Focusing on native-language literacy to teach English

At a refugee Welcome Day event in Newcastle, the city’s diversity is on show.


Generations of migrants are here to celebrate their own cultures and their neighbours’ cultures.

Music is one way to share culture.

Language is another.

But refugee advocate Sister Diana Santelban is concerned that, as younger migrants integrate into Australian culture, they often lose their mother tongues.

“We’re finding, five years after these families are getting here, the kids are not speaking those languages very well. The mothers hold the culture, and we want the mothers to hold the culture as strong as possible, and one of the ways is literacy.”

Sister Diana is the project coordinator of a refugee women’s support centre named Zara’s House.

She says most women who visit the centre are taking English language lessons but many cannot read and write in their original language.

“Most of these women are very intelligent, gifted, creative people. But they never got to go to school. And that’s the truth. So they do not have proficiency in reading and writing their mother language. When the culture is lost because the women haven’t got the ability to pass on the culture, the culture is gone.”

Sister Diana wants to run native-language lessons, believing that, if the mothers can read and write their own languages, their children are more likely to do so.

She says those who are literate within the refugee communities will become the teachers.

“We’ve got young folk here who go, ‘I can do that, I can be a teacher. You know, I used to be a teacher in Afghanistan, and, you know, I’d love to do this,’ or, ‘I used to be a teacher In Syria, mum was a teacher …’ You know? So there are people in the community who can’t wait to get involved.”

One of those is 16-year-old Syrian refugee Mawra Alkasim, who arrived in Newcastle from Damascus six months ago.

She says she believes the lessons could empower the women.

“If you are a kid, and you (say) to your mum, ‘Mum, I can’t understand this lesson in my school, can you just help me doing it, can you tell me the way I have to follow?’ … if the mum is not educated, she will be like, ‘What’s going on? I don’t know. Go to someone else.’ But if she is, her kids will be really proud of her.”

Ms Alkasim says the women should be afforded such an opportunity.

“It gives them a sense of belonging to their culture, to their language, so they just want to do it, because they didn’t have the chance to do it in their country, because of marriage or they had to work or had to have children. So they want to do it now, in Australia.”

But language and literacy researcher Dr Sally Baker, from the University of Newcastle, warns learning English and original language literacy at the same time could be troublesome.

“There isn’t a lot of research that tells us about the impacts of learning first-language literacy at the same time as learning a language and literacy such as English. So it’s difficult to say what the impact will be, and, of course, it depends on the individual and it depends on the instruction. But worst-case scenarios, it could be really confusing. It could actually impede literacy development in either language.”

Still, she acknowledges there are benefits to becoming literate in native languages.

“The literature tells us really strongly that it provides all sorts of good, positive aspects for identity, for a sense of belonging, for a sort of diaspora to the home country.”