Melbourne experts in linguistics take leading roles in new multi-million dollar language research

Four experts from the School of Languages and Linguistics at the Faculty of Arts will undertake research as part of the new $28 million ARC Centre for Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

16 academics from four institutions: the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Sydney and the University of Queensland will collaborate in the Centre to be hosted by Australian National University, together with a number of partner investigators from other Australian and overseas institutions.

The Centre will run four main research programs in languages with staff from the School of Languages and Linguistics taking leading roles.

The 'Shape of language' program will be led by Associate Professor Rachel Nordlinger. This program will explore the design space of the world's languages and will develop descriptions of a strategic range of Indigenous languages in the region focussing on intergenerational variation which can reveal different ways of solving similar communicative problems.

Professor Gillian Wigglesworth will lead the 'Learning' program which will examine language learning across the lifespan, including how children acquire languages in understudied contexts in Australia and Papua New Guinea, and in mono- and multilingual contexts and how language learning interacts with variation and change. Learning of second and subsequent languages adults and children will provide a further focus.

Associate Professor Janet Fletcher will work with the 'Processing' program, which explore how languages are processed from a psychological, neurological, auditory and articulatory point of view in both laboratory and field sites, and exploring whether difference in language can impact on the way we think.

The 'Evolution' program will explore how language evolve, the possible structures that can develop and how learning and processing biases the shape and direction of language evolution.

The four programs will be interwoven by two Threads. The New Generation Documentation and Archiving thread will be led by Dr Nicholas Thieberger, which will oversee the corpus development including pioneering new documentation methods and developing digital archives to secure the cultural heritage of these languages and to document language change over time.

The Research Technologies will be managed by the University of Queensland and will develop, apply and teach computational methods for solving problems, as well as producing statistics from cross-linguistics and variation data and sharing predictions across programs, and modelling human processing of languages in various populations.

Prof Wigglesworth said the research will break new ground, particularly in the knowledge of languages in the Asia-Pacific region.

"We will be drawing upon our expertise in Indigenous languages and little-known languages in the area to research the evolution of languages and look for similar communication challenges across languages," she said.

"A collaborative centre and working with expert staff from across Australia over the next seven years will produce an expansive new set of data and findings the likes of which the region, if not the world, has not yet seen," she said.

Research by these four researchers has previously been used to understand language learning, document endangered languages and aid community development and has led to the archiving of Indigenous languages which may otherwise have been lost.