Setting up for success

In your context, there may be current efforts to:

  • maintain or revive traditional Indigenous languages
  • recognise new contact Indigenous languages as full and proper languages
  • value Aboriginal English and Torres Strait Islander English.

It is important to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families may themselves not be aware that they are speaking a language or dialect other than SAE. When faced with a requirement to speak 'proper', they may be at a loss as to what this means. Our education system is predominantly using SAE without recognition on how this might be affecting learners who come from diverse linguistic backgrounds. It is imperative teachers take account of, value and allow students to use their first language when learning SAE. 

Children’s first languages are how they have so far established their relationships and learned all about their world. Maintaining and developing their first language helps them keep their support networks, grow their knowledge, be strong in their culture and their identity.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander preschoolers should feel confident and curious about learning about the world. They should be proud about their first languages that they speak with their families, and about learning other languages too. This positive attitude to learning will set them up for a good start when they transition through school.

Which languages and dialects do Indigenous children speak?

Depending on their family and where they grow up, Indigenous children in the early years may speak:

  • a traditional language
  • a new ‘contact language’
  • a dialect of English such as Aboriginal English or Torres Strait English
  • Standard Australian English (SAE).

Children who speak a traditional Indigenous language or new contact language (as their first and main language) are learners of English as an additional language. Speakers of Aboriginal English or Torres Strait English will also be learning SAE as an additional language/dialect.

It is common for young Indigenous children to be already on their way to being multilingual and/or bidialectal (proficient in or using two dialects of the same language). That is, in addition to speaking their first language/dialect, they may have had opportunities to learn some or a fair amount of one or more other languages/dialects. Multilingualism is a great strength, linked to social and educational advantages.

Standard Australian English as a second (or additional) language or dialect is not confined to remote areas, but may also be the case in towns and cities. However not all Indigenous children are EAL/D learners.

What do I need to think about?

As an educator, it is important to be aware of:

  • the existing language that children bring to preschool
  • the role of different languages and/or dialects for their families and the community
  • supporting children as young multilingual/bidialectal learners
  • how young children can learn SAE as an additional language or dialect.

Mindset tip

As an educator working with Indigenous preschoolers, it can be helpful to think about your role as adding SAE to a child’s existing home language(s), to enable them to ‘walk in two worlds’.

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.