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Director weekly highlights 15 Oct

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 15 October 2021

I learned a depressing statistic today from Jean Fornasiero, President of LCNAU and great supporter of our Patji-Dawes Initiative. Only 2.5% of domestic students at Australian Universities take any language (other than English) — and this is setting the bar low, counting just a single semester as enough. This figure just keeps falling, dragged down of course by the closures of many language programs across the country. I often begin these mailouts with reports of what CoEDLers have achieved, whether in their research or in their engagement with the community, but this is an area where we have not succeeded in stopping the tide from going out. And each time this figure drops, there are not just fewer people with the skills to become language teachers. There are also fewer people who realise what a difference language learning makes to deep understanding of other cultures — vital if we are to avoid the reAUKUStration of the Australian mindset —or what a long and perseverant road it has to be. Language learning pathways need to be carefully thought through, and stable over decades, if people are to gain useful mastery of other languages. With elections nearing, it is time for us — not just as CoEDLers, but as citizens and voters — to start thinking how we can raise awareness of the centrality of this issue in that rare window when political parties scout around for new ideas. It’s in some way a good time, because never before have the interconnections between language and societal health and equity been so evident, as has come up in the many stories about the need for properly resourced information about health in a host of languages. 

I’m always wary of thinking the only way to reverse trends like this is through policy. Inspiring individuals can make a difference, like those honoured by the Patji-Dawes award, leading people who perhaps thought they would never manage to learn a language to reach levels they had believed impossible. But our research can also make a difference, by introducing analytic tools into neglected corners of the curriculum. In my own language-learning career, I had turned right away from any interest in foreign languages, after confronting the mediocrity and dogmatism of my high school language teachers. Then I had the good luck, while taking Russian as a spare subject in my science degree, to be taught by two inspiring teachers at the ANU — Reginald de Bray and Margaret Travers. Not only did they dare to introduce phonetic symbols into the classroom from day one — something I’d never seen before at that moment in my life, and which made a huge difference to the accuracy of my pronunciation — but they began in the first week with something I’ve never seen elevated to such a central place in language teaching, before or since: the explicit teaching of Russian intonation. 

I’m sure I’m not alone in having taken whole language courses, over years, without intonation ever being mentioned. Yet it is the thread on which the pearls of segmental phonology are strung, and one of the first things babies work on as they move towards linguistic mastery. So, it is a great pleasure to see Anne Cutler tackling this topic head-on in her plenary talk “Overlooked? Overlook!” at the recent TipToP (Trends in Pedagogical Transmission of Prosody), where she points out that prosody receives little attention from second-language learners and teachers, and brings in some findings of prosodic processing and of how listeners deal with speaker-specific variation. This talk highlighted work Anne has been carrying out with a number of CoEDL PhD students, especially Laurence Bruggeman, Jenny Yu and Martin Ip. 

I’d also like to congratulate the teams working on two other CoEDL projects relevant to helping those with communicative difficulties — and moving along some the goals that led us to include speech pathology in the range of fields planned into CoEDL from the start. At the childhood end of the spectrum, Caroline Jones and her WSU-node-based team have just published ‘A short-form version of the Australian English Communicative Development Inventory’. Many of us have had the good fortune to hear about this as it has gradually been developed, and it’s very timely to see it coming out now in the International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. At the adult end, the UQ-based team of Tony Angwin, Janet Wiles, Pete Worthy and Dave Copland are continuing to develop their co-designed smart phone app to track and improve communication recovery for stroke survivors with aphasia.  

On the job front, linguistics jobs continue to pop up on the market — see the new position at Newcastle and Monash below, added to our rolling crop. And the deadline for the very important ANU Chair is approaching fast, so if you aren’t afraid of big boots to fill and walk in new directions (in a loose sense this continues the professorial position that first Bob Dixon and then Jane Simpson have held) please apply. 

For some of our community this week will bring a taste of liberty, coming out of lockdown. I hope that it brings the chance to reconnect in a more direct and spontaneous way with friends, colleagues and the simple pleasures of shared meals and conversations, as well as the opportunity to bring in those of our community who maybe arrived into lockdown, and who have so far missed out on the chance to get to know their workmates face-to-face. 


Nick Evans 

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