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Lifelong learning for
a fairer Australia

Lifelong learning for
a fairer Australia

Slipping and sliding between social, cultural, and linguistic spaces through Aboriginal English

Dr Robyn Ober, Batchelor Institute

Aboriginal English (AE) is a dialect of Australian English spoken as a first language by most Aboriginal people living in urban, rural, and regional Australia. Ober and Bell (2012) state that “this form of communication is rich, highly structured, and a complex form of the English language and it is widely appropriated in the social and cultural domains of Aboriginal people” (p.60).

According to Eades (1993), “it seems that there were about 250 languages spoken in this country before the British invasion, with at least 600 distinct dialects” (p. 2). Still, because of horrific historical encounters at first contact between the invaders and Aboriginal people, most Indigenous Australian languages were wiped out. About these atrocities, Bell (2002) points out that while Aboriginal languages have not survived intact, some have survived but in “varying degrees of healthiness” (p.43).

Language, culture, identity, and learning go hand in hand; one cannot do without the other. They are embedded and intertwined tightly together. Therefore, it is imperative that educators seriously consider the social, cultural, and linguistic repertoire of their students, be they young children, or secondary, or tertiary education students.

Teaching from a strengths-based approach considers the student’s rich cultural and linguistic heritage and knowledge system. Educators must recognise this rich heritage to build on students’ foundational knowledge base and develop curriculum, content, and activities to enable students to draw on their social, cultural, and linguistic repertoire. This way of teaching and learning also brings a sense of pride, confidence, and capability from the students’ cultural perspectives and positions. This pedagogical approach is important regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners’ mental health and social well-being.

‘Slipping and sliding’ is a term that has emerged from a conversation during an Aboriginal staff Kapati (cup of tea) as part of my PhD research study, which focused on the topic, ‘Aboriginal English as a social, cultural, and linguistic marker in Indigenous Tertiary Education.’ Slipping and sliding are terms coined by an experienced Aboriginal lecturer reflecting on her extensive teaching experience in the common units – ‘Public Communication’ and ‘Telling Histories’ (compulsory Higher Education units previously offered at Batchelor Institute).

This descriptive explanation of “slipping and sliding” captured an image of continuous fluidity, flexibility, and movement, which often comes into play when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come together, whether in a tertiary setting or everyday social life. One could argue that this moving to and fro between linguistic codes, and cultural, and social domains happens in all socio-cultural contexts; however, I believe the difference here is that it is uncommon in mainstream tertiary educational learning environments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to experience this. As Malcolm (2014) states, “when Aboriginal English (AE) speakers enter an education system based on Standard Australian English (SAE), there is an assumed priority given to the dialect which does not have their primary identification” (p. 2). In other words, SAE is usually given priority and higher status and recognition than AE even though AE is “spoken throughout Australia, as either the first or second language of the great majority of Aboriginal people” (Eades, 1993, p.2).

Slipping and sliding in my PhD study looks beyond the spoken language to understand how language is used to move in and out of social, cultural, and linguistic spaces. The slipping and sliding concept is similar to the relatively new social linguistic concept ‘translanguaging,’ introduced by Garcia and Li Wei (2014), which also focuses on how multilingual speakers move in and out of language/dialectal varieties within the intercultural spaces by drawing on their socio-linguistic and cultural repertoire. Garcia and Li Wei (2014) state that: “…

“…translanguaging differs from the notion of code-switching in that it refers not simply to a shift or a shuttle between two languages, but to the speakers’ construction and use of original and complex interrelated discursive practices that cannot be easily assigned to one or another traditional definition of a language, but that make up the speakers’ complete language repertoire” (Garcia & Li Wei, 2014, p. 22).

The use of Aboriginal English or Indigenous students’ first languages, such as Kriols or heritage languages, is instrumental in teaching in a meaningful and accessible approach. It is about presenting educational content to Indigenous learners in an understandable and relevant way to ensure they are receiving the same quality education as all students. This teaching practice enables students not only to comprehend and dissect educational content but also to challenge, voice their opinions, and critique Western academic standpoints, thereby disrupting entrenched educational norms, processes, and practices.

The world we live in is culturally diverse and multicultural, and teaching from a dominantly Western academic perspective supports the notion of excluding and disempowering minority and Indigenous Australian people and their ways of seeing, knowing, and being. Teaching from a strengths-based approach is about empowering and equipping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with the knowledge, skills, and conceptual understanding that are critical for them to slip and slide into the multi-worlds of Aboriginal and mainstream Australia. These are the local, national, and global spaces that we all navigate, engage, and interact with on a daily basis.


Bell, J. S. (2002). Narrative Research in TESOL, Narrative Enquiry: More Than Just Telling Stories, TESOL Quarterly, 36, (2), 207-212. Retrieved from

Eades, D. (1993). Aboriginal English, PEN 93, Newtown, NS.W. PETA Primary English Teaching Association. Australia, 1-4

Garcia O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Basingstoke. Palgrave McMillan UK.  

Ober, & Bell, J. (2012). English Language as Juggernaut – Aboriginal English and Indigenous Languages in Australia. In Rapatahana V & Bunce P (Eds) English Language As Hydra – Its Impact On Non-English Language Cultures. (pp. 60 -75) Multilingual Matters, St. Nicholas House, 31-34 High Street, Bristol BS12AW, UK

Malcolm, I. (2014, October). Education in Australian English: The Challenge for Aboriginal English Speakers. Paper presented at Australian Council of TESOL Association (ACTA) International Conference “Meeting the Challenge”. Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre

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