Who can teach language?

Just speaking a language does not mean that someone will necessarily be a good teacher. Almost everyone in Australia speaks English. That doesnít make them all suitable to teach English as an additional language in schools.  They undertake several years of specialist training.

In practice the best teachers will always be those people who have good knowledge and skills in the language, and who have some training in language teaching methods.

Unfortunately such a person may not exist for Australian languages, especially those that are no longer spoken on a daily basis.

Sometimes the best speakers of the language donít have an interest or the skills required to try and teach language. Sometimes the people who are most interested in teaching the language canít speak it well themselves. In such circumstances either the good speaker or the interested learner is going to need some training.

Some communities support protocols that say the language should be only taught by elders or other members of the community who speak the language. However, not all these people are equipped to be classroom teachers, especially if they have never done it before. They also might not want to do it. If they are not trained classroom teachers, they are unlikely to be skilled in classroom management, programming or assessment, or to know the legal obligations of teachers. In situations like this, the elder or other community member should generally be paired with a trained teacher to develop and deliver a program. In Australia there is a legal requirement that a trained teacher be present in school classrooms during lessons.

For reviving languages that are no longer spoken it can sometimes be the case that an outsider, such as a linguist, is the person who knows the most about the language. In such a situation it might be necessary for that outsider to take the role of the main teacher of the language in the early stages, until local people have gained enough ability in the language to take over teaching it themselves. It would also be a good idea for everyone to get some assistance from a teacher, especially a language teacher, to develop and deliver a successful program.

Although linguists are generally not trained language teachers, they will often try to teach what they have learned about a language if that is what the community wants. However, the best outcomes will be achieved if they work in partnership with community members and a trained language teacher  to help community members develop as speakers and teachers.

How can you teach a language that isnít spoken anymore?

There are two major issues to deal with here. One is not being able to ask native speakers the Ďrightí way to say something, and the other is not being able to hear the language spoken regularly by by a lot of different people. For reviving languages these are very common problems. It may be the case that the teacher is also a learner herself, and that there is not a lot of information recorded about the language. This makes matters difficult, but doesnít  have to make it impossible.

The first step is to identify what resources exist for the language. If there are none or very little, it may be that only a program where people learn about the language rather than to speak it, known as a language awareness program, can be developed. If that is the case, the community might, in the short term, teach a neighbouring language instead, one that does have enough material available. That may be disappointing for the community, but it is probably better to teach another Australian language than to teach a completely foreign one. Where this has occurred with the support of the community, it may spur on the necessary work to develop those essential language materials needed to teach the local language. Teaching another Australian language may also be the best strategy while reclamation of a local language is being attempted. That way when the time comes to teach the local language, learners will already have a good idea of how closely-related languages work, and will find switching to the local language easier.

If there are enough records of the language available that some useful sentences and vocabulary can be taught, then there may be enough to begin a reclamation program. To do this successfully will take some time and a committed team. While the community is free to attempt this themselves, the process will be much easier and quicker with the help of a professional linguist. They can use their knowledge of the structure and function of languages, especially Aboriginal ones, to guide the reclamation process. They will also be able to give some guidance as to how the language probably sounded.

While the reclaimed language may not be identical to the historical version, it can still be revived if people start speaking it to each other. It only needs a pair of learners to begin with. As long as more people are added to the group, and they keep using the language with each other as much as possible, those people will become the new speakers of the language. It will take some time, but it is possible.

How do you teach language without a native speaker in the room?

Wherever possible a native speaker will be in class and do most of the teaching. However, especially for reviving languages with only a few speakers, it may not always possible to have an accomplished speaker in the room with the classroom teacher and/or community teacher. Most people overcome this problem by using audio or video recordings.

With a good library of words and sentences recorded from a native speaker it is possible to either play them as required, or copy and paste them into a range of software programs to produce teaching materials such as talking flashcards, e-books or interactive whiteboard games. Students can also practise by listening to recorded words, phrases and sentences, and then record themselves to compare with the original. Just listening to recordings has some value, but itís obviously better for the students to attempt speaking.

The same goes for the teacher. The best way to overcome the lack of a native speaker in the classroom is for the teacher to become a good additional language speaker. Of course it is difficult and takes time. But, it is no more than you are asking of your students. As long as you are a lesson or two ahead of the class, you can teach them everything you know!

For languages that are not spoken anymore it will be necessary to try and reconstruct how the language might have sounded. A linguist who has experience with Australian languages can give invaluable assistance in this task, as they will have knowledge of the sound patterns of related languages. With their help it should be possible to achieve a good approximation of how the language once sounded. It may not be perfect, but it should be close enough that a native speaker would understand. And, under the circumstances, thatís the best outcome that can be expected.

To begin teaching, it is also a good idea to first work out the instructional language to use in delivering lessons. Translating common expressions like stand up, sit down, say it, be quiet, listen, you try, good, try again, and so on will make it much easier to conduct a lesson that is in the language, rather than just about it.

How was language taught in the old days?

It is very unlikely that Australian languages were ever formally taught in the old days, apart from some very special situations like passing on secret ceremonial language or songs.

Like every other language in the world Australian languages were, and still are, learned as first languages by children growing up in situations where the language is spoken around them. Although some parents may believe they taught their child to speak, they didn't really. Children learn their first language from their language environment, regardless of whether their parents try to actively teach it to them or not. This is why we use the term language acquisition for  first languages. Children acquire their first language (sometimes they may learn more than one) at home, but learn additional ones at school. Although English is taught in all Australian schools, most children arrive at school already speaking English. Apart from English as an Additional Language programs, English teaching at schools is mostly concerned with enrichment, literacy and developing an appreciation of literature Ė not learning to speak the language at all.

For additional language learning the situation is different. In the modern world additional languages are often taught in structured programs, including through schools. However, most people in the world still learn their additional languages the natural way Ė by mixing with speakers of another language and having a need to understand and speak to themóbeing immersed in the language. You can imagine if you were transported to another country where you didnít know the language. You would very quickly learn it in order to survive!  Ideally additional language learning uses a combination of both structured learning and immersion.

In the old days Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would frequently mix with their immediate neighbours who spoke different languages or dialects. At major ceremonies they would also mix with people from further away. In order to communicate they would need to learn each otherís languages. But they did this just by using them as part of daily life, not by holding classes. The strong similarities between the languages also made this easier. We can be sure of this because it has long been observed as exactly what happens in those communities where language is still strong, and there have never been any stories or records identified suggesting that people actively gave language lessons to each other.

Teaching people to speak an Australian language an additional language in a class is a modern activity that mostly follows modern methods. Itís not a traditional activity, and so there are no traditional methods for additional language teaching used. However, Aboriginal people may develop their own models of language teaching that they feel better reflect their culture. Of course many Aboriginal language teachers already incorporate strategies that are culturally appropriate, story-telling, sitting in a circle and holding lessons outdoors are some examples.

Of course, taking students into the bush to engage in traditional activities in an immersion class will provide a much more realistic environment in which language can be learned. This kind of environmental immersion learning is a great example of communicative language learning and is often used for teaching other languages as well, like using Chinese to order and eat a meal in a Chinese restaurant.

Whatís the best way to teach language?

There is no one best way to teach language. However, there are many different ways to engage learners in using language to communicate Ė exactly what it is intended for. The combination of methods and strategies that do this is called a communicative approach to language teaching.

Just as there are many different ways to teach languages well, there are also many different strategies that have been shown to be rather ineffective. For example, learning lists of words out of context, without learning to use them to say something meaningful, can be a good memory exercise but will not, in itself, lead to language learning.

Whatís the quickest way to teach language?

There is no quick way. Although there might be some strategies and activities for learning particular elements of language that allow for occasional leaps forward, the overall process just takes time and effort.

Of course, learning activities that are interesting, fun, involve meaningful communication, motivate learners and reward their achievement will work much better and faster than others. The trick is to try and make your language teaching as much like this as possible.

Sometimes people promote particular methods of teaching language that promise amazing results. They might refer to Ďacceleratedí, Ďautomaticí, Ďpowerí or Ďsubliminalí teaching. Usually these methods are strategies for learning particular features or structures, and do not develop full competence in the language. They might also just involve tried and true methods like immersion teaching, but package them in a way that makes them sound exciting and new. A well-trained language teacher will already know most of these methods.

The best approach to language teaching is one that focuses on getting learners to communicate in real and useful ways, and draws on a broad variety of methods and activities that keep learners interested and motivated, and cater to a range of learning styles. Good language teacher training gives teachers a broad array of methods and techniques to do this.

How do you include culture in language teaching?

Whenever you are teaching language you are also teaching culture, because language is the main vehicle for the transmission of culture. Some people have said that language is the DNA of culture; the code in which all cultural information is contained. Each language embodies the world view of the culture it comes from. It provides a culturally specific way of understanding the world, describing it and interacting with others. Just by learning and using a language people are actively engaging with that culture.

Of course, additional specific activities like singing, dancing or gathering and preparing food can be incorporated in language teaching to provide realistic and meaningful opportunities for communication in the language. These kind of real activities provide an opportunity for learners to acquire whole sets of language associated with particular activities, and give them the chance to actually use the language to communicate; the greatest goal of language learning.

The inclusion of ceremonial or other religious activities is something the community would need to reach a decision on, particularly if classes are mixed. They might decide that these are traditional forms of knowledge that need to be taught by traditional authorities in traditional contexts, not by teachers in schools. Itís up to the community to decide.

Where can I learn more about language teaching?

Providing information about good teaching for reviving Australian languages is one of the main purposes of this website. To make it more accessible we have arranged it under the following headings:


This page was first published on November 25, 2013 and was last updated on November 29, 2013. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise. If you have any suggestions for ways in which this document could be improved or made more accessible to users, please do not hesitate to contact the author, John Hobson.