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The Malparara Way: Reflections from South Australia on Mother Language Day

21 February 2024

Our world has always been rich with linguistic diversity. There are around 8,324 spoken or signed languages documented in the UNESCO World Atlas of Languages. Of those, around 7,000 remain in use today. But only 65 are considered safe, with almost half of that 7,000 at risk of disappearing by the end of the century. Many of these endangered languages belong to minority and indigenous communities, for whom language is often a central pillar of identity.  

The most common factor behind the endangerment of a language is societal and/or political dominance: state policies of forced cultural assimilation often justified by claims of national unity and literacy development, amid a background of economic inequality, stigmatization and the lingering effects of colonization.

Since the era of European imperialism, educational settings have often been places where only dominant languages could be used, and thus have been used as sites of power and tools for reproducing coloniality. Many minority and indigenous persons, around the world, have shared testimonies of having been prevented from using their languages at school, not just in the classroom but even during breaks. Methods used include corporal punishment, forced isolation, withdrawal of meals and several forms of public humiliation.

This stigmatization and endangerment of indigenous languages both owes itself to and reinforces a belief that only ‘major’ languages can be the carriers of knowledge as understood in a Eurocentric worldview. Of course, contrarily, minority and indigenous languages have for centuries sustained a myriad of knowledge systems, information about every aspect of life, cultures, beliefs and spirituality.

After much effort from minority and indigenous activists, and also advocacy from UNESCO as a leading agency, international human rights law has increasingly recognized minority and indigenous children’s right to learn their mother-tongue, not just as a subject but also as a means of instruction. Despite widespread misconceptions to the contrary, global evidence shows us that Mother-Tongue Based Multilingual Education has better outcomes for learners.

I recently moved to Australia to pursue a PhD on centring Indigenous women’s voices in shaping multilingual education policies. In this country, as in so many other postcolonial states, education has a troubled relationship with indigenous languages, here those belonging to the many and diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. In Australia, education has a troubled relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. This includes a history of violence, exclusion, assimilation policies, dispossession and relocation, and discouragement of using Aboriginal languages or Englishes until only a few decades ago.

Among the many Aboriginal communities living in my new home state of South Australia, Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara are among the biggest, and speak one of the ‘healthiest’ Aboriginal languages – meaning their children continue to speak their language as their first language.  

Aṉangu is a self-referencing collective term (meaning ‘people’) for peoples inhabiting the Western Desert, which spans across Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. While formal schooling for Aṉangu in the Western sense began in Ernabella in 1940 through a Presbyterian mission, Aboriginal peoples have always been educating their children in their own languages and knowledge systems.

The Ernabella Mission implemented a model that was quite exceptional for its time; Piranpa (white/non-Aboriginal) educators were required to quickly learn – and then teach in – the Pitjantjatjara language. Bilingualism with English was progressively introduced through oral teaching at the beginning, then written instruction. At the time, Piranpa teachers were working alongside Aṉangu educators, historically mostly women, through what is traditionally known as the Malparara way; ‘in Pitjantjatjara, “malparara” means “alongside a friend or colleague”. Malparara describes a way of working where two staff members, one Anangu and one non-Aboriginal, partner up to deliver services.’

However, starting from the 1990s, education policy focused on English proficiency. It took three decades of advocacy to officially reinstate bilingual education, which is now implemented in most schools in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands through the Malparara method.

Like many other indigenous peoples, Aṉangu are strong educators. As we celebrate international mother language day, we should acknowledge and support the past, present and future role of educators in nurturing young generations of indigenous language-speakers, while remembering the painful stories that many of them had to endure because of colonisation and forced assimilation.

As a small number of dominant languages gain an increasing hold over the global population, the pressure on communities speaking other languages will grow; a staggering 97 per cent of the world’s population speak 4 per cent of its languages, yet 96 per cent of the world’s languages are spoken by just 3 per cent of its population.

The risk of losing the knowledge and culture stemming from endangered languages is already extremely high: however, this situation is even more acute when, as with many minorities or indigenous peoples, their speakers are among the most marginalized in society. Mother-Tongue based Multilingual Education can be implemented in low-income countries through limited budgetary investments. Not developing children’s capabilities in school means less successful adults, which in turn reproduces patterns of poverty. Moreover, literacy in multiple languages actually promotes more inclusive societies for all. The case is clear: multilingual education systems are simply better for everyone.

Pitjantjatjara children learning in Pukatja (formerly known as Ernabella), South Australia. Credit: Eckhard Supp/Alamy Stock Photo.


Silvia Quattrini

North Africa Associate

Minority Rights Group