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How the Indian Community Languages Schools Parents and Teachers Conference is spreading the matrubhasa movement
According to the 2011 Census, Indians were the fourth-largest ethnic group, at 450,000 and growing exponentially, considerably enhancing Australia’s socioeconomic and cultural profile. When the data collection gets underway next month, new milestones are bound to be set.
While the proliferation of cultural organisations, language schools and community festivals has created a strong sense of identity, nurturing self-worth and belonging among migrants of Indian ancestry, our community language initiatives for second-generation descendants continue to be grossly underrepresented in mainstream schools. Woefully under-funded, volunteer-run weekend programs are still the only option for the sizeable racial minority, vying with the ever-increasing array of extracurricular pursuits for a slot.
It is most unfortunate that despite a spotlight on STEM, language learning has not been a focus of the election campaign, laments matrubhasha (mother language) crusader, Mala Mehta OAM.
“In a global world, language learning is extremely important. In all OECD countries, apart from Australia, students finish school with at least one foreign language,” Mehta said.
“Foreign language learning is in serious decline in Australia. About 40 per cent of students studied a foreign language in the 1960s. That number is now closer to 10 per cent, including students who are native speakers of a language other than English. In New South Wales, less than 8 per cent of students study a language for the HSC. Victoria is miles ahead with a language policy in place and it is mandatory to study a language in primary school,” she pointed out.
Nearly four decades since Balar Malar, the maiden Indian language school, catered to the needs of the fledgling community, the second most spoken language in the world is finally making slow inroads into the mainstream framework. Timetabled Hindi classes are now available at West Ryde, Girraween, Parramatta North, Campsie and Liverpool public schools, due to the tireless efforts of Mehta and her dedicated brigade.
“Over the years I realised that unless you ask, people are not aware of your needs. With Australia becoming more and more multicultural, a shift in government policy in trying to reach out to communities has led to the formation of many advisory panels on which communities are represented by their leaders. These leaders are expected to communicate government policy and support available to communities because they can speak various languages, and through language understand the culture of their communities,” she explained.
Sanskrit, Tamil, Punjabi and other language schools are now hoping to emulate and build on these early experiences.
In a bid to collectively engage the linguistic minorities that make up India’s rich ethnic diversity in Australia, as well as lobby the government for increased mainstream presence and well-deserved funding, the first ever Indian Community Languages Schools Parents and Teachers Conference (ICLSPTC) was hosted recently in Sydney.
Celebrating the role of language in shaping a person’s identity, keynote speaker Pallavi Sinha described India as a prime example of diversity within diversity. Continuing through generations, matrubhasha captures our ancient wisdom, she noted.
Initiated by the School of Vedic Sciences Australia (SVSA) and supported by the Community Languages Schools Program (CLSP), and the Department of Education, under the Communities United Through Language reform initiative, the well planned and well attended conference brought together delegates from Sanskrit, Hindi, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Malayalam, Bangla, Urdu, Tamil and Kannada language schools. They were joined by community elders, government officials, politicians and representatives from the Indian Consulate.
Efforts are also underway to involve Tibetan and Nepalese groups in future cross-cultural dialogues.
“Celebrating our language and our culture in our multicultural Australia by bringing the Indian language schools together is our vision and we are privileged to be fully supported by our communities in this endeavour,” acknowledged Karthik Subramanian, conference convenor and President of SVSA.
“After successfully pioneering the first Sanskrit school in Australia in 2006, we are proud to be leading the inauguration of the first ever ICLSTPC to learn to share our collective knowledge and expertise in teaching a community language. The conference has certainly created synergy among the Indian communities to collaborate and contribute towards the sustenance of our language and culture in our multicultural Australia. A feeling of oneness has blossomed,” event facilitator Dr Meenakshi Srinivasan, principal of Sydney Sanskrit School told Indian Link.
“The issues experienced in teaching one community language are not unique. It is a challenge that all Indian community languages schools face,” she added, drawing extensively from her own successful venture of resurrecting a classical language.
The inclusion of Hindi in the national curriculum with the release of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, and the development of a K-10 Curriculum by ACARA in 2015, reflects Australia’s acknowledgement of India as a leading force of the 21st century, said Mala Mehta. “It realises a long-held hope for the Indian community, affirming their sense of identity, as Hindi takes its place alongside Mandarin and Korean as a language for students at Australian schools. It will be more meaningful for future Australians as they go on to have active engagement with India.”
Nevertheless, there are still many hurdles to overcome, she was quick to add. “The most important being the lack of focus on languages in the primary years, a lack of continuity from kindergarten into years 11 and 12, and [mandating] only 100 hours in year 7 or 8. The main issue is that the New South Wales government has no overall strategic policy or plan for language education,” she said.
“In 2012, the Board of Studies NSW reviewed languages education in NSW schools in order to develop recommendations for the consideration of the Minister, but nothing to date has come out of the review. This has resulted in inadequate funding provided for languages.”
Both Mehta and Srinivasan are upbeat about the role and relevance of volunteer community language teachers.
“Given the strong emphasis on creating task-based learning activities to better engage students and achieve meaningful outcomes, our community language teachers are not only passionate, but are a wonderful resource for mainstream school teaching. They are able to use their language and culture expertise to create practical resources – something that many mainstream teachers do not have time to do,” Srinivasan stressed.
Striving to reincarnate Sanskrit as a contemporary living language, since its inception the Sanskrit school has lead the way in incorporating Australian teaching methodology in community language learning. Recently this was seen through composing the Australian anthem in Sanskrit, collaborating with the Aboriginal community to release a bi-lingual sing-along CD in Sanskrit and Dharawal (a language of indigenous Australians in south Sydney).
“We must persist in trying to narrow the divide between community and mainstream schools. I think these two approaches to languages teaching need to come together, and challenges to reaching that goal, such as teacher qualifications or funding need to be overcome,” Mehta said. “We therefore hope to make this conference an annual event and be more inclusive of some of the other languages that missed out.”
While the short-term goal was to bring everyone together to exchange resources and brainstorm, the conference more broadly aimed to prepare teachers and parents to work together and formulate a concrete plan to introduce community languages in mainstream schools.
“Besides the pioneering work of Mala Mehta, Meenkashi Srinivasan, Karthikeyan Subramanian, Saroja Srinivasan, Kamlesh Chaudhry, Narendra Shukla, Nalini Sankar, Anagan Babu Thiru Thiruananthakumar, Albel Singh Kang, Gurmeet Kaur, Meera, Jagadeesh Doraiswami, Neha Takale, Mallik Rachakonda, Akila Ramarathinam and Lyold Mathew, there are many selfless volunteers who are holding the fort,” said Dr Lakshmi Satyanarayana, co-convenor and board member of NSW Federation of Community Languages Schools. “This conference is just the beginning of sharing the thoughts of taking the next step in teaching the Indian community languages in mainstream schools.”
“Languages such as Sanskrit, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu have a significant audience for take up immediately. Marathi, Bangla, Urdu, Kannada and Gujarati are the next lot that will benefit the community in building stronger socio-economic ties between Australia and India,” she indicated.
The forum is also looking to the Indian government for proactive support to publish and print materials from back home at a reasonable cost.
More workshops on specific topics such as creating learning aids, communication methods, testing and reporting, management and administration are being considered.
“Listening to ministers speak about the concern of retaining second language skills gives teachers more confidence to encourage parents about the importance of bringing their children to language schools,” Dr Satyanarayana added.
Over 100,000 students now participate in community language programs nationally, reflecting Australia’s communal embracement of its rich ethnic heritage and diversity. The National Languages Statement and National Languages Plan, endorsed by the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment and Youth Affairs, articulated the important role of community language schools and is funded by the Australian government’s School Language Program, in conjunction with state, philanthropic and parental inputs.
Lauding the sacrifice of parent volunteers as they strive to rekindle interest in ethnic languages through weekend programs, President of the NSW Federation of Community Languages Schools Albert Vella urged schools to influence the NSW government to increase the per capita grant, thereby recognising the contribution of Indian community schools in the social, cultural and economic growth of Australia.
Despite lower student enrolment trends, it is indeed exciting times ahead for the Indian community as we forge a unique identity like the Greeks and Italian in the 1950s and 60s.
Meanwhile, for Hindi speakers, the introduction in state schools gives a feeling of pride and an opportunity for the language to be learnt by others.
The gains are manifold, as conference organisers highlighted – an opportunity to strengthen literacy through direct comparison of inherent structure and features of native language; the cultural knowledge and great insight into the rich heritage of India; and enhanced life skills through vertical and lateral experiences.