“Translation Tracks – Vocational pathways for the language professions of the future”

This was the title of the presentation given by keynote speaker David Moore, who opened the AUSIT National Conference held in Adelaide in November 2018. An educator and linguist at the Alice Springs Language Centre, David spoke of the project to extend the teaching of Aboriginal languages in schools in the Northern Territories by offering applied language courses with a focus on translation. As David explained, ‘Translation Tracks’ is an apt metaphor – it resonates with Aboriginal culture through the association with dreaming tracks, or songlines, and it also expresses the ethos and intention of the programme: to forge a link between school and the workplace, and to provide career paths for Aboriginal students with language skills.

While bilingual programmes have been in place in Northern Territory primary schools for some years, this offering has generally not extended into secondary school and beyond. With its focus on building practical career paths, the Applied Language programme has been developed in consultation with industry stakeholders. In addition to traditional translation and interpreting career paths, encompassing community interpreting, conference interpreting, book translation and film subtitling, other options for those with language skills and translation training include media work, e.g. radio, technology (developing apps and language games, for example), teaching/education, linguistic research and dictionary compilation, as well as liaison/cultural mediation work. David firmly believes that job opportunities will grow in the future as supply drives demand. For example, at present very few films or TV programmes are made in Aboriginal languages, partly because very few people have the skills to do so. As more young people develop these skills and use them to produce content in Aboriginal languages, surely this will fuel interest and demand for such content.

With its practical focus, an integral part of the programme involves taking the students to visit the places where language professionals work. Such workplaces include hospitals and courts, as well as museums and cultural centres. One highlight was a trip to the ABC Radio studio where the students had the opportunity to meet Theresa Ross, the woman who translates the daily news into the Warlpiri language and reads it. Herself the daughter of a language teacher who taught in the Yuendumu Bilingual Programme when it was first established in the 1970s, Theresa attended a bilingual programme at school from the age of seven and is now a highly valued teacher and translator of Warlpiri.  

Another regular feature of the Applied Language programme is the study trip to AIATSIS, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra. There the students are able to explore the available resources and meet the archivists involved in digitising and preserving Aboriginal languages. Building on this there is a plan to create more language resources and deposit them at AIATSIS, as a way of encouraging the students to participate in being custodians of their own language.

An important aim of the Applied Language programme is to give the students experience of real-life translation jobs. An example of the students’ work can be seen at Megafauna Central, a display which tells the story of the Megafauna fossils discovered at Alcoota Station 200 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. The students created interpretative signage as well as audio guides in the Arrernte language.

Delivering the Applied Language programme is not without its challenges. At present resources are scarce, including teaching staff. Teachers of Aboriginal languages are rare, and worth their weight in gold. In his presentation David also mentioned that State funding of bilingual programmes has been cut; not only does this mean a loss of existing resources, it is a stark indication of Government priorities and of the monolingual mindset faced by those struggling to preserve Aboriginal languages and cultures.

Nevertheless, there are positive outcomes to report. So far a Certificate III NTCET course in Applied Language has been developed and is offered in the Arrernte language at the Central Australian Middle School and Senior College in Alice Springs, and in the Alyawarr language at the remote Arlparra High School. NTCET stands for Northern Territory Certificate of Education and Training, which is roughly equivalent to the NCEA system in New Zealand.

The benefits are multiple. One of the difficulties facing schools is the mobility of Aboriginal families and a high rate of absenteeism, due in part to the fact that school is an alienating experience for many Aboriginal students. The Applied Language courses have resulted in increased attendance, which goes hand in hand with increased engagement, not only from students but also from parents and elders. The focus on vocational pathways has also developed links with community stakeholders, as well as equipping students with workplace skills – not to mention growing their knowledge and pride in their own language. As part of the presentation David showed some short video clips of the students. What shone through was the pride that they felt in their identities – and the importance of language as an integral part of that identity. These young bilinguals, and in some cases trilinguals and multilinguals, are an asset, both to their communities and to the wider Australian society.

By Guthrun Love

Photo by David Moore: NAIDOC Week 2017, www.naidoc.org.au

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