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Director weekly highlights 19 Nov

Jane Simpson, Outreach

Date: 19 November 2021

This update focuses on language learning, but I’m starting with a sparkler alert: tomorrow in Baltimore is the award ceremony for the Edward Sapir Prize of the Linguistics Anthropology Society of America. CoEDL members Inge Kral and Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis have been shortlisted for their book 'In the time of their lives'. And tune in to the series Tongue Tied and Fluent (Sheila Ngọc Phạm & Masako Fukui) which has won the ‘Living well with super diversity’ category of the ABU UNESCO T4P Media Awards 2021 for a documentary series that explores and celebrates multilingualism in Australia. Among others, CoEDL CI Catherine Travis and CoEDL members Antonia Rubino and John Giacon were involved.

Other hot news is that you can now order Danielle Barth and Stefan Schnell’s new textbook 'Understanding corpus linguistics' (mentioned in a June update). I’ve held it admiringly in my hands — it’s the distillation of a collaboration born from CoEDL into a textbook that will help other people build on the insights that have come from the CoEDL corpus workshops, from people building their own corpora of large (English) and small languages, from Wolfgang Barth’s ANNIS work, and from the authors’ experience teaching people about corpora. So good to see! 

Studies on learning and teaching Aboriginal languages have poured out this week from CoEDL PhD graduates and students. All are deeply involved in teaching as well as in linguistics, and they marry an understanding of morphosyntax of Aboriginal languages with research that translates into education. Bill Forshaw's book The acquisition of complex morphology: Insights from Murrinhpatha (2021) has appeared. Rush to your library webpage and order it! (And if you can't wait, check out his 2016 PhD thesis Little kids, big verbs: the acquisition of Murrinhpatha bipartite stem verbs). In recent years, we've admired a constellation of work from CoEDL people on Murrinhpatha interaction, morpho-syntax, phonology and processing, and Bill's book promises to show how children learn the complexity of it all. 

Emma Browne gave a well-attended (the advantage of Zoom) pre-thesis-submission seminar 'Linguistic continuity in the Warlpiri classroom'. The Warlpiri have maintained some bilingual education programs, and Emma shows how Warlpiri teachers model Warlpiri pirrjirdi' (hard/classical Warlpiri), solicit it and recast children's utterances using it. The children and teachers make use of their different language repertoires for conveying meaning and, if the situation calls for it, can restrict themselves to Warlpiri pirrjirdi. Moving north to a community which had lost its bilingual education program, Greg Dickson’s paper on community/heritage languages at a conference in virtual Sydney showed how Ngukurr have used outside money to re-establish Kriol as a language of education in the school. 

And, finally, congratulations to Susan Poetsch, whose ANU thesis Arrernte at the heart: Children’s use of their traditional language and English in a Central Australian Aboriginal community is a rich sociologically informed survey. As one examiner writes, it “demonstrates a brilliant capacity to undertake linguistic research and relate it to the many subfields within linguistics that it relates, including language documentation, acquisition, endangerment and maintenance, as well as the fundamental areas of syntax, semantics and morphology.” Her examination results arrived the morning after she’d given a talk virtually in Norway on 'Scary stories in the sand: Arrernte children talking and drawing spontaneous first-person narratives', another aspect of her thesis, inspired by Jenny Green’s work on sand stories, another lovely example of CoEDL cross-node influence. 

All this work leads into this week’s view from Western Sydney University. 

Deputy Director


Mark Richards wrote a University of Sydney M Phil thesis Developing language teaching materials for Mangarrayi (1996) — one of the first linguistics theses by creative work + exegesis (although not labelled as such). It was brilliant both metaphorically and literally — using colour for showing different word and morpheme classes. He honed his skills as a French language teacher and applied them for Aboriginal people teaching children in language reclamation work. The excitement of Warumungu people watching Mark demonstrate puppets as a language teaching tool was intense. Since then he has completed his PhD as a Western Sydney University CoEDL student — Revitalisation of an Australian Aboriginal language : archival utterances as scaffolding for independent adult language learning (2019) — and is now a postdoctoral fellow in Language Revitalisation at MARCS, WSU. 

Having spent the greater part of my life as a language teacher, Nick’s comments in the weekly update of 14-24 October naturally resonated with me. Currently about 10% of Year 12 students in Australia enrol in a second language course. While this might be better than the figure cited for universities (2.5%), it represents by far the lowest enrolment of any of the Key Learning Areas. While relatively few students are studying languages formally, our schools and universities are full of young people with some level of proficiency in one or more languages other than English.

A challenge for the development of a long-overdue National Languages Plan is to find creative ways of valuing and further developing this existing language competence. The broad range of languages spoken across the Australian community should be recognised as a national asset. Thanks to the increasing recognition of Australian Indigenous languages and cultures and courageous policy decisions of the 1970’s encouraging greater cultural diversity, there is wide (although sadly not universal) acceptance of Australia as a multicultural society, but not yet as a plurilingual society. This lack of attention to our national asset is highlighted in the recent Discussion Paper from the development team for the National Languages Plan and Strategy co-led by CoEDL Advisory Committee member Anne-Marie Morgan. They identify a wide range of socially oriented benefits of such plurilingualism, such as increased intercultural understanding and sense of identity, improved literacy and mental health, and pragmatic advantages such as increased job prospects in a globalised world.  

How to encourage plurilingualism? A cross-curriculum approach was taken in the development of the Australian Curriculum to promote understanding and appreciation of priority learning areas. A similar approach could help normalise plurilingualism by encouraging greater use of non-English language knowledge and skills within discipline areas to achieve academic or research objectives, much like immersion or task-based language programs. Of course, a significant part of the Australian population has not grown up with a second language. More than ever, we now have access to high quality language and learning resources through mobile and web-based technology. Judicious integration of technological resources has an essential part to play in the delivery of effective language teaching and learning in schools and universities. 

Hopefully the findings of the current AFMLTA investigation will translate into a national strategy that can harness Australia’s rich linguistic assets and support the dedication and enthusiasm of language teachers in engaging others with their language and culture.  

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