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Centre of Excellence helps to substantially expand documentation of Australian and Pacific-region languages


Date: 27 November 2017

The ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language is celebrating its involvement in the documentation of over 100 languages of Australia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Vanuatu and the broader Asia-Pacific region.

ARC Chief Executive Officer, Professor Sue Thomas, is pleased to see the Centre contributing to securing Australia’s language heritage through the outcomes of its research.

“It is fantastic to see the research undertaken through the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language contributing immensely to our knowledge of endangered Australian languages and producing tangible resources that can be utilised by communities,” says Professor Thomas.

“Through its research into the languages in our local region the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language is also playing an important role in informing our understanding of Australia’s place in the world.”

Centre Director Professor Nick Evans says of the 121 languages the Centre is involved in documenting, only nine are not endangered. “That means that there are 112 languages that we are studying that need urgent and detailed documentation,” says Professor Evans. “Or perhaps better put – that people are teaching us, since time and again we find incredible enthusiasm and commitment from speakers who are keen to show the nuances of their languages and the knowledge they transmit, and to secure this for the generations to come.”

He says it’s important to emphasize, celebrate and continue to document the Indigenous languages on our own continent. “We estimate around 300 languages were spoken when Europeans arrived in Australia. Today, around fifty are still spoken and most are gravely endangered.” But beyond Australia itself, our whole region is the most linguistically rich on earth – the island of New Guinea (Papua New Guinea plus West Papua) contains over a sixth of the world’s languages, and Vanuatu has more languages per capita than any country on earth.

Most of the documentation work is done under the Centre’s ‘Shape of Language’ program, which is pushing forward efforts to document endangered languages of Australia’s region. Leader of this program, Associate Professor Rachel Nordlinger says not only is the Centre describing small, under-described Australian, Papuan and other languages, but it is also involved in describing ‘new’ languages such as creole languages and mixed languages that have developed through contact between traditional languages and colonial languages such as English.

She says traditional methods for language documentation based on intensive fieldwork are being complemented by new techniques for gaining data on remote languages, such as use of new digital technologies including games, apps and robots, and new detailed frameworks for comparing components of related and non-related languages.

“The research we do has both theoretical and practical value,” says Associate Professor Nordlinger. “On a practical level, the research leads to the development of linguistic resources for communities such as dictionaries, story books and other essential language materials and on a theoretical level, greater understanding of under-described languages helps us appreciate the full and diverse range of structures possible in human language.”

Professor Evans says one of the main aims of the Centre is to secure language heritage. “Language is a key to better understanding ourselves. Language can hold all sorts of clues to why we do things this way or that way. It’s a bit like making discoveries in biology, where the discovery of unimagined species continues to amaze us. Language is the same. The more we investigate the world’s languages, the more amazed we are at the diversity of language and the wisdom this imparts. 

Associate Professor Nordlinger says linguists and language experts can spend days, months listening repeatedly to recorded phrases to accurately transcribe, annotate, and calibrate a handful of sentences. “It’s important work but it’s exacting. At the same time, we recognise that by working closely with communities and organisations like AIATSIS and First Languages Australia, we are making great strides to document the diversity and extraordinariness of languages of our region.”

For interviews on the work being done on languages of Australia and the Australian region please contact Leanne Scott via email:


To see a digital map showing each language being documented by the CoEDL Shape program go here.

More information about Australian languages can be found at these sites:

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University