Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of speaking English differently

Many young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children speak a form of English as their first and main language every day at home with their family, in the community and with friends. Many Indigenous children will speak a dialect of English which reflects their family’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background. These dialects are likely to be known as Aboriginal English or Torres Strait Islander English depending on location. Depending on family and local history, the local Indigenous community might share the same dialect. This is why Indigenous people can often tell where other Indigenous people come from because of how they speak English.

Some speakers of Aboriginal English or Torres Strait Islander English might be EAL/D learners

At the surface level, these Indigenous ways of speaking Aboriginal English or Torres Strait Islander English may differ just a little from Standard Australian English (SAE) or they may differ quite a lot – this is sometimes described as ‘lighter’ (more like SAE) and ‘heavier’ (less like SAE). Lighter ways of speaking might have some different pronunciations and words, while heavier ways of speaking might include sentence structure differences too. In terms of English language-learning needs, only speakers of ‘heavier’ varieties may require extra SAE-language teaching.

Valuing Indigenous ways of speaking English

It is important for educators to know that all these English dialects, regardless of their surface makeup, embody speakers’ Indigenous identities and express their cultural values, practices and knowledges. If educators have a different cultural background, this can be a source of misunderstanding. Educators of young children who speak an Aboriginal English or Torres Strait Islander English should value these dialects as the students’ home language. For more about this topic, see the Tracks to Two-Way Learning resources.

Speakers of traditional or new contact languages are usually EAL/D learners

In communities where traditional or new Indigenous languages are spoken, SAE is generally learned as an additional language. As in all second-language learning, an individual’s level of proficiency in SAE will depend very much on their opportunities. Young children will generally have very little exposure to using SAE in their daily lives. For these reasons, local staff are invaluable in early childhood settings. English-speaking educators who don’t share community members’ first languages should always be aware of the potential for miscommunication when they are speaking SAE. For high stakes interactions, an interpreter should be used if possible.

Standard Australian English

Standard Australian English (SAE) is the term given to the variety of English that is generally found in Australian schools and other institutions, in delivering government services, or in the media and private businesses.

Regardless of any differences in comparison to SAE, these Indigenous ways of talking are just as valid linguistically and serve their communities perfectly well. Educators who work with young speakers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander English should accept their way of speaking. Educators’ roles for young Indigenous children who speak an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander dialect of English is to value their way of speaking. We can generate pride in children that there are different ways of speaking English and that these variations show who we are and where we come from. We can foster children’s curiosity about learning about SAE. For example, in consultation with Indigenous staff and family, we can point out differences in ‘book English’ versus ‘local talk’.

Similar but different: Meanings of words

Many words may have a different meaning in Standard Australian English to the way that they are intended in Aboriginal English and Torres Strait English. For example, a speaker of Aboriginal English might use the word 'crook' for the SAE word 'sick' or use the word 'solid' to mean 'excellent' or 'great' but not be aware of the SAE alternate meaning.

Educators will need to make sure there is a shared understanding of the meanings of SAE word definitions for children whose first language is Aboriginal English whilst making sure they are teaching SAE as an additional dialect and not as a replacement dialect.

Here are some other examples. The word 'sorry' in Aboriginal English has a much stronger meaning than simply ‘regretful’. In a general sense it means ‘filled with sorrow’, but more particularly it expresses the feelings associated with the loss of a person or country. Thus, a person who is sorry for a relative is in mourning for that relative and a person who is sorry for their country is experiencing an extreme form of home-sickness.

Several other common words describing feelings and behaviour also have somewhat different meanings in Aboriginal English from standard English. The word shame, for example, encompasses not only a feeling of guilt when one has done something wrong, but also a wider feeling of shyness, fear or even reverence (e.g. of unfamiliar people or places of significance). It can also be a term of embarrassment at standing out from the crowd—even in a positive way, such as when receiving praise. It describes the appropriate feeling of a person in the presence of relatives with whom they are in an avoidance relationship. As well as being a noun (‘she getting big shame’), it is often used adjectivally (‘I was shame’), as well as in the term shame job (embarrassing situation).

The word cheeky as well as its comparatively mild SAE meaning, can also have the sense of ‘dangerous’, ‘violent’, or ‘painful’, and, particularly in the context of plants and animals, ‘poisonous’ (e.g. ‘cheeky snake’, ‘cheeky yam’).

The word deadly, on the other hand, is now used widely in the sense of ‘terrific, ‘wonderful’, ‘really good’ (cf. ‘wicked’ in Black Vernacular English of both the UK and US). However it is unlikely to also have the meaning of 'causing death' for Aboriginal English speakers. The term 'flash' often has a pejorative meaning in Aboriginal English: although its core meaning may be ‘nice’, ‘good-looking’, it is often used in the sense of ‘ostentatious’ or ‘pretentious’, particularly in the context of an Aboriginal person adopting non-Aboriginal behaviour.”

(Source: Linguistic aspects of Australian Aboriginal English by Andy Butcher)

Educators will find a lot of support for learning more about Aboriginal English in the Tracks to Two-Way Learning resources.