Language in Education: An Australian Perspective

Language in Education: An Australian Perspective

Naomi Fillmore, Australia

Like Nepal, Australia is a linguistically and culturally diverse nation. The most recent Australian census in 2016 recorded over 300 different languages spoken in Australian homes, including traditional Indigenous languages spoken before colonisation as well as European, Asian, and Pacific languages spoken by successive generations of migrants. More than one-fifth of Australians speak a language other than Standard Australian English at home, and in some areas, this percentage is much higher; for example, in one suburb of Western Sydney, more than 70 per cent of people report speaking a language other than English at home[1].

A significant source of Australia’s cultural and linguistic diversity stems from our Indigenous First Nations peoples, represented through two main cultural groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Aboriginal culture is the longest continuous culture of anywhere in the world; recent archaeological findings prove what Aboriginal people have always known, that they have continuously lived on the Australian continent for over 65,000 years[2].

There are over 250 distinct languages Indigenous languages in Australia, however, these are in various stages of development and vitality. Australian Indigenous languages are being lost at among the highest rates in the world. There are around 15 languages that have a strong cohort of young, fluent, speakers[3], and many more that are being actively revitalised. In remote communities, where Indigenous people are more strongly represented than in cities, around two-thirds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children speak some words of an Indigenous language[4].

The linguistic diversity of Australian communities is naturally reflected in the country’s education system. Over two-thirds of teachers around the country teach in schools where a significant portion of students speak a language other than English as their first language[5]. In some schools, almost 100 per cent of children encounter English for the first time when they arrive at the school gates[6].

Yet this beautiful diversity has not always been reflected in our school system. While Australia technically has no official language, the de facto official language is English and formal education (including early childhood education) is delivered primarily through English.

Fortunately, many decades of Indigenous and migrant community advocacy have led to new policy and curriculum spaces opening up for languages and dialects other than English to be taught, developed, and valued in the Australian education system.

This article will share some of the policy, pedagogy and practice changes that are supporting Indigenous and migrant children participate fully in education.

Australia’s International Commitments

Providing linguistically inclusive education to all students is a basic human right that Australia must uphold. Australia is a signatory to several international agreements and treaties that protect the right of Indigenous peoples to their languages in education. These include:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948, Article 19) enshrines the right to freedom of expression and called upon Member States ‘to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.’
  • The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007, Article 14) states: ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.’
  • The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, Article 30) states: ‘A child […] shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.’
  • The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG, Goal 4.5) set the following target: ‘by 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.’

‘Two Way’ Education

First language or Mother Tongue-Based education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia is often referred to as ‘Two Way’ education. ‘Two Way’ bilingual educational refers to the process of building from Indigenous language and knowledge before scaffolding students across into engagement with western, English knowledge.

Katrina Tjitayi, an educational leader in the Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal community, describes the purpose of the approach as ‘to mould and shape young Aboriginal people into competent bilingual, motivated, driven and focused young adults with a strong sense of purpose in life, to confidently function and operate in two worlds’[7].

As early as the 1970s, Aboriginal organisations have called for greater representation of their languages in formal school systems through greater uptake of ‘Two Way’ bilingual programs, and this message has been consistently repeated throughout the decades[8].

The Northern Territory region of Australia, which has the highest concentration of Indigenous students in the country, had a thriving ‘Two Way’ bilingual program throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Unfortunately, a conservative government decision in 2009 led to the successful program being scrapped, however, this decision is slowly being reversed, and the Northern Territory government (as well as other state governments) have in recent years adopted more inclusive language in education policies.

To support these government policies, many non-government and community-based organisations are delivering innovative solutions to support ‘Two Way’ education, for example, using technology to document and teach Indigenous languages, or engaging young people to teach alongside Elders and professional teachers.

Australian Policy to Practice

At the policy level, the Australian governments at both state/territory and national levels have made commitments to open spaces for teaching Indigenous Languages in Australian schools (education is managed by six state and two territory government levels in Australia).

At the national level, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages provides pathways for schools to teach Indigenous languages as first, revival or second languages[9]. The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration, signed by all state and territory education ministers, sets out that ‘all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young peoples must be empowered to achieve their full learning potential […] and embrace their cultures, languages and identities’[10]. The Early Years Learning Framework (the policy that governs early childhood in Australia) acknowledges that all children “have the right to be continuing users of their home language”[11].

Many states have their own policy documents related to the teaching or revitalisation of Indigenous languages. For example, the South Australian Bilingual Education Policy seeks to ‘Strengthen and reinvigorate the learning of Aboriginal languages in children’s centres, preschools and schools’ and a ‘move toward a bilingual education model’[12]. In New South Wales, where most Aboriginal children are generally heritage learners of traditional languages, the NSW Aboriginal Languages Act 2017 seeks to ‘promote, reawaken, nurture and grow Aboriginal languages across NSW’[13].

Translating policy into practice requires clear, practicable implementation strategies with sustained commitment and resourcing[14]. Indigenous communities, teachers and parents must be engaged in the transformative process of implementing language policy through consistent consultation, interaction and support. Pedagogically-focused teaching and learning materials in Indigenous languages are crucial to sustaining policy at the school level[15].

Australian Research

While the educational benefits of first language education are well known internationally[16], research in Australia has found a wide range of other benefits that come from learning in a child’s mother tongue or heritage language. These include:

  • Second language learning benefits: Australian research has shown that the benefits of first language education extend to learning a second language (such as English); for example, one study found a positive relationship between learning an Aboriginal language and developing decoding skills in English[17].
  • Student engagement: students are more engaged and ready to learn when they can understand the language of instruction. When bilingual education programs were terminated in one territory in 2009, student attendance rates dropped dramatically to an average of just 30 per cent[18].
  • Social and emotional benefits: for example, in Australian Indigenous communities implementing bilingual education programs, children have reported a greater sense of self-worth and acceptance[19]. Conversely, children living in areas where language is being lost have been shown to have high levels of cumulative stress[20].
  • Physical and health benefits: for example, young people who speak an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language are less likely to be victims of physical or threatened violence[21], and Aboriginal people who reported stronger connectedness to culture displayed lower sickness and mortality rates’[22].

Looking Forward

‘Two Way’ education in Indigenous languages supports Australian children’s learning, engagement, and long-term health and well-being. Important policy commitments have been made at the state and national levels, in line with Australia’s international commitments and treaties, and government and non-government organisations are working together to find creative ways to deliver quality education in Indigenous languages. As we look to beginning the International Decade of Indigenous Languages from 2021-2031, Australian ‘Two-Way’ bilingual education promises to deliver strong outcomes for the next generation of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Author Bio:

Naomi Fillmore is a language, education and development specialist with experience managing and researching language and education initiatives in Australia, Nepal, Indonesia, and the Philippines. At present, she is the First Languages Coordinator for the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF) based in Sydney, Australia.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Language Spoken at Home by Sex” (Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016).

[2] National Museum of Australia, “Evidence of First Peoples,” accessed May 31, 2020,

[3] Doug Marmion, Kazuko Obata, and Jakelin Troy, Community, Identity, Wellbeing: The Report of the Second National Indigenous Languages Survey (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2014).

[4] ABS, “National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey” (Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008).

[5] Sue Thomson and Kylie Hillman, “The Teaching and Learning International Survey 2018 – Volume 1: Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners” (Camberwell: Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), 2019).

[6] Bruce Wilson, “A Share in the Future: Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory,” 2014, 304.

[7] Karina Lester et al., “Red Dirt Curriculum: Re-Imagining Remote Education” (Sidney Myer Rural Lecture 3, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, 2013).

[8] Tom Calma, “They Are Our Children, This Is Our Community” (AIATSIS Research Symposium on Bilingual Education, Canberra, 2009),

[9] ACARA, “Australian Curriculum Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages” (Canberra: Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), 2015),

[10] Education Council, “Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration” (Alice Springs: Education Council, December 2019),

[11] Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, “Belonging, Being & Becoming – The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF)” (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), July 16, 2009).

[12] “Aboriginal Education Strategy: 2019 to 2029” (2018),

[13] “Aboriginal Languages Act 2017,” Pub. L. No. 51 (2017),

[14] Susan Malone, “Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Eduation: Implications for Education Policy” (Seminar on Education Policy and the Right to Education: Towards More Equitable Outcomes for South Asia’s Children, Kathmandu, September 17, 2007).

[15] R. B. Kaplan, R. B. Baldauf, and Nkonko Kamwangamalu, “Why Educational Language Plans Sometimes Fail,” Current Issues in Language Planning 12, no. 2 (2011): 105–124,

[16] See Virginia P Collier and Wayne P Thomas, “The Astounding Effectiveness of Dual Language Education for All,” 2004, 20.

[17] Caroline Jones, Michael J. Chandler, and Kevin Lowe, “Sounds, Spelling and Learning to Read an Aboriginal Language,” in Re-Awakening Languages: Theory and Practice in the Revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous Languages, ed. John Hobson et al. (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2011), 281–92.

[18] Our Languages, “Learn An Ancient Tongue, Says Linguist,” Our Languages, January 20, 2011,

[19] Inge Kral, “The Literacy Question in Remote Indigenous Australia” (Canberra: Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University, 2009).

[20] Stephen R. Zubrick et al., “The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: The Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Aboriginal Children and Young People” (Perth: Curtin University of Technology, 2005).

[21] Commonwealth of Australia, Our Land Our Languages: Language Learning in Indigenous Communities (Canberra: House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, 2012).

[22] Kevin G. Rowley et al., “Lower than Expected Morbidity and Mortality for an Australian Aboriginal Population: 10-Year Follow-up in a Decentralised Community,” The Medical Journal of Australia 188, no. 5 (March 3, 2008): 283–87,

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