As an Aboriginal woman, I’ve learned education is essential to our freedom

I wrote an article today.

I am from both the Bardi and Gija peoples of the Kimberley. My mother, her mother, and all my mothers before her were Aboriginal women. I am the product of past polices and practices, but also of love and reconciliation.

I grew up all over Australia. My family never really settled and looking back, I think it was the pull between black and white, between my mother’s country in the Kimberley and my Gudiya (non-Aboriginal) father’s place in the Blue Mountains that replicated my own inner turmoil in understanding Aboriginality.

In all honesty, I don’t think it was until I reached my mid-30s that I could actually reconcile where I stood as an Aboriginal woman in Australian society today. I can say, however, it was education that enabled me to solidify my strengths as a black woman, and come to clearly see the current situation for our people in this country. I see education as essential to our freedom and self-determination.

When it comes to the determinants of health and wellbeing, Aboriginal people draw the short straw every time. On the one hand, high incarceration rates, poor health, disproportionate suicide rates, and low education outcomes are, in many people’s minds, our fault and synonymous with being Aboriginal. On the other hand, if we get too smart and finish school, or go to university, or get a good job, or even live in the city, then we are somehow less Aboriginal, or not Aboriginal, or not Aboriginal at all.

To make matters more complex Aboriginal people are also blamed for the internalised racism that sometimes shows itself as lateral violence, “like mudcrabs in a bucket, pulling each other down”.

I’m no Steve Irwin, but as far as I know mudcrabs belong in mangroves, not in buckets. We need to look closer at the system that puts the crabs in the bucket, and ask why. It’s not an easy task, but until systems actively address colonisation, intergenerational trauma, powerlessness and the ongoing experiences of racism and discrimination that Aboriginal people face daily, we will not see parity of health or other social determinants, so often flung around in Australian gap-closing policy discourse.

It is with this background, and as a mum, community member, trained teacher, and the recently appointed Team Leader for Aboriginal Education at Catholic Education Western Australia (CEWA), I can offer some views on Aboriginal Education.

Truth, justice and reconciliation: an educational approach
As an undergraduate teacher at the University of Notre Dame in Broome, I was lucky enough to be a student of Professor Patrick Dodson. Prof Dodson taught me that reconciliation is a process, a three-part puzzle built on spiritual principles like truth (confession), justice (atonement) and forgiveness (reconciliation). So for me, pushing solely for forgiveness (reconciliation) is not unlike applying a bandaid to a deep cut and ripping it off, reapplying a new one and tearing it off again. The bandaid creates a raw sore that scars, and takes much longer to heal.

Throwing funding at education programs that attempt to “fix the Aboriginal problem” by focusing narrowly on attendance, or correct parenting courses, or one-off scholarships lays blame exclusively with Aboriginal people. It is like saying to Aboriginal families, “If you only made your kids go to school, or knew how to parent properly, or weren’t so poor, then you would succeed. Just try harder”.

I’ve heard school leaders say that “solving the Aboriginal problem” was just a matter of funding: “Give me the dollars and I can get Aboriginal children to school and educate them”.

Comparably, force-feeding school staff with umpteen cultural awareness courses, or raising the Aboriginal flag once a year, or having kids paint coloured hands in the school quad and posting pictures in the school newsletter are also not solutions. As far as I am concerned, educational outcome parity is not solved with deficit-based programs, an open cheque-book, or token Aboriginal events, but rather by doing more with what school communities already have using the three-part puzzle approach.

An education system that is prepared to examine itself and determine the truth of its readiness and ability to teach Aboriginal students is courageous and innovative, and can achieve two outcomes.

The first is effectively teaching Aboriginal students. The second is ensuring that all students and staff understand Aboriginal histories, languages, spirituality and cultures. At a minimum, school leaders must connect with their system’s Aboriginal Education team to assess their school-wide cultural competency.

The CEWA Aboriginal Education Team has formulated a situational analysis grid that we work on collaboratively with schools to assess their cultural competency. The grid considers the school’s Aboriginal Education Plan, the implementation of the CEWA Aboriginal Education Policy, the teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, AITSL Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, use of Personalised Learning Plans, adherence to The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015, and the schools engagement with their Aboriginal Teaching Assistants.

It is a process that requires trust, truth and time in order to establish an essential foundation enabling schools to move forward in proving equitable education for Aboriginal students.

Equality does not always mean justice, as the well-known cartoon depicts:

Once the past has been understood, and the situation of now has been realised, then strength-based, high expectation programs can be implemented. The key to programs like this are consultation and engagement. Here’s a tip about Aboriginal people and a big reason why a plethora of programs fail: we are sick and tired of having things done TO us, rather than WITH us.

Schools must engage with the local Aboriginal community. Every education system has an Aboriginal education department and that deadly squad will have connections to the local school community, along with suggestions for culturally appropriate, strength-based school programs and teaching approaches.

At CEWA schools, Aboriginal Teaching Assistants are essential links to community, not only supporting Aboriginal students, but also fostering school-community engagement and connections. ATAs help teachers implement effective teaching and learning practices and the integration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures in the school curriculum.

In addition to ATAs, affirmative action that increases the number of Aboriginal people on school boards, committees and throughout education systems should be implemented. To affect systemic change, more Aboriginal people need to be employed in leadership roles, and Aboriginal staff need to be spread out across schools and organisations, not just in the “Aboriginal” spaces.

We need cross-system programs that look beyond Aboriginal people’s “natural sporting ability” as a means of engagement and towards using our culture as a way to develop academic excellence. These programs need to be time-rich and truly academically engaging.

Celebrities wearing cool jumpers, random non-Aboriginal mentors, and a trip to a university once a term does not cut it. In addition, we need more programs that intrinsically motivate Aboriginal girls to succeed in science and math, to become teachers, doctors or engineers, beyond sporting or modeling choices.

We need to deal with attitudes of low-expectations that get many Aboriginal students pushed down non-Atar pathways, because teachers believe students can “get into university via an Aboriginal pathway (bridging course) anyway”.

Education systems must stem the tide of low expectations. The Aspiration Initiative’s Academic Enrichment Program is an example of such a program, which provides community-based, academically-focused support that not only strengthens Aboriginal identity, but also empowers and motivates students to achieve educational success.

Reconciliation, as part of an educational approach, will only develop with a whole system commitment to addressing unresolved education issues that have stemmed from the colonial hangover.

This commitment requires genuine dialogue. It means teachers, principals, and education system employees at all levels actively learning about our histories, languages, cultures and spirituality, and understanding that racism (both systemic and otherwise) makes Aboriginal people sick.

Reconciliation can only occur after schools and school systems address whiteness and actively move from non-racism to anti-racism. There are many anti-bullying policies, but do school systems have anti-racism policies? Training educators and education staff how to take a stance to become anti-racist will assist to remove the shadow of paternalism, strengthen student ability, and lift teacher and system expectations of students.

A day will come when the word “decolonise” is clearly understood, not as an attack on non-Aboriginal Australians, but as a crucially important process to ensure an equitable education for Aboriginal Australian children, which will benefit everyone.

Reconciliation in the education space requires non-Aboriginal people to share a part of themselves, rather than just the other way around. It is an authentic conversation, a reciprocal relationship based on two-way learning that recognises the power imbalance.

As part of the three-piece puzzle, reconciliation in schools can look like community-run NAIDOC week activities, elders engaging in classrooms, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, languages, cultures and spirituality embedded in the classroom curriculum, reconciliation action plans, Aboriginal language classes, the recognition of Aboriginal English use in classrooms, two-way learning, Sorry Day events and acknowledgement of country at every assembly.

Reconciliation means different things to different people in different contexts. A truth, justice and reconciliation educational approach is one way to look at building a more equitable education system.

It is time to move beyond merely improving the old education model; it’s time for education systems to transform. The opportunity to stop ripping the bandaid off and begin by dealing with the wound is now.

Malcolm X: Who are you?

Some great questions to ask yourself, if you are someone who has been affected by slavery or colonisation.

Who are you? You don’t know? Don’t tell me “negro” that’s nothing. What were you before the white man named you a negro? And where were you and what did you have? What was yours? What language did you speak then? What was your name? It couldn’t have been Smith or Jones, or Butch or Powell. That wasn’t your name. They don’t have those kind of names where you and I came from. No. What was YOUR name? And why don’t you NOW know what your name was THEN? Where did it go? Where did you lose it? Who took it? And how did he take it? What tongue did you speak? How did the man take your tongue? Where is your history? How did the man wipe out your history? What did the man do to make you as dumb, as you are right now?

KRIOL-INGGLISH DIKSHENRI – Kriol-English Dictionary

Screenshot 2014-08-17 22.06.14


Click the picture to head over to a Kriol-English Dictionary by Jason Lee.

Adapted from:

SIL-AAIB. 1996. Kriol Dictionary: With Kriol to English and English to Kriol: First Draft, February, 1986: Reprinted: May, 1996. Darwin: SIL-AAIB.
SIL-AAIB. 1986. Kriol Dictionary: With Kriol to English and English to Kriol: First Draft, February, 1986. Darwin: SIL-AAIB.

Sandefur, J.R. & J.L. Sandefur. 1979. Beginnings of a Ngukurr-Bamyili Creole Dictionary. Work Papers of SIL-AAB, Series A, Volume 4. Darwin: SIL-AAB.


Broome English

Here is a template for a t-shirt that was worn by some Broome school teachers. It was made to show the kids that their home language is valid and important…. and too deadly!

Screenshot 2014-07-17 07.10.45


How many phrases can you translate?

Aboriginal English – Kriol – Traditional Language

Happy NAIDOC Week!

I am an Aboriginal Australian studying Linguistics at the University of Oxford. Rather than write my thesis (ugh), I signed up for Deadly Bloggers’ Carnival and thought I’d use my turn to share some Aboriginal English and Kriol from Western Australia.

Both of these videos are from youtube and are infomercials showing how to be a good tenants for the Department of Housing. It is really cool to compare the speech of both videos.


This first video is listed on youtube as Kriol. I tend to think it is a lighter version of Kriol and leans towards to the Aboriginal English end of the continua. Having said this, we don’t know exactly where it is from, but I have a feeling it might be Broome Kriol.


This second video is listed as English, however you can here some Aboriginal English words sneaking into the speech. Taking into account the rhythm, speed and intonation of speech in addition to the AE words, I would say that this is a very light Aboriginal English. (I’ve just discovered that I can’t embed the vid – but watch it in youtube by clicking on the link)


Of course, Aboriginal English can change from mob to mob, area to area and from something closer to English or more towards Kriol. Aboriginal English speakers are not one homogenous group, so what is shown here will not apply to all speakers. But, it is still pretty cool to have some examples to look at.


As an added awesome bonus – here is the same youtube clip (with different actors) speaking in Walmajarri


Jamila Lyiscott: 3 ways to speak English

Poet and educator
Jamila Lyiscott weaves words about language, education and the African Diaspora. Full bio


Today, a baffled lady observed the shell where my soul dwells

And announced that I’m “articulate”

Which means that when it comes to enunciation and diction

I don’t even think of it

‘Cause I’m “articulate”

So when my professor asks a question

And my answer is tainted with a connotation of urbanized suggestion

There’s no misdirected intention

Pay attention

‘Cause I’m “articulate”

So when my father asks, “Wha’ kinda ting is dis?”

My “articulate” answer never goes amiss

I say “father, this is the impending problem at hand”

And when I’m on the block I switch it up just because I can

So when my boy says, “What’s good with you son?”

I just say, “I jus’ fall out wit dem people but I done!”

And sometimes in class

I might pause the intellectual sounding flow to ask

“Yo! Why dese books neva be about my peoples”

Yes, I have decided to treat all three of my languages as equals

Because I’m “articulate”

But who controls articulation?

Because the English language is a multifaceted oration

Subject to indefinite transformation

Now you may think that it is ignorant to speak broken English

But I’m here to tell you that even “articulate” Americans sound foolish to the British

So when my Professor comes on the block and says, “Hello”

I stop him and say “Noooo …

You’re being inarticulate … the proper way is to say ‘what’s good’”

Now you may think that’s too hood, that’s not cool

But I’m here to tell you that even our language has rules

So when Mommy mocks me and says “ya’ll-be-madd-going-to-the-store”

I say “Mommy, no, that sentence is not following the law

Never does the word “madd” go before a present participle

That’s simply the principle of this English”

If I had the vocal capacity I would sing this from every mountaintop,

From every suburbia, and every hood

‘Cause the only God of language is the one recorded in the Genesis

Of this world saying “it is good”

So I may not always come before you with excellency of speech

But do not judge me by my language and assume

That I’m too ignorant to teach

‘Cause I speak three tongues

One for each:

Home, school and friends

I’m a tri-lingual orator

Sometimes I’m consistent with my language now

Then switch it up so I don’t bore later

Sometimes I fight back two tongues

While I use the other one in the classroom

And when I mistakenly mix them up

I feel crazy like … I’m cooking in the bathroom

I know that I had to borrow your language because mines was stolen

But you can’t expect me to speak your history wholly while mines is broken

These words are spoken

By someone who is simply fed up with the Eurocentric ideals of this season

And the reason I speak a composite version of your language

Is because mines was raped away along with my history

I speak broken English so the profusing gashes can remind us

That our current state is not a mystery

I’m so tired of the negative images that are driving my people mad

So unless you’ve seen it rob a bank stop calling my hair bad

I’m so sick of this nonsensical racial disparity

So don’t call it good unless your hair is known for donating to charity

As much as has been raped away from our people

How can you expect me to treat their imprint on your language

As anything less than equal

Let there be no confusion

Let there be no hesitation

This is not a promotion of ignorance

This is a linguistic celebration

That’s why I put “tri-lingual” on my last job application

I can help to diversify your consumer market is all I wanted them to know

And when they call me for the interview I’ll be more than happy to show that

I can say:

“What’s good”


And of course …“Hello”

Because I’m “articulate”

© TED Conferences, LLC


Aboriginal ways of using English

Taken from> Interview with author Diana Eades


Photo on 13-07-2014 at 3.36 pm

Me with Diana’s new book.


Transcript: April 2013

What exactly do applied linguists do, and how might your work be relevant to a non-academic audience? In Australia, are there many people working in the part of applied linguistics you work in?

Applied linguists take findings from linguistic research, and apply them to real world questions, issues, problems or debates. Most applied linguistics has focused on educational issues, particularly those related to language learning. I have specialised in the applications of linguistics (particularly sociolinguistics) to the legal process. This is a much smaller and newer area of applied linguistics world-wide and in Australia. But Australia is making some important contributions in this area, with the work of about a dozen of us being internationally recognised.

What is sociolinguistics?

Linguistics is the study of language and languages, while sociolinguistics is the study of language used in social contexts. While linguistics mostly analyses the structure of language, sociolinguistics analyses language function and use.

book cover

We’re used to hearing about forensic policing, forensic medicine etc., through popular media like TV shows, but you talk about forensic linguistics. What is ‘forensic linguistics’?

Forensic linguistics is used broadly to refer to the study of language in the legal process, and more narrowly to refer to using linguistics in expert evidence in court. Personally I don’t like the term much, although I’ve been very involved with the International Association of Forensic Linguists, since a small group of us established it some twenty years ago. We changed the name of the journal ten years ago from Forensic Linguistics to International Journal of Speech Language and the Law (and I’ve been a co-editor since 2006).

Can we expect to see any TV shows on forensic linguistics?

Part of me hopes that we don’t! This is because I fear that trying to translate linguistic studies of language in the legal process into a popular TV show might distort and overestimate what linguists can do. That’s why I don’t like the term ‘forensic linguistics’ much. It can make people think of fingerprints and DNA evidence, but linguistic evidence is often much less black-and-white. There is no linguistic magic formula, or black box that can solve crimes, for example. So, the complexities of linguistic evidence in individual cases can be hard to get across. However, there was a forensic linguist character in the popular 1994 ABC TV drama Heartland. His role in providing linguistic evidence in a verballing case was based on my work in the Condren case (see chapters 7 and 8 in the new book); I had provided details to the scriptwriters of the series.

This book is a collection of papers that cover decades of research. In going back through the materials, what were some of the things that struck you about what’s changed in our understandings over that period?

In preparing this book last year, I was struck both by how much has changed and how much hasn’t. Australian communities, societies, and cultures have changed in thirty years, and there is much more mobility and mixing. But there is still a lot of continuity in Aboriginal ways of living, interacting and communicating.

When I was first researching Aboriginal ways of using English more than thirty years ago, many non-Aboriginal people thought that Aboriginal people in places like Southeast Queensland were ‘just the same as Whites’. In working against the assimilationist climate of that time (early 1980s), it was inevitable that researchers like me sometimes overlooked the diversity of Aboriginal communities and cultures. I think we have developed a better understanding now that there are many different ways of being Aboriginal.

So, this understanding resulted in me talking for the past twenty years or so about bicultural Aboriginal people — explaining that some people can switch between Aboriginal ways of living, thinking and talking, and mainstream Anglo ways (it’s a bit like being bilingual). There are now increased opportunities for many Aboriginal people to become bicultural, but it’s still something that needs to be explained to many lawyers, judges and magistrates. And I find myself still explaining why we need to understand Aboriginal ways of using English — and why it matters in the twenty-first century.

Thirty years ago most Aboriginal people couldn’t believe that there was anything interesting or important about the way they were speaking English — they’d had decades of being told they were speaking “bad English”. You still see some after effects from this negativity. But it’s great to see now that a growing number of Aboriginal people are proud of their ways of talking, and that it is increasingly recognised as being a part of identity.

Another change is about how linguists understand the nature of languages. We used to think of a language as a discrete entity that was clearly separated from other languages. But increasingly we’ve been realising how much overlap there is between related language varieties (we like to use the term “language varieties” to refer to both languages and dialects). So labelling someone as speaking language variety X or language variety Y is not a simple matter (in fact it really is an abstraction).

You talk about Aboriginal people using English in a particular way, but you don’t use the term ‘Aboriginal English’ very often; the title of your book is Aboriginal ways of using English. Why is that?

This is a good question, which I discuss in the book’s introduction. What linguists can observe and study is people speaking, so that’s the best place to start. And we know that many Aboriginal people use English in Aboriginal ways, with influence from Aboriginal languages and cultures. Decades ago people referred disparagingly to Aboriginal ways of speaking English as ‘bad English’ (or worse). Beginning in the 1960s, linguists started using the name

‘Aboriginal English’ for the dialectal varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal people. That name has been important in the recognition of Aboriginal ways of speaking English, and it’s a term I still use. But there is so much variation in different varieties of Aboriginal English, that I like to use the expression “Aboriginal ways of using English”, where possible. I like this expression so much, I decided to use it as the title for the book.

Which aspects of the book (or which chapters) do you think people understand the least and/or from which they might learn the most?

I guess this depends on the backgrounds of different readers. High school students might want to start with the short chapters: 5, 6 and 9. While they are based on linguistic research, these three chapters don’t give detailed explanations or references to other research. But having read them, I hope students have questions and want to know more, and then go to chapters 1–4. Like chapter 6, chapters 7 and 8 are largely based around stories of criminal cases in which Aboriginal use of English has been an important factor. But these two chapters were originally written for other scholars and uni students, so some high school students might find them a bit hard to follow.

I hope that university students and scholars start at the beginning of the book, reading the descriptions of Aboriginal ways of using English, and then moving on to read about legal applications. I also hope that legal practioners and judicial officers will read all of the chapters in Part II (‘Focusing on the criminal justice process’), and be so engaged that they are drawn to read the chapters in Part I (‘Describing Aboriginal use of English’).

The last two chapters are the most challenging. They come out of my most recent research, which builds on the earlier work. In this current work I’m trying to dig deeper into the way language is used in the legal process, particularly the criminal justice process. Intercultural communication in the legal process — as anywhere else — is a two-way process. Chapters 10 and 11 look at assumptions made in the law about how language and communication work, particularly how these assumptions can contribute to continuing inequality for Aboriginal people using English in the legal process.

Some people in Aboriginal communities get sick of researchers traipsing through, and may not see the relevance of that work to their lives. Over time, how have you chosen the communities you worked with and how did you negotiate the relationships?

I’m sure that lots of Aboriginal people are sick of being researched. And I wonder how I would feel if a researcher wanted to ‘hang out’ with my family and observe and record how we communicate?

I was priviledged to do my most intensive community work as part of Michael Williams’ oral history work with his extended family in Southeast Queensland in the early 1980s. Michael introduced me to his mob, and organised many of the field trips, and it was through developing relationships with members of his family that I had wonderful opportunities to learn so much about how people use English in their everyday interactions.

But in the last twenty-five years most of my research has focused more on intercultural communication, especially in the legal process. While concentrating my energy on this specific and very important area, I have not had to intrude into people’s families and homes. The main way I’ve been doing this research is by researching language use in public courtroom hearings, and by responding to requests in individual cases. At the same time, once a sociolinguist starts listening to the ways people use English, you never stop. The evidence is all around you. So I have plenty of opportunities through this work in legal contexts, as well as through everyday interactions with a wide range of people, to continually observe and reflect on different ways of using English.

We now know some important things about ways that many Aboriginal people use English differently from mainstream Anglo ways (and people can read about this in the first half of the book). One of my current priorities is to communicate about this with lawyers, magistrates and judges, and police officers. My other priority is to unravel some of the complicated ways that English is used by legal and judicial officers, especially in court, so that we can see what changes need to be made in order for Aboriginal people to have equality in the legal process (people can read about this in the second half of the book).

It’s usual to think that the dominant language in a country influences other languages, but there seem to be borrowings from Aboriginal ways of using English into standard Australian English. Can you give us any examples of this and how is it happening?

Yes, all languages leak. Deadly is a great example. Many young non-Aboriginal Australians now use this to mean “fantastic”, a meaning it’s had in Aboriginal English for decades. I guess having the Deadly Awards televised nationally every year has added to the acceptance and spread of this word.


I LOVE THIS BOOK – Hopefully I will get to meet Diana Eades one day 🙂

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