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Profile: Emeritus Professor Alan Rumsey

Alan Rumsey, Australian National University, Indigenous Languages, Learning

Date: 28 February 2020

After a career spanning more than four decades, the newly minted Emeritus Professor Alan Rumsey has lost none of the fascination and profound respect for the Indigenous peoples of our region that first inspired him to settle in Australia.

A linguistic anthropologist, Alan was farewelled, and welcomed into the distinguished cohort of Emeriti at the ANU School of Culture History and Languge, at a special symposium in August 2019 organised by CoEDL, where he continues to be a Chief Investigator. There, friends and colleagues reflected on Alan’s extraordinary inter-disciplinary body of work that began with a PhD on Ungarinyin, a language of The Kimberley region in Western Australia.

Hailing from America, Alan spent the first half of his academic career at The University of Sydney, but it was in Canberra that he first met his wife-to-be Francesca Merlan, now a Professor of Anthropology at ANU – an enduring partnership that has yielded some of their most insightful work. Both were first drawn to the region by its indigenous cultures and have been working together in the PNG Highlands since 1981.

Alan harks back to this as a time when many adults there could still remember when they had first seen a white person. “Our patron at the time, Yaya, greeted us certain that we were his returned father and mother,” Alan recalls. “Later, he came to accept that this was not the case and said to us: ‘At first I thought you were my parents, but after observing you closely I see that you’re more like my children – I have taught you many things’.”

The language and culture which became the primary focus of their studies in PNG is Ku Waru, spoken by about 10,000 people in the Western Highlands. Since publishing Ku Waru: Language and Segmentary Politics in the Western Nebilyer Valley (Cambridge University Press, 1991), Alan and Francesca have maintained close links with the communities. It was while studying verbal art there that Alan started recording children, noting interesting aspects of how they were being raised.

Ku Waru children

One of the Ku Waru children in Alan Rumsey's studies wears a GoPro camera to record natural interactions.

In 2004, Alan began doing longitudinal studies of Ku Waru children’s language learning “as a side project”, initially by having field assistants record two young children interacting with their parents every three months. A grant in 2013 allowed more children to be recorded, more often, and in a wider variety of settings. This increased again in 2014 when Alan joined CoEDL.

“We need these studies”,  Alan explains, because “in order to find out how kids in general learn language you have to study how the process works in as many different settings as you can. But most studies have been on the major languages of Europe.”

In total, the Ku Waru Child Language Socialisation Project has produced approximately 250 hours of recordings. The transcribing has been completed by a large team of PNG and Australian research assistants and the mammoth task of linguistic coding, translation, glossing etc is still underway.

The project’s archive will be a goldmine of anthropological and linguistic data for years to come and is already yielding interesting results in a range of areas. “For example, we noticed that in 2013 a number of parents decided that their kids should be exposed to Tok Pisin (the main lingua franca of the region) at a much earlier age,” Alan reports. “Once it got started, it was overwhelmingly the kids who were driving the switching to Tok Pisin. But when we looked at the same kids recorded two years later, we found a change in the other direction – the proportion of Tok Pisin had halved – so it turned out to be almost like a passing fad.”

The changing usage reflected major educational policy changes, from ‘English only’ until 1997, to transitional bilingual education in Ku Waru during 1997-2013, to English, with some Tok Pisin permitted, since 2013. “That policy shift had been motivated by a well-founded perception that the level of English language learning in the schools had declined, and a more debatable conclusion that it had been due to the shift to bilingual education,” Alan comments. “Whatever the policy has been, our experience is that English competence has declined over the last 20 to 30 years. So it’s highly unlikely that continuing to learn the local language in itself has adversely kids’ performance in English.”

Alan Rumsey and Lauren Reed discuss their study of a culture sign language in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea that is used in communication with deaf people. 

Throughout this time, Alan has also maintained his connections to Indigenous Australia, including as Anthropological Consultant to the Kimberley Land Council. The standout success of this work came in 2003, when the Federal Court ruled in favour of the claimants in the Wanjina/Wunggurr-Wilinggin Native Title case (northern WA). With over 2,000 claimants and an area of 77,000 km², this was the largest Native Title claim to have made its way through the Federal Court up that time. Alan spent five years as Senior Anthropologist assisting in that process.

As Emeritus Professor and Chief Investigator at CoEDL, Alan’s ‘retirement’ promises to be an active one for the foreseeable future. He continues to teach a course in anthropological theory, advise  PhD students, and work intensively with research assistants on the Ku Waru data.

Alan Rumsey’s career highlights

1978 Awarded joint PhD in Anthropology and Linguistics from the University of Chicago based on fieldwork in WA.
1978 Appointed to lectureship in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Sydney.
1980 Married Dr Francesca Merlan, Professor of Anthropology at ANU since 1995.
1996 Appointed Senior Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, Research School of Asian and Pacific Studies, ANU. 
2002 Invited Professor (professeur invité), Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.
2003 Senior Anthropologist on the successful Wanjina/Wunggurr-Wilinggin native title claim.
2004 Elected Fellow of Australian Academy of Humanities.
2010 Elected President of Australian Anthropological Society (2010-11).
2011 Promoted to Professor of Anthropology in CHL.
2013 Received ARC Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award for three-year project on children’s language learning and the development of intersubjectivity. 
2014 Became a foundation Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. 


[Main image: Alan Rumsey with Ku Waru field assistant Andrew Noma in 2004. Photo by Don Niles.]

This article was first published in In Focus 2019, the annual review of the ANU School of Culture, History and Language.


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