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Home > News > Professional Issues > Professional Issues Volume 10 > Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in schools

Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in schools

NAIDOC Week provides an opportunity to reflect on what more can be done to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and the preservation of languages.

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Issue snapshot:

  • National NAIDOC Week celebrations will run from 2-9 July.
  • This year’s theme Our Languages Matter provides an opportunity for teachers to reflect on what more can be done to support the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in schools. 
  • Our union encourages all teachers and schools to take part in NAIDOC Week celebrations and to continue to support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. 

The importance, resilience and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages will be in focus as part of this year’s national NAIDOC Week celebrations.

Running from 2-9 July NAIDOC Week celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The theme Our Languages Matter aims to emphasise and celebrate the unique and essential role that Indigenous languages play in cultural identity – linking people to their land and water, and the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, spirituality and rites through story and song.

This theme provides an opportunity for teachers in Australian schools to reflect on what more can be done to support the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in schools –  to help not only recognise their ingrained historical significance, but allow the languages to thrive in school communities well into the future. 

Some 250 distinct Indigenous language groups covered the continent at first (significant) European contact in the late eighteenth century. Most of these languages would have had several dialects, so that the total number of named varieties would have reached several hundred.

Today only around 120 of those languages are still spoken and many are at risk of being lost as Elders pass on.

National NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair Anne Martin said languages are the breath of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the NAIDOC Week theme will raise awareness of the status and importance of Indigenous languages across the country.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything:  law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food.

“Each language is associated with an area of land and has a deep spiritual significance and it is through their own languages, that Indigenous nations maintain their connection with their ancestors, land and law,” Ms Martin said.

Teachers as professionals are placed in a unique position that allows them to work with, connect with and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students on a day-to-day basis. It is this position that provides teachers with the opportunity to collaborate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members to ensure the language is preserved. 

According to KidsMatter, at the heart of any culturally responsive teaching program is a genuine knowledge of the students and their needs. This knowledge however, is often determined by the world view held by the teachers, and how they see their students and the families that they come from.

Therefore, in some contexts, it may be worth investigating the idea of partnering with the local community members to unpack translations and specific language more appropriate to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective.

IEUA-QNT Research Officer Adele Schmidt said changing perceptions and experiences of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students require a long-term commitment.

“This commitment starts with early childhood education programs that are respectful of the language and culture of the child and continuing through to constructive, collaborative relationships with family and community members and other support services,” Ms Schmidt said. 

Our union continues to encourage all teachers and schools to celebrate NAIDOC Week and work together with the wider community to ensure the preservation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

As NAIDOC week falls in the school holidays, school communities hold NAIDOC activities in the first week of Term 3. For more information and NAIDOC Week activity ideas visit the NAIDOC Week Website.


Authorised by Terry Burke, Independent Education Union of Australia – Queensland & Northern Territory Branch, Brisbane.