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Director weekly highlights 11 Mar

Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 11 March 2022

Extreme times we live in. While last week I wrote about the war in Ukraine – which continues to worsen, and as a result of which we have reinstituted a ‘solidarity section’ below – this week the violent floods in Eastern Australia are a dramatic reminder of how ‘normal’ is becoming ever more hypothetical. On behalf of CoEDL I would like to send our support to all those in our community who have been affected by the terrible flooding, both in Queensland and New South Wales. 

Against this background I’m always amazed how much CoEDL work keeps going on. Among the many news items below I’d particularly like to signal the National Indigenous Languages Report (NILR), and the National Indigenous Languages Survey 3 (NILS3)– which is now available online. NILR is the most ambitious and closely-argued survey yet of the state of Indigenous Languages across Australia, and if you didn’t read it first time around I’d encourage you to take a look now it’s more easily available, since it is such a model of clarity. It reflects the work of a huge and talented team, particularly by researchers at AIATSIS (Jacqueline Battin, Jason Lee, Douglas Marmion, Rhonda Smith, Tandee Wang) (who are responsible for NILS3), CoEDL (Denise Angelo, Emma Browne, Inge Kral, Carmel O’Shannessy, Jane Simpson, Hilary Smith) and CAEPR, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, (Yonatan Dinku, Janet Hunt, Francis Markham). 

If you haven’t already done so, please check out the petition linked to at the end of this week’s mailout, regarding the proposed amendment by Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi to remove the political interference, euphemistically known as Ministerial Discretion, over ARC grants. We need only to look elsewhere in the world to see that, if we care about freedom, the line in the sand needs to be drawn early. 

During this week and next I’m on fieldwork in the Northern Territory, just outside Katherine, working with Manuel Pamkal and others on the huge job of turning around one Australian Indigenous Language, Dalabon, which is now down to just a few speakers. Manuel was born in the early 1960s and his parents made a conscious decision to bring him up in the bush rather than let him go to the school in Barunga (then Beswick). As a result, his knowledge of language culture eclipses that of others his age or even older, who were brought up in less traditional settings. But, of course, it is hard to maintain your full linguistic range when there’s nobody else at your level of fluency to talk to, so besides making new recordings, another part of our work is ‘listening to the old people’ – going back over archived materials, of which the oldest date from the early 1960s, and painstakingly transcribing and translating them. (And, if you read Nick Thieberger’s blog below on how ‘Desiccated history can be rehydrated’, you’ll appreciate that the noise-to-signal ratio in some of those old recordings can get pretty high). A lot of the really interesting things come out of the discussions we have as we carefully listen to the recordings together, try to work out the exact words being used, and then establish a really precise translation. One of my favourites from today is a family of compound ‘grab and go’ words built on bard, a stripped-out verb root meaning ‘grab’ – e.g. borndok-bard ‘grabbing woomera’ or madj-bard ‘getting your swag together’. We often think of evolving morphological complexity in polysynthetic languages as a one-way street, as reduced words glom on to ever-larger verbs, but one of the unusual things about Dalabon is how far speakers pull out various substrings and use them independently. And that’s where it’s really useful to look at recordings from a wide range of speakers through time, so as to see if this is a feature of ‘new Dalabon’, or is fading out, or has been around for as long as we can tell. The jury’s still out. 

This week our CoEDL spotlight turns to Alba Tuninetti, again from the WSU node and again one of Paola Escudero’s postdocs. I’ll sign off here and wish you all the tenacity, compassion and calm you’ll need to find your way through the coming week. 

Nick Evans


CoEDL spotlight: Alba Tuninetti 

Introducing Alba (Paola Escudero)

Alba applied for the first CoEDL postdoc position I advertised in 2014, long before finishing her PhD. I immediately saw her incredible potential and suggested she applied for the highly competitive Australian Government Endeavour Research Fellowship, and surely, she was successful. She joined CoEDL and MARCS immediately after submitting her PhD thesis at the beginning of 2016 and was supposed to be in Australia for six months. Of course, I had huge plans for her and after her fellowship, I knew she would be the best candidate for my second CoEDL postdoc. She became the soul and pillar of our team: supervising students and RAs, starting projects with multiple CoEDL members across universities, teaching masters units, etc, etc. Alba’s energy and passion have seen many projects to completion. I was sad to see her leave in 2019, but she was clearly ready to have her own lab and continue her academic career. We have since continued our work on multiple projects and I’m so proud to have an academic of such calibre within my lifelong collaborators. I’m certain wherever her academic path takes her, she’ll be as fabulous as when I walked daily in her office and saw our 10+ projects planned up on her whiteboard ready for the next steps. 


After completing my postdoc at WSU/MARCS Institute and with CoEDL in late 2019, I began a tenure-track position in the Department of Psychology and in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey in February 2020. It has been quite the ride so far! The pandemic started shortly after my arrival in Ankara, and so I was slowed down a bit in terms of setting up a new lab – pivoting to online teaching, administration, service, and research in a new country (new language, new cultural milieu) was an adventure, to say the least. However, my time at CoEDL really helped me adapt and gave me projects to work on while things were shut down here in Turkey. 

In my current projects at Bilkent, my work and collaborations at CoEDL have really helped guide my research ideas so far. For example, one of my Master’s students is working on replicating and extending some of our work on cross-situational word learning using ERP measures, with some exciting added manipulations based on Turkish vowel harmony. My CoEDL collaborations continue strongly as well, with work coming out hopefully this year on some of the projects that were started while I was there (EEG in PNG, first language influences on second language perception, to name just a couple). 

During my time with CoEDL and at WSU and the MARCS Institute, I worked closely with and learned from people who had much more of the ‘linguistics’ knowledge I had not received as a PhD student focused more on the psychological/cognitive side of language. Many of these interactions, which included talking about theoretical and empirical work, have greatly influenced my current research paths and pending grants. Finally, just simply having access to diverse research topics, researchers, and research populations really helped me adapt to the new language setting, student and researcher population, and work environment in Turkey. I hope that these collaborations and projects can continue in the future, as I work to expand psycho- and neurolinguistic work of vowel harmony, word learning, and first and second language speech perception. 

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