50 Years of Bilingual Education in Utju

In the heart of the Northern Territory lies the community of Utju, celebrating a significant achievement - 50 years of bilingual education.

With a population of around 300 people, Utju has faced numerous obstacles and opposing opinions to secure their right to learn in both English and Pitjantjatjara, their native language.

What is a “bilingual education”?

Bilingual education refers to teaching academic content in two languages. The term "bilingual" implies that students are exposed to a balanced amount of both languages, allowing them to develop proficiency and understanding in both languages.

This dual language focus equips youth in remote Australian communities with the skills they need to become bicultural adults. By learning in both their native language and English, students are able to navigate the complexities of the modern world while retaining a strong connection to their cultural heritage.

The history of bilingual education in Utju

Tarna Andrews, a teacher and community member of Utju for 38 years, has seen the changes in the education system firsthand. Growing up in a bilingual education system, Tarna developed a deep appreciation for learning and now understands four separate languages: Pintupi Luritja, Anindilyakwa, Pitjantjatjara, and English. ‘I used to go to school every day…I was a top student’, says Tarna.  

However, the community's right to learn in their native language was nearly taken away in the 2008 when there were predictions that the Northern Territory Education Department was going to focus teaching in English instead of having an equal split of learning in English and Pitjantjatjara. ‘They wanted to cut our tongues out’, says Tarna. Elders, teachers, and community members united to protest for their rights, and despite facing opposition, they were successful in convincing the department to reconsider their decision.

Strength as a community

Tarna emphasises the importance of continuing to teach in language to keep the community’s culture and identity alive. ‘We have to keep our culture strong...where we are from, what our culture is…it's our land and our identity…it’s where we are from' says Tarna.  

Through consistent planning and dedication, youth are now able to learn in the same way generations before them have, with lesson plans structured around the seasons and weekly excursions on Country allowing for students to strengthen their connection to culture, identity, and sense of place.

For more than 15 years now, Red Dust has been working in close collaboration with the community of Utju, forging a strong and positive relationship centered around the fundamental values of education, health, and well-being for the youth. The community actively outlines the Red Dust program learnings with the team, and sessions are thoughtfully conducted in both language and English, ensuring that every student is engaged and inspired to connect with themselves and their community. With a primary goal of empowering the students, Red Dust's programming has been instrumental in fostering a sense of belonging and pride within the community.

Looking towards the future, the community is proud of their culture and identity and is committed to ensuring that their education system continues to thrive. With approximately 80% of students attending Areyonga School being bilingual and a positive increase in the number of students completing their education at boarding schools across the country, the success of Utju's bilingual education system is a testament to the strength and resilience of the community.

Play a role in preservation

With your support we can continue to provide young people with opportunities to learn from their Elders on-Country — the best place to learn about your own culture.