Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences

First Advisor

Professor Ian Malcolm

Second Advisor

Dr Craig Speelman


National measures of achievement among Australian school children suggest that Aboriginal students, considered as a group, are those most likely to end their schooling without achieving minimal acceptable levels of literacy and numeracy. In view of the fact that many Aboriginal students dwell in metropolitan areas and speak English as a first language, many educators have been unconvinced that linguistic and cultural difference have been significant factors in this underachievement. This study explores the possibility that, despite intensive exposure to non-Aboriginal society, Aboriginal students in metropolitan Perth may maintain, through a distinctive variety of English, distinctive conceptualisation which may help to account for their lack of success in education. The study first develops a model of conceptualisations that emerge at the group level of cognition. The model draws on the notion of distributed representation to depict what are here termed cultural conceptualisations. Cultural conceptualisations are conceptual structures such as schemas and categories that members of a cultural group draw on in approaching experience. The study employs this model with regard to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students attending schools in the Perth Metropolitan area. A group of 30 Aboriginal primary school students and a matching group of non-Aboriginal students participated in this study. A research technique called Association-Interpretation was developed to tap into cultural conceptualisations across the two groups of participants. The technique was composed of two phases: a) the 'association' phase, in which the participants gave associative responses to a list of 30 everyday words such as 'home' and 'family', and b) the 'interpretation' phase, in which the responses were interpreted from an ethnic viewpoint and compared within and between the two groups. The informants participated in the task individually. The analysis of the data provided evidence for the operation of two distinct, but overlapping, conceptual systems among the two cultural groups studied. The two systems are integrally related to the dialects spoken by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, that is, Aboriginal English and Australian English. The discrepancies between the two systems largely appear to be rooted in the cultural systems which give rise to the two dialects while the overlap between the two conceptual systems appears to arise from several phenomena such as experience in similar physical environments and access to 'modem' life style. A number of responses from non-Aboriginal informants suggest a case of what may be termed conceptual seepage, or a permeation of conceptualisation from one group to another due to contact. It is argued, in the light of the data from this study, that the notions of dialect and 'code-switching' need to be revisited in that their characterisation has traditionally ignored the level of conceptualisation. It is also suggested that the results of this study have implications for the professional preparation of educators dealing with Aboriginal students.

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