an entirely new way of life. A life that your family, your culture has had no idea about. Everyday as an adult, you have to learn to speak this new language because - you can’t buy supplies at the shop to feed your family, you can’t buy clothes to clothe your kids; imagine you had to do that; pretty much learn how to live, an entirely new way.

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I have just spent the week in remote North East Arnhem Land, where the locals are still caught between the two worlds. The worlds of traditional life, that has enabled their family and ancestors to thrive for the very least 65,000 years, and the world since colonisation a mere 229 years.

It is often spoken at large about, how low Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people’s, numeracy and literacy rates can be.

I delivered educational sessions during the past week, to kids as young as 5 & 6 years of age. There were times I needed one of the locals to translate my message in order for kids to understand. You see, when Ralph, a local police and education engagement officer was helping me, the kids understood with ease, you could see their eyes light up with excitement when I was relaying my message.

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Some of these kids, 5 & 6 years of age could speak up to 5 different languages. If you live in one community and they spoke a different language to your fathers community, also your mothers community, right there you pick up and learn 3 languages - throw English on top of that, often said one of the hardest languages to grasp and speak; I would consider these amazing young 5 & 6 year old students as amazingly, incredibly intelligent.

How many people reading this blog in English, go home and speak 3 or 4 different languages in your own home?

How many Non Indigenous kids at 5 & 6 years of age fluently speak up to 5 different languages; I’ll even ask - how many of Australian politicians speak up to 5 different languages as adults; the very people who sign off on the reports to say First Nation people are well below average, I ask what average?? Why are we judging young people on a western based education model that many remote communities have absolutely no concept of - this is what we call assimilation at its best.

Imagine you were out in these communities forced to live and learn their way of life; which might I add is amazing and beautiful - would you cope, would you thrive?? Forced to hunt for your own dinner, feed your family, could you do it.

I asked the kids to teach me some language, Yolngu Matha - I tried, I wasn’t very good, In fact I felt hopeless but I tried. Some kids even chuckled at my word pronunciation; in that moment, I felt what is was like for them; I felt shy, I felt embarrassed, I thought it was too hard, I wanted to revert back to what’s easy for me - English, their 4th and 5th learnt language.

I am someone who would consider myself reasonably strong in my culture, a culture that I have had to search and re learn because it was stolen and taken away from me and my ancestors in the past 229 years - I am a product of assimilation, but I am doing everything everyday to find, re learn and practice the old ways. Even though me considering myself a strong Wiradjuri man, up there, I was being taught by infants - kids that are just doing their best, surviving and thriving in two worlds.

Why do we consider these kids below average just because they don’t thrive in English & a western based system  - they are amazing and smart, and speaking multiple languages many would consider them smart.

It is time to look at the world through a different lens also.. 

Thank you North East Arnhem Land communities of Galiwinku, Yirrkala, Nhulunbuy & Gapuwayak for reaffirming to me me how extremely beautiful our culture is, and how very little I actually know about it & of course, being so loving and caring.

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I went in a leader in the western world teaching kids, but a learner in the Yolngu world, getting taught by infants.

Extremely humbled to share this experience.

Mandang Guwu (Thank You - Wiradjuri)

JW