13 June 2014

Australia is a multicultural country; its community is  diverse in heritage and culture. One of our challenges, though is that the  nation is largely monolingual.

English is the sole language spoken in the home of 77% of  Australians, according to the 2011 census. Yet Australia sits at the epicentre of  linguistic diversity. One hundred Australian Aboriginal languages and dialects are still spoken. In our near neighbourhood over 700 unique languages are spoken in Indonesia and well over 800 in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Many of these languages are poorly studied and at risk of becoming 'dead languages'.

There is a dedicated research team that is working to help Australia overcome its monolingual status and embrace this rich indigenous  language heritage before more of it disappears.

Professor Nicholas Evans is the Director of the new $28 million ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at the Australian National University (ANU).

Professor Evans is a linguist at ANU who has worked closely  with indigenous communities in Northern Australia and PNG to document their languages. Through this centre he hopes to harvest some of the great bounty of  linguistic diversity which exists on Australia's doorstep, and break down the barriers which insulate most of us from this diversity.

Learning a language is not always a straight and easy path.

Professor Evans said that although he now speaks a dozen languageswell enough to get by inhis first enjoyable experience of  another tongue wasn't until university. This is when he did a year-long course in Russian as an aside to his undergraduate psychology degree.

"Later, when I spent a year travelling in Europe, I took the trans-Siberian express and although the carriages were partitioned back then, I sloped down the car and mingled with the Soviets at the other end of the train,"  Professor Evans said.

As the love of language blossomed Professor Evans found  himself arguing in French with his host in Provence, where he had been working on a grape harvest.

"I learned that you don't have to know every word, you just plunge in," he said.

"I thought I had overstepped the mark attacking him for his racist homilies, but after I had said my piece, my host warmly shook my hand  and said 'Bon, on peut se discuter, hein?'  ('Well, we can talk, huh?')."

However, it was the experience of hearing an Australian Aboriginal language for the first time which ignited the passion for understanding and documenting new languages which still burns at the heart of Professor Evans'  work.

"Cliff Goddard (now Professor of linguistics at Griffith  University) suggested I come along to one of his classes on Aboriginal languages taught by Professor Bob Dixon," he said.

"There was a reel-to-reel tape recorder in the room, from  which the mysterious sounds of the Yidiñ language were rising, in the telling of an aboriginal myth about the origins of death.

"We had a page of vocabulary to translate and as we slowly worked through it, the meaning emerged like magic...I was hooked."

Professor Evans' great hope is that languages can be taught in  Australian schools 'carefully and intelligently' to capture the same magic, stating that his own experience of learning language at high school was 'inauthentic' and taught by people who didn't encourage curiosity about the languages they taught.

"We are faced with the 'Pol Pot problem', which is that if you abolish all the people who are experts, it takes a long time to rebuild."

The ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language seeks to rebuild Australia's strengths in languages by taking a resolutely multi-disciplinary approach to tie together some of the most intriguing strands within language research today.

The centre draws these into four 'puzzles':  

Puzzle 1Diversity of language: why is there  so much language diversity in the world and our region? How much can languages differ and what function do these differences have?

Puzzle 2Language learning: how do children learn languages, and how is this different from the way adults learn them? What  difference does it make when children grow up in a bilingual or multilingual environment?

Puzzle 3Language processing: how do we as  adults process our native language so effortlessly yet struggle with foreign  languages? When we re-engineer our neural pathways to learn a new language, how does this affect our other cognitive abilities?

Puzzle 4Language evolution: seeks to understand the complexity and diversity of languages by studying the processes by which they evolve.

A team of experts will join with Professor Evans to lead inquiry along these four lines. The team includes:

  • Professor Jane Simpson, Indigenous linguistics  expert at the ANU
  • Professor Kim Sterelny, ARC Laureate Fellow and  ANU philosopher, specialising in the evolution of language
  • Professor Janet Wiles, Roboticist expert from  the University of Queensland
  • Professor Anne Cutler, psycholinguist from the  MARCS Institute at the University of Western Sydney and former director of the  Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands
  • Professor  Jill Wigglesworth, from The University of Melbourne who is an expert on how  indigenous children learn languages in bilingual settings and its educational implications.

One of the more ambitious research projects is the attempt  to build a complete phylogenetic tree of the world's languages, by using  computer methods to look for tell-tale signals of a common origin.

This is like attempting to reconstruct the shape of a tree  by looking at a few twigs which are left to us by the winnowing hands of time,  yet the reward would be the reconstruction of the narrative of human evolution  itself.

"Languages are the arteries and capillaries of the national  body," said Professor Evans.

"But once you're serious about supporting language research in Australiaeven just to study the  20 or 30 main aboriginal languagesthat's  a big job. They don't even all have dictionaries yet."

With the interlocking of diverse teams at the ARC Centre of  Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, this formidable task is now underway.

For more information please contact Professor Nicholas Evans.

* an Indonesian/Malay  proverb meaning: Language is the soul of a nation.


Image: Professor Nick Evans interprets a contract for Kaiadilt artist Sally Gabori, whose artwork appears in the Queensland High Court. 
Photograph courtesy Hilary Jackman.