It is important to respect students’ first languages—the languages of their home, their family and, sometimes, their entire community.
Students’ first languages are their means for forming, building and maintaining relationships; developing, growing and living their cultural understandings; learning, conceptualising and knowing about their world. Students’ first languages are integral to their sense of self and identity.
As educators you need to listen carefully to your students communicating together and, building on good relationships with students, local staff and parents, respectfully start discussing some of the differences you have noted.
This should always be from the point of view of interest and never about value judgements, for example, whether students find the educator easy to understand; never finding fault with students’ speech patterns. Such an approach will help create shared understanding of local language varieties and shared ways of talking about them.
Standard Australian English (SAE) is the language of instruction in departmental schools and the language in which fluency is required for schooling purposes, yet many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are only exposed to SAE in classroom contexts.
Classroom curriculum therefore needs to reflect the language learning needs of these students by providing explicit language teaching in SAE through accessible and engaging learning experiences.
Language awareness should be promoted in classrooms, providing opportunities for celebrating language diversity and for acknowledging language differences. It is particularly vital that the ‘non-traditional’ language varieties are recognised as valid forms of communication.
With language awareness as a foundation, it is possible to identify differences between SAE and students’ home languages without value judgement. Differences can be discovered, acknowledged, analysed and addressed so as to allow non-SAE speaking students access to the language of instruction in the classroom, and consequently to the curriculum.