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Kriol as social semiotic: New perspectives on language exclusion and benevolent coercion in schools in the north of Australia

Gollagher, Shirley (1994) Kriol as social semiotic: New perspectives on language exclusion and benevolent coercion in schools in the north of Australia. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis is based upon fieldwork that I carried out between 1978 and 1982 at the ‘Special Aboriginal School’, as it was then called, at Fitzroy Crossing, a small settlement in the central Kimberley region of Western Australia. The issues that I address are pertinent to many schools in the north of Australia today.

Kriol is the first language of many, though not all, Aboriginal children in the Kimberleys. For ideological reasons Western Australian educators have generally excluded this language from the school curriculum and have disregarded it as an important resource for educational purposes. Aboriginal people themselves are divided in their opinions as to whether Kriol should have a place in Western Australian schools. Some are strongly opposed to the idea.

In association with this ideology of language rejection, teachers commonly employ strategies of benevolent coercion to provide cues to Kriol speaking children as to how they can express meanings in the register of school English, in spoken discourse. These strategies, intended to assist children to communicate in the classroom, actually inhibit their capacity to enter into discourse in ways that are valued by teachers. Aboriginal children are consequently perceived as being unduly shy and inarticulate, particularly by teachers inexperienced in interacting with them. With respect to language, certain Aboriginal children in the Kimberleys are commonly perceived as being disadvantaged in two ways - by the fact that they speak a creole language as their mother tongue, and by the apparent ‘shyness’ that impedes their performance in dialogues in the register of school English.

Critical linguistics and social semiotics provide the theoretical foundations of the case that I present in opposition to this view. To argue the case I present my interactions with Aboriginal children as an adult-in-authority, a ‘typical’ teacher, an icon for other teachers. I analyse the written texts which remain as traces of our discourse using M.A.K. Halliday’s notions of the interpersonal, textual and ideational semantic functions of language. The critical perspective reveals the ways in which I unintentionally inhibit children’s production of meaningful language through the dominating discourse strategies that I employ. In situations in which I allow the children to initiate talk with me and when they talk among themselves in my absence, aspects of their world of meaning are revealed in the semantic systems of their texts. Children’s discourse, uninhibited by benevolently coercive strategies, reveals a form of consciousness different from my form of consciousness. Awareness of this different consciousness as it is revealed in texts is essential if teachers are to understand the orientations to experience with which Kriol speaking Aboriginal children operate.

I argue that Aboriginal pupils’ semiosic resources should be accommodated in schools in two ways. The first is to incorporate opportunities for pupils to speak and write with a distinctively Aboriginal voice, making use of Kriol or Kriol-style English in certain genres for cultural as well as economic reasons. At the same time pupils can be taught to recognise and implement the differences between Kriol-style English, which is based upon an oral tradition and the forms of English based upon a tradition of literacy. The second way is to recognise that Aboriginal ways of creating texts with both Kriol and English resources reveal more powerfully, than do generalised theories of child development, children’s customary orientations to knowing and to meaning.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): O'Toole, Michael and Hodge, Bob
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