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Studying Aboriginal children’s language use in Northern Australia

Simpson Poster CropResearchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL), based at The Australian National University and the University of
Melbourne, are finding out more about the languages that Aboriginal children in Northern Australia speak. The Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition study (ACLA) uses audio and video recordings of children in indigenous communities to learn about the ways that they use their languages.

The recordings, along with transcripts, are stored at NCI and Intersect (WSU) by the researchers for easy access and data security. Professor Jane Simpson says “When we began the project, we worked with NCI to set up data storage and data access for our video and audio recordings across several field sites in remote Australia. This was critical because we’re across several universities, so it allows us to collaborate and upload data from all the different places. I see the problems that happen when you don’t have a facility like NCI.”

Recent findings from ACLA show that children are speaking languages which are unexpected mixes of the local traditional language and a new language, Kriol, which is spoken in many Indigenous communities. Two of these languages, Light Warlpiri and Gurindji Kriol as they are now known, have grammatical structures that blend Kriol and the traditional languages, with vocabulary and some features from the traditional languages, Kriol and English.

This unexpected finding highlights that there is rapid language change happening in Indigenous communities, and that the children are at the forefront of it. The next step for ACLA has been to look into what this means for the children’s language learning in school. Simpson says “As linguists we’re interested in the evolution of language, which is happening here really fast, but these findings also have real implications for what we should be doing in indigenous schools for better educational outcomes.”

“Explicitly teaching English with teachers more aware about home and school language and specific ways of teaching based on that,” says Simpson, is key to developing English language skills alongside the other languages the children already speak.

anu1 Uni-of-Melbourne  

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