Language is perhaps the most remarkable innovation in the history of the human species giving us an effective means to cooperate in groups, pursue complex ideas and develop unique perspectives of our world. Our Centre is investigating language as a diverse, dynamic and evolving organism that interacts with our perceptual processes in ingenious ways. Understanding why the world’s languages are designed so differently—and how our minds acquire and exploit them to achieve different outcomes—will help generate important scientific insights and exciting new technologies.
What We Do
We aim to integrate typology and descriptive linguistics, evolutionary approaches, and studies of learning and processing across a wide range of linguistic types with the aim of setting up a new approach to language that places diversity, variation and change at centre stage.
At the heart of the Centre‘s work are four basic puzzles.
PUZZLE ONE: LANGUAGE DIVERSITY.
A striking fact about human language is the enormous diversity across the world‘s 7,000 languages. Why do languages differ so much among themselves, how much can they differ, and what does the multitude of design solutions tell us about ways of building functioning communication systems that satisfy the multiple needs of a human language? The rampant erosion of linguistic diversity in Australia and the world risks removing the evidence we need to answer these questions unless we engage in a comprehensive campaign of language documentation.
PUZZLE TWO: LANGUAGE LEARNING.
How do children manage to learn language(s) so quickly, despite the great variability in their learning targets? What is different in the way adults learn languages? What difference does it make to children if they grow up in a bilingual or multilingual environment? Are some linguistic features harder to learn than others: for example, the six tones of Cantonese or the eight tones of the West Papuan language Iau, or the gigantic polysynthetic structure of words in indigenous Australian languages like Mayali or Murrinh-Patha?
PUZZLE THREE: LANGUAGE PROCESSING.
How do we as adults process our native language so effortlessly yet struggle in using foreign languages? How do particular languages cultivate some parts of our potential and diminish others, and what are the effects of being bi- (or multi-)lingual? When we learn a particular language, we re-engineer our minds as we install this culturally evolved software in the neural pathways of our brains connected to our mouths, ears and gesturing hands. How deep are the effects of this on other aspects of cognition?
PUZZLE FOUR: LANGUAGE EVOLUTION.
Just as biologists study the complexity and variety of life through investigating processes of evolution, so the language sciences seek to understand the complexity and diversity of languages through studying the processes by which they evolve. Language is the bedrock of all human institutions; no other communication technology is as flexible or far-reaching. Yet unlike other technological and political tools – from mobile phones to our electoral system – most of language’s intricacies, whether in English or Japanese, emerged bottom-up, in a self-organising way, without conscious planning or central directives. How languages evolve and change raises basic questions about human interaction.
Tying all four puzzles together is the fact we manage to understand each other despite using a dynamic system in constant change. This omnipresent variability in language is at once a social fact (each generation talks a little bit different – or perhaps differently? – and talks differently when speaking to adults, infants, pets, foreigners), a geographical fact (Australians speak differently from Singaporeans), and a biographical fact, since the way we speak changes through our lifetimes. How does this language change occur, and how do we manage to use language effectively despite the noise this generates? Can the examination of small-scale variation – through order of learning, ease of processing, social differentiation – inform our understanding of the more dramatic types of language difference that have driven the processes of linguistic evolution?
If you have a burning question that relates to our research program, check out our FAQs page or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org