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Exploring Indigenous multilingualisms: New research shows how linguistic diversity persists and evolves


Date: 2 November 2018

In Indigenous communities that support many small languages, multilingualism is sustained through quite different processes to what has been found in migrant communities, which have been much more thoroughly researched. Studying these Indigenous communities can tell us how linguistic diversity evolves and is maintained, as a new special issue of Language & Communication (Vol 62, Part B) reveals.

A comparison of Indigenous communities around the world shows shared strategies in the way people use language and connect language and identity. Communities with high levels of multilingualism that support many small languages are under pressure from globalisation, but numerous ‘hotspots’ persist around the globe. 

Edited by Centre-affiliated reasearchers Drs Ruth Singer and Jill Vaughan, this special issue compares multilingualism across Indigenous communities in Australia, Africa, North America, South America, and the Arctic. The findings illustrate the ways in which high levels of linguistic diversity can be maintained and the kinds of shifts that result from colonisation.

The journal articles address some of the big questions about the dynamics of Indigenous multilingualisms: 

  • How is sociolinguistic distinctiveness projected onto language?
  • How are language boundaries maintained and regimented?
  • What is the role of variation in intensely multilingual societies?
  • How does multilingualism influence the shape of languages?
  • How have other aspects of culture interacted with language?

As the editors point out in their introduction, although multilingualism has been the norm throughout human history, we still know very little about all the different kinds of multilingualisms found around the world, even today. Much work in the field has proceeded from a ‘domain-separation’ model of a language hierarchy, whereby languages co-exist but are associated with distinct contexts and have differing social statuses. This issue considers contexts where such mainstream models do not apply.

Attention to multilingualism in Indigenous contexts tends to focus exclusively on the dynamics between local languages on the one hand and new languages that grow or come into being as a result of colonialism on the other, such as English, Portuguese, Nheengatú or Australian Kriol. There has been a lack of attention to relations between Indigenous languages. These dynamics can be overshadowed by a focus on colonial-Indigenous relations or rendered invisible by erroneous assumptions about traditional Indigenous life.

As the papers in this special issue show, intra-Indigenous multilingualisms are an integral part of intra-Indigenous relations more generally, and distinct from colonial-Indigenous relations. For example, Patience Epps notes that while code-switching between Hup and Portuguese is common, code-switching between Hup and another Indigenous language would evoke strong censure.

The articles reveal the ways that multiple Indigenous languages come to be deeply embedded into the fabric of daily life. Many of the Indigenous communities where multilingualism has endured are at global ‘peripheries’, where the reach of colonial and globalizing influences is attenuated. In analysing Indigenous multilingualisms, researchers have had to ‘unlearn’ assumptions about how social and linguistic groups map onto one another due to their often unconscious commitment to linguistic nationalism. This special issue helps us to better understand how languages and language ecologies persist and change under colonial pressures.

As a collection, the papers contribute to destabilising key concepts in sociolinguistics. ‘Accommodation’, claimed to be universal and grounded in shared psychological predispositions, is found in many communities to be balanced by ideologies of differentiation (see Epps, Singer, Watson). The enduring enigma of the ‘speech community’ is examined across communities and treated as a ‘middle space’ integrating the understandings of the researcher and research participants (see Vaughan, Singer). Long-standing patterns of multilingualism play into more recent processes and discourses around development and identity politics (see Kroskrity, Pietikäinen, Narayanan).

If we are concerned with language maintenance and loss, we can gain a great deal by paying closer attention to how people use languages in multilingual communities, and how these practices connect with beliefs about language and identity.

Cover - Language and CommunicationVol 62, part B

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