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Essay: Discourse Theory and Black English Vernacular Amongst Australian Aborigines

To understand the Discourse Theory, it is first necessary to distinguish between the terms “Discourse” (with a capital letter) and “discourse” (all lower-case). The term “Discourse” refers to the ways in which social and political inequity is reproduced (or subverted) through the uses to which language is put; whilst “discourse” refers to the actual use of the language, such as conversation.

The Discourse/discourse theory can be used to provide a basis for understanding issues of adult literacy and numeracy. The following results came from a case study in Central Queensland, combined with research done in other countries, involving Black English Vernacular (BEV)

It was identified that a different dialect was involved. Aboriginal English was looked at in the same context as a legal case in Michigan, as reported by D. Eades in ‘Aboriginal English’ (1993). Eades saw Black English Vernacular (BEV) as a different dialect from Standard English. G. Anderson & P. Irvine, in ‘Informing critical literacy with ethnography’ (1993) further reinforced the concept of BEV, with their exercises conducted at the University of the Virgin Islands.

Both the Aboriginal and the Virgin Islands studies instilled the students with the right to use their own dialect, while also recognising that Standard English is necessary in the wider community.

The students understood that to work in the wider community, they must be able to communicate to an acceptable level within that community. This is consistent with the findings of J.P. Gee, in ‘Literacy and social minds’ (1996), in that the students recognised that their styles of dress, language and culture are part of their own Discourse (Gee, 1996). However, they also recognised the need to conform to a different Discourse to survive in the “outside world.”

An article by S. Kelly, ‘Developing reading skills’ published in ‘Good Practice in Adult Literacy 3’ (1989) described vocabulary development exercises. In particular, “translating” into everyday English proved to be of great benefit. The student gives short descriptions of everyday items, or pictures. The teacher sits next to the student, and writes ‘ad verbatim’ in BEV. Teacher and student then work together to translate into Standard English. Greater responsibility is given to the student as his/her abilities increase.

Aboriginal English can also be looked at in the same context as the studies by Allison Jones in New Zealand, conducted in 19861991 in Lankshear, 1996). The concepts of class discussion, questioning and note taking were alien to the group involved in the Australian case study. They did not have previous knowledge with which to relate.

In many instances, traditional schooling had let the case study students down in the past. This is a major disadvantage, as many students took the view that they had failed. Thiswas not the case. Traditional methods do not work for the majority of students, whether on Aboriginal communiuties or in the wider community. Attempts have been made in the past to make these students, as well as those in the Australian community as a whole, learn the rules of English and mathematics.

The results have been detrimental, to say the least. The figures portrayed in Hodgens (1994) reflect the outcomes of traditional teaching methods. Hodgens reports, from The Canberra Times, that up to 10% of Australian adults are functionally illiterate. However, other recent reports put the figure at up to 65% of adults having literacy and numeracy levels at or below that of Year 9 expectations.

Within the community in which the case study took place, it was felt important that traditional Discourse, and culture, were preserved. The traditional ways in which this group educated their young in the social practices of their culture need also needed to be preserved. However, it was also recognised that other Discourses needed to be adapted as part of their lives.

The group adopted an approach that each of the students developed an Individual Learning Plan. Thiswas based on their previous life experiences, as well as their interests in life. Use was made of the National Framework when conducting initial assessment. This was then recorded using the National Reporting System. Again, Discourses played a major role in conducting this assessment.

Part of the initial assessment was discourse. This was a loose type of interview, being more an informal chat, consistent with the Community Based Family case study on the DEETYA web site (Fitzpatrick et al, 1999).

One of the major components of the literacy and numeracy course conducted was the concept of Primary Discourse and Secondary Discourse. The Primary Discourse in this respect was the Aboriginal community itself.

This Primary Discourse was of paramount importance to the students. By exploring the concepts of self, the students were able to identify their own capacities, as well as their aspirations. The tutors then developed training programs extending the students own roles in the community.

The next step was to identify the Secondary Discourse. In this case, the Secondary Discourse was the school environment. It was decided to adapt this as a Discourse in the absence of any other real or meaningful Discourse within the community.

The facilitators were careful to address the issues raised by Ilsley & Stahl (1993). Many in the group suggested that most people feel disillusioned by traditional secondary school education. Most people use very little of the formal education they receive in the spheres of English and mathematics. Further, they cannot see any practical application to much of what they are being taught.

One of the problems identified with the case study group was that many literacy and numeracy teachers attempt to teach simplified versions of English and Maths. The same problems arise, as well as a certain irony. The problems of irrelevancy are exactly the same. Additionally, it is ironic to think that, having taught the “hard stuff”, endeavours should then be made to teach the “easy stuff.” There seems a certain irony in this juxtaposition.

Many of the problems encountered in the group were because of this. The group, or Discourse, being dealt with is similar to much of Australia. They came into the course feeling that schooling had already let them down. There is a preconceived notion that even this tertiary education isn’t going to be any help.

The group felt that many of the problems could be overcome. One suggestion was that the new style of literacy and numeracy should be introduced, instead of the traditional English and Maths, at a much earlier stage in secondary, or even primary, education.

Again, this reflects back on the Discourse/discourse theory. In effect, the schools are trying to teach a second language from an early stage in the learner’s development. Most people, apart from this community in particular, feel intimidated and disillusioned when they are incapable of achieving the results that are expected of them. It is irrelevant to the individual that the material being taught is beyond the scope of most people. They feel that they have failed. It could be viewed that the teacher’s and the system have actually failed, not the students.

Vocational Education and Training (VET), however, offers new possibilities for the teacher, especially in the application of literacy and numeracy. Applying the Discourse/discourse theory, the opportunity arises to use language and culture as a precondition of the learning process (Lankshear, 1996). Using culture as a process, one can show how language begets culture. Culture may be seen as the Discourse, while language is discourse. The skilful interweaving of these is crucial to effective teaching of literacy and numeracy.

The final stages the group hoped to ultimately achieve were to use language and culture as a broker of opposing tendencies. It was hoped to show the student the need for Primary and Secondary Discourses, to wit, the use of both Standard English, and Aboriginal English. In this respect, the mainstream school language and Aboriginal English are, in effect, bilingualism and bidialectism.

Using the study group situation, on the Aboriginal community, it can be seen how much of this can be applied to the wider community. The facilitator’s personal experiences have been spread across a wide variety of Discourses. These have included retraining of retrenched miners, the hospitality industry, law enforcement and prisoners in gaol. Also included were training those in the emergency services, fellow trainers and teachers, information technology, construction industry, retail, and long-term unemployed. Professional people included doctors, solicitors, office workers and managers.

Each of these cultures has specific problems with Standard English. Whilst not having been personally involved with literacy and numeracy, the facilitator believes, on reflection, that the Discourse/discourse theory can be applied to all these different situations.

Each of the various cultures have varying levels of proficiency and needs for the use of the English language. Ilsley & Stahl (1993) have addressed some of these in their article on adult literacy. Each of these cultures also have specific needs in numeracy. Mainstream English and maths do not always address these needs.

The Discourse/discourse theory can be applied across all cultures. Specific needs can be identified and applied. All people have differing literacies. The study suggests that teachers and workplace trainers need to develop new skills in addressing these literacies. In so doing, they can develop meaningful reading and writing, construct meaning in text and language form, and develop environmentally meaningful ways of speaking and writing. The Discourse needs to be identified to apply to the outcome of discourses.

Reference List

Anderson, G. & Irvine, P. (1993). ‘Informing critical literacy with ethnography’ in Lankshear, C. (1996). Language and cultural process. In G. Bull & M. Anstey (Eds.), The literary lexicon. Sydney: Prentice Hall.

Eades, D. (1993) ‘Aboriginal English’ in Pen 93, reported in Lankshear, C. (1996). Language and cultural process. In G. Bull & M. Anstey (Eds.), The literary lexicon. Sydney: Prentice Hall.

Fitzpatrick, L. et al. (1999) Case Studies. http://nrs.deetya.gov.au/litnum/index.htm

Gee, J.P. (1996). Literacy and social minds. In G. Bull & M. Anstey (Eds.), The literary lexicon. Sydney: Prentice Hall.

Hill, K.C. (2001). ‘Report on Literacy and Numeracy Education at Woorabinda Aboriginal Community’

Hodgens, J. (1994). How adult literacy became a public issue in Australia. Open Letter, 4(2).

Jones, A. (1986, 1991) in Lankshear, C. (1996). Language and cultural process. In G. Bull & M. Anstey (Eds.), The literary lexicon. Sydney: Prentice Hall.

Kelly, S. (1989). Developing reading skills. Good Practice in Adult Literacy, 3.

Lankshear, C. (1996). Language and cultural process. In G. Bull & M. Anstey (Eds.), The literary lexicon. Sydney: Prentice Hall.

Ilsley, P.J., & Stahl, N.A. (1993). Reconceptualizing the language of adult literacy. In A.P. Newman (Ed.), Adult literacy: Contexts and challenges. Newark, Del: International Reading Association, Bloomington.

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.


4 thoughts on “Essay: Discourse Theory and Black English Vernacular Amongst Australian Aborigines

  1. Really very interesting article!

    Posted by Dugutigui | March 15, 2012, 00:39
  2. Thanks for the informative article. I have heard of such studies and outcomes but never in the detail that you have so clearly put it. The shame is that the Discourse Vs. discourse sounds like the same word when speaking of the subject; especially if you are speaking to those who need help in discourse. It is like our Republican Vs. republican when talking politics. Some Democrats like the republican concept and some moderate Republicans may like the democratic concept. Holy cow! Now I have confused even myself. I think I’m turning into a Libertarian.

    Posted by Waldo "Wally" Tomosky | March 15, 2012, 02:06
  3. This a truly a fantastic post – thank you so much ….

    Posted by viveka | March 16, 2012, 19:28
  4. This is really an interesting discussion of discourse theory. My only knowledge of discourse theory is from some exposure from reading J. Habermas’ communicative action theory about 2 years ago. Habermas, and very concisely, essentially uses language as the means (or idea) to connect speech acts with his concept of rationality. The later may have given me some background, though slight knowledge, about discourse theory. Moreover, when reading about Discourse vs. discourse, I was also thinking about the earlier controversy in the United States about introducing into some inner-city schools what they refer to as “Ebonics”, which is “supposedly” the language of all people descended from enslaved Black African. The later idea seems very similar to the role of discourse theory that your article addresses in the context of “Aboriginal English.” With that being sad, it is really an excellent article. Thank you.

    Posted by mulrickillion | March 17, 2012, 22:41

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