Aboriginal English

A sentence in Kriol

Many assume that if you are born in Australia, that you speak Standard Australian English. This is incorrect – not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children speak English as their first language.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have lived in capital cities almost all their lives still use language words, especially those that relate to private things, such as geel, jillewa, and so on.

Eades (1993) explains  ‘Many varieties of Aboriginal English have no h sound at the beginning of the word … This feature is largely the result of the influence of traditional Aboriginal languages which have no h sound. Over the generations, Aboriginal speakers have learned English with an Aboriginal accent. So when they have learned  Standard English words which start with an h sound, the Aboriginal accent has produced them without it’. This is also seen with French speakers of English, who have no aitch sound in their language.

As teachers, we can be aware that a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children come to school with languages other than English, but if we focus so much on (English) literacy, somewhere the knowledge that children can be literate in any language gets lost. Can we accept the legitimacy of Aboriginal Englishes, Creoles and Kriol and instead of telling the child that this is ‘bad English’, accept that they come to school with a language other than English?

Hanlen, in her 2010 article for NSW, explains why many children who have language and cultural backgrounds other than English do well at school. She says that ‘Children who come to Australia from other countries, for example, in Asia, Europe and the Middle East generally come from literate families whose social practices often involve literacy practices. The children generally, have been exposed to these and the value of literacy in education’ (Hanlen 2007). Students may have a difficult time initially, while learning English as a second language as well as coping with classroom learning concepts.

However, children who do their learning in the early years in their home language or dialect achieve better outcomes than their peers who are forced to learn in the second language or dialect (Cummins 1989; Eades 1991; Hagen 1987). The linguistic skills that these students gained while experiencing their early learning in their home language are easily transferable to the learning of the second language. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, due to historical and other reasons, may not come from “literate” families whose social practices involve literary practices.


Cummins, J 1989, Empowering minority students, California Association for Bilingualism Education, Sacramento, United States.

Eades, D 1993, Aboriginal English, Primary English Teaching Association, Rozelle, viewed 26 June 2015, <http://www.naclc.org.au/cb_pages/files/Aboriginal%20English%20in%20the%20Legal%20System%20-%20Diane%20Eades.pdf>.

Eades, D 1991, ‘Communicative strategies in Aboriginal English’, in Language in Australia, S Romaine (ed), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hagen, A 1987, ‘Dialect speaking and school education in Europe’, Sociolinguistica, Vol. 1.

Hanlen, W 2010, Aboriginal students: Cultural insights for teaching literacy, NSW Department of Education and Training, Sydney, viewed 8 November 2016, <http://www.a-id.org/pdf/aboriginal-students.pdf>.