The focus of this PEN
How do teachers support their Indigenous students so that they feel that their language, culture and community are valued, while learning the language skills and understandings needed for success in school and the wider community? One of the issues at the heart of this question is the use of language. We need to recognise that Aboriginal English (AE), the variety of English spoken by Rosie and most other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and Standard Australian English (SAE) are two separate dialects and their differences have an impact on all teaching in the classroom.
Specifically, this PEN will address the following questions:
- What is Aboriginal English and what is its relationship to Standard Australian English?
- What are the differences in the language systems of AE and SAE?
- What are the implications of these differences for teaching?
While this PEN focuses on the dialects of AE and SAE, the general discussion applies to any dialects that you might have in your classroom.
What is Aboriginal English and what is its relationship to Standard Australian English?
Aboriginal English (AE) is the name given to the dialect of English spoken by most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It varies considerably among communities for a range of reasons, including the historical influence of different local Aboriginal languages.1 AE has great importance culturally, particularly in the many communities where the original Aboriginal languages have been lost. It expresses Aboriginal identity and carries Indigenous history. It also differs in systematic ways from other dialects of English, including Standard Australian English.
Standard Australian English (SAE) is also a dialect of English. It is used in public contexts such as education, media, government and law. The written form of SAE is described in grammar books and dictionaries, creating a record of its patterns of use. This influences both the spoken and written form so that it is less variable than other dialects.
Neither of these dialects of English is linguistically better or worse than the other. They are both governed by rules and can be used to perform the full range of functions required of their speakers within various speech communities. Both dialects reflect particular views of the world, ways of behaving, and of constructing and representing knowledge. Neither is intrinsically superior to the other or “more correct”; they are alternatives for different users, contexts and purposes. However, in the context of schooling and wider public life in Australia, SAE has a privileged position. There it is recognised as the language of power and as such it could be argued that all Australians should learn it as part of an additional language repertoire for use in these contexts.
What are the differences in the language systems of AE and SAE?
The examples used in this section are drawn from field work undertaken by the authors and from Eades, 1990; Malcolm, 1995; Malcolm et al, 1999; Sharifian, Rochecouste & Malcolm, 2005.
Differences in the sound systems (phonology) of AE and SAE
Every dialect has a range of sounds that are significant or carry meaning. AE and SAE have some sounds in common and some that are different. These differences are systematic and reflect the different histories of the two dialects. As with all other aspects of language, the sound system will vary between groups of people and between individuals. Teachers need to be alert to the systems used by the students they teach. The differences described below may be a guide. Compared to SAE, AE may have:
- less contrast between voiced and voiceless consonants, for example, t and d
- less contrast in plosive pairs, for example, p and b; k and g
- less distinction between some stops and fricatives,for example, f and p; b and v; t and th (as in thin); d and th (as in then)
- less distinction between fricatives and affricatives, for example, sh and ch; j (as in jam) and y (as in yet)
- variable use of initial h, for example, ouse; hegg
- lower tolerance for consonant clusters (pl, tr, cl, nds), for example, das [that’s]; djis [just]; des [desk].
There are also distinctive differences in the vowel system of AE, including:
- full vowel quality in unstressed syllables, for example, bread /æ/nd jam [bread ‘n jam]
- greater tolerance of two vowels together across word boundaries, for example, a apple; a egg (this may also impact on grammar with the use of articles in SAE)
- elongation of vowel sounds for emphasis, for example, e l-o-o-o-ng way.
Other aspects like pronunciation, stress, intonation and the pauses in speech also contribute to a distinct AE accent.
Implications for teaching
The differences in the sound systems have implications for AE speakers learning spoken and written SAE. It can be argued that the impact should not be as great in speaking and listening because SAE can be spoken with a range of accents (Stubbs, 1976; Sato, 1989; O’Donnell & Todd, 1991; Carter, 1995). However, some students may not be able to understand SAE or to be understood by SAE speakers. In this case, a code-switching approach could be taken. Students can be taught to first distinguish between AE and SAE, and then to learn to use the one that is appropriate for the context, purpose and people to whom they are speaking.
Some of these sound system differences may cause misunderstandings between speakers of AE and SAE. Although, in many cases, the context will make the intention clear, there may be situations where clarification will need to be sought, for example, where the omission of /h/ causes confusion between names such as Hannah and Anna or Helen and Ellen when speaking SAE. Generally, confusion will only occur where the alternative pronunciation is the same word class as the standard pronunciation and sounds the same as a viable alternative word, for example, pan and fan.
In some contexts the number of pronunciation differences, especially when combined with grammar and pragmatic differences, will make it difficult for some teachers and their AE speaking students to understand each other’s unfamiliar speech. However, this should improve with time as they both “tune in” to the speech of the other.
Some sounds found in SAE, or contrasts between sounds, are not present in students’ dialects. When first learning to read and write SAE, the students will need to be able to hear these sounds to appropriately match them to the written symbols. Teachers will need to exercise some care when using phonological awareness approaches that rely on children’s intuitive recognition of sounds in SAE as some students will require explicit teaching to recognise sound contrasts that are not familiar to them. This can take time, and there may be some initial confusion between some sound and symbol relationships such as /t/ and /d/, but the contrasts should become apparent to the students when the sound and symbol relationships in SAE are learnt as part of the literacy program, particularly through aspects such as phonological awareness. This teaching, however, should be done as a comparison, with teachers being careful not to infer that the sound and symbol patterns of SAE as reflected in writing are the “correct” form of English. Rather, teachers need to reinforce the view that different forms are needed for different audiences, purposes and contexts.
For older students who are experiencing difficulty with reading and writing, including spelling, an analysis of the student’s reading and writing will show which patterns are problematic so that teachers can focus on these in their explicit teaching. It is important to remember that spelling is also a meaning-based system (Fryar, 1997) and students may need to be shown the patterns in families of words as well as understanding the relationships between sounds and symbols.
In some contexts, teachers may need to be aware of the incidence of otitis media in their students. Commonly referred to as “glue ear”, this inner ear infection can cause mild to profound hearing loss and in some cases, permanent hearing damage. The fact that the symptoms that compromise hearing are intermittent makes it all the more difficult to manage. There are many helpful approaches and resources available to assist teachers in dealing with this issue.