Guest Column with Professor Gillian Wigglesworth

June 12 / 89

The primary focus of my work is on the acquisition of language/s by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in the more remote areas of Australia, and in particular the relationship between the language/s they speak at home, and the English spoken at school.  Although Australian languages have received considerable attention from linguists, this has mainly involved the documentation of those languages which are endangered.  This is a crucial aspect of linguistic work in a country where, of the 250 original indigenous  languages, only around 20 now remain which are being learned by children.  The result is the majority of indigenous children are no longer acquiring their traditional language.  Our ARC funded project, the Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition project ( is a long-term project designed to investigate the language ecology of indigenous children living in remote areas of Australia.  The 2006 census reports that only 2.3 per cent of the population is indigenous, but indigenous people are much more likely to live in remote locations than non-indigenous people.  The languages spoken in remote indigenous communities can range from the traditional language of the area (although only now in a few places), to a new mixed language resulting from language contact, or a creole, commonly known in Australia as Kriol.  The communities we work in reflect all these options and we are examining the kind of language input children receive, and how the children are learning these languages.

There is enormous variability in language use in different communities.  In some, where the children are learning the traditional language, we are documenting how they come to learn these highly complex languages.  In others we are examining the mixed languages the children are learning, which are a combination of the traditional language of the area and the Kriol which is spoken in the surrounding areas.  In other communities, children are learning a variety of Kriol (rather than standard Australian English), but with more or less words and phrases from the traditional language included – often depending on the age of the person interacting with the child.  The older the interlocutor the more likely it is a greater proportion of traditional language will be used.  In many communities the children will hear, and often be learning, all or many of these different language types at once.

What has become clear to us during the last 10 years in which we have been working in remote communities is that indigenous children are growing up in what can only be described as a “foreign” language environment, rather than a “second” language environment. In other words, in contrast to migrant children who are growing up in situations where English is the language of the community, indigenous children are growing up in an environment where their only contact with English is at school (or from the ever present television) and English is rarely used in the communities. 

For many of these children, bilingual schooling would provide a positive model of language development in which both English and their home language was recognised.    Although this is challenging given the complexities of the language situation, we continue to work toward children entering a more bilingual environment at school, and being recognised as non-English speakers when they enter the formal education system.

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