Current research projects
- 50 words project
- Digital Daisy Bates
- The Daly Languages project
- Getting in Touch: Bird app development
- Visible talk: Using Australian Indigenous sign languages
- A sociophonetic study of Aboriginal English
- Re-integrating Central Australian community cultural collections
- Are super-complex words represented like sentences in speakers' minds?
- Conversational Interaction in Aboriginal and Remote Australia (CIARA)
- Learning Pitjantjatjara: A longitudinal study of how children learn Pitjantjatjara
- Learning to tell a narrative in Murrinhpatha
- Aboriginal language use in Darwin
- The sounds of Anindilyakwa
- Darwin prison Indigenous languages program
50 words project
This project aims to provide fifty words in every Indigenous language of Australia.
The words are provided online with community permission, and with audio provided by a language speaker. The languages and words are displayed on a map of Australia so that users can easily find the information relevant to their local area. We hope that this will be a useful resource for schools and educational organisations to learn 50 words in their local language, and for the general public to discover and appreciate the diversity of First Nations' languages around Australia.
Thank you to First Languages Australia for allowing us to use their Gambay map as our base map for this project.
Would you like your language included?
If you interested in adding your language or would like further information about the 50 words project please email RUIL.
Here you can find a set of learning activities to accompany the 50 Words map. These are designed for students of all ages and can be used at home or in the classroom.
Project team: Chief Investigators Professor Rachel Nordlinger and Associate Professor Nick Thieberger, Project Officers Dr Jill Vaughan and Allyra Murray. Resourced by the Research Unit of Indigenous Language and supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.
This research project has been approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee of the University of Melbourne. Project number:1853186.1
Digital Daisy Bates
In collaboration with the National Library of Australia (NLA), this project makes accessible this extremely valuable collection of several hundred wordlists of Australian languages, originally recorded by Daisy Bates in the early 1900s. This enables reuse of the collection by Aboriginal people searching for their own heritage languages and by other researchers. The dataset is keyboarded and constructed according to the TEI Guidelines, to embody both a facsimile of the original set of manuscripts and a structured dataset for complex research questions. Access to these historical records of Australian languages will benefit from the interdisciplinary cooperation of linguists and musicologists with technology experts and with the premier collecting agency the National Library of Australia.
Chief Investigator: Associate Professor Nick Thieberger, Faculty of Arts small grant 2012-2013
The Daly Languages project
From 1980 until the mid-1990s, Dr Ian Green conducted linguistic fieldwork in the Daly region in the Northern Territory. During this time he created an extensive collection of audio recordings, field notes and analyses on many of the languages in the area. Most of these languages are no longer spoken by more than a few elderly speakers, and there has been very little published on any of them, making Green's collection a treasure trove of precious language material.
The Daly Languages project has made this incredible collection available to the families and communities of the people Green worked with, as well as the general public, via the Daly Languages website. This website provides direct links to the digitised audio recordings, and also includes (where possible) other resources on the languages, as well as a map contextualising the language area, the historical relationships between the Daly languages and some brief grammatical sketches. This website is the first of its kind for Australian Indigenous languages, and represents a new direction in packaging and making easily accessible legacy linguistic material. More information, resources and analyses will continue to be added as they become available.
In July 2016 Green and Nordlinger travelled throughout the Daly region on a repatriation trip, visiting the family members of all the speakers and returning copies of the recordings via USB. Photos of this trip can be seen on the Daly Languages website. You can read more about the trip in an article in the University of Melbourne Pursuit magazine.
The Daly Languages Project is a collaboration between Ian Green, Peter Hurst and Rachel Nordlinger (Director, Research Unit for Indigenous Language), and has been financially supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.
Getting in Touch: Bird app development
The Getting in Touch bird apps enable people to listen to recordings of language names for birds alongside photographs of birds and the sounds of their calls. The apps present short stories about birds as well, telling about their cultural significance, behaviour and habitats in Indigenous languages and in English. Knowledge of plants and animals and their place in country and culture is highly valued by Indigenous peoples. Digital technologies have a role to play in maintaining and respecting this knowledge, and passing it on to the next generations.
The idea of sharing resources and expertise and making apps for a number of languages began at the Getting in Touch workshop in Alice Springs in Central Australia in April 2014. Language teams from Indigenous communities, linguists and technology specialists came together to discuss the development of digital tools that meet community goals of maintaining language and cultural practices. The project arose out of concern that the majority of digital resources available to Indigenous users are in English, even though English is not a first language for many. At the workshop Indigenous ecological knowledge was one of several domains that emerged for app development, alongside kinship and apps to support knowledge of mental health and emotional states.
The first app from this project, a Kaytetye bird app called Thangkerne Kaytetye Birds, was developed by Ben Foley, Margaret Carew (Batchelor Institute), Myfany Turpin (University of Sydney), and Alison Ross (Artarre community), and released in 2015. The first version of Thangkerne was based on open source software developed by Museum Victoria for flora and fauna field guides. The new apps are using the open source Jila framework, developed by ThoughtWorks with Mabu Yawuru Ngan-ga, the Yawuru language centre in Western Australia.
In May 2017 the Arrernte bird app was released as a companion app for a beautiful book Ayeye Thipe-akerte: Arrernte stories about birds. Another combination of book and companion app was released in 2017: Nga-ni kun-red ngarduk man-djewk na-kudji ‘A year in my country’ is a book about seasons on Kune country by Jill Yirrindili and Aung Si, with illustrations by Jennifer Taylor.
Below is a list of all apps publically available so far: search the name in your preferred app store, and download the apps to your own device!
|Language name/varieties||In app store, search for:||Want more info? Visit the website:|
|Kaytetye||Thangkerne|| Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics|
Thangkerne | Kaytetye birds
|Eastern/Central Arrernte||Ayeye Thipe-akerte|| Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics|
|Mawng||Karlurri||The Mawng Language website|
|Kune||Kune Maningrida||Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics|
Nga-ni kun-red ngarduk man-djewk na-kudji |
A year in my country
| Dhauwurd Wurrung, Djargurt |
Wurrung, Kee Wurrung, Kirrae
Wurrung, Kuurn Kopan Noot, Peek
Wurrung and Wooloowoorroong
|Part-parti Mirring-yi||See our April 2017 newsletter|
The Getting in Touch project was jointly funded by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute (the University of Melbourne), RUIL (Research Unit for Indigenous Language, the University of Melbourne), BI (The Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education) and FLA (First Languages Australia). Continuing work on app development is jointly managed and funded by RUIL and Batchelor Institute.
Visible talk: Using Australian Indigenous sign languages
This project aims to investigate how traditional sign languages are used in Indigenous communities. Traditional sign languages are part of everyday life in Indigenous communities in central and northern Australia. The project aims to investigate how speech and sign are coordinated, the ways that new signs are added to traditional repertoires, and the ways that other forms of communication, such as drawing, are used together with sign. It is intended that the results of the study will assist Indigenous people in safeguarding their cultural heritage, and support cross-cultural communication in the education, health and legal sectors, and contribute to international debates about how sign languages of the world vary.
Chief Investigator: Dr Jenny Green, funded by an ARC DECRA postdoctoral fellowship, 2014-2017
A sociophonetic study of Aboriginal English
Re-integrating Central Australian community cultural collections
The ARC Linkage project 'Re-integrating Central Australian community cultural collections' (LP140100806) is a partnership between the Central Land Council (CLC), the peak Indigenous representative body covering the southern half of the Northern Territory; the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne. This project addresses 3 main questions:
- How can Central Australian Indigenous people better access their cultural records held in dispersed collections?
- How can systems be established that enable efficient and culturally appropriate mobilization of archival materials?
- How can archival access be established in ways that do not violate cultural protocols surrounding rights of access to and dissemination of cultural information?
This project will apply current research on archiving and community access to find practical solutions to managing the large amounts of recorded cultural material of interest to the Central Land Council and its constituents. It will identify and integrate information in a common database, work with community members to create a prioritised list of at-risk materials, apply locally meaningful categories for managing the archival materials, and develop strategies to support ongoing sustainability of the collections. As well as safeguarding at-risk materials, it will support Central Land Council strategic activities in land management and intergenerational knowledge transfer, and provide a framework for repatriation policy development.
Those involved are: Linda Barwick, Myfany Turpin and Petronella Vaarzon-Morel (the University of Sydney); Rachel Nordlinger and Jennifer Green (the University of Melbourne); Brian Connelly (Central Land Council)
Are super-complex words represented like sentences in speakers' minds?
Many Australian languages defy a seemingly straightforward distinction between 'words' and 'phrases' (groups of words acting as a unit of meaning) by having very complex words with meanings that English would require a sentence to express. This project aims to examine speakers' knowledge of ‘super-complex’ words in the Australian language Wubuy, using innovative 'low tech' experimental approaches suited for remote field research. The results will experimentally investigate what a 'word' is in Wubuy, and thereby inform not only language description/typology but also likely challenge current models of speech processing and language acquisition, which are built on this fundamental distinction.
Conversational Interaction in Aboriginal and Remote Australia (CIARA)
Project chief investigators: Joe Blythe, Macquarie University; Ilana Mushin, UQ; Professor Lesley Stirling, the University of Melbourne and Rod Gardner, UQ
Funded by an ARC Discovery Project grant (DP180100515) which commenced in 2018, this project aims to provide the first large-scale exploration of conversational style in Australian Aboriginal communities, and compare this with conversational practices in Anglo-Australian communities. This work will:
- Contribute to the documentation of endangered languages, and
- Provide an evidence base for comparing differences in conversational styles - widely recognised to underpin communication problems between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, particularly in the contexts of institutional and service encounters
The project takes prior ethnographic observations as a starting point for a systematic investigation that compares similarities and differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal conversational style, using the methodology of Comparative Conversation Analysis, sometimes called Pragmatic Typology, state-of-the-art digital technologies and the microanalytical tools of Conversation Analysis.
The project will focus on three crucial aspects of the way people engage with others as they manage the local organisation of social relations in everyday culture:
- Turn-taking and action sequences (how and when do people negotiate when they should take a turn at talk and what they should say next, particularly in multiparty interactions?)
- Storytelling in conversation (how and when do people take opportunities to talk in a longer way about their experiences, and how do others receive such accounts?); and
- Knowledge management (how and when do people negotiate their rights and responsibilities with respect to knowledge, in order to communicate what they know?)
To answer these questions, the project will investigate ordinary conversations from three linguistic communities speaking Murrinhpatha, Garrwa, Jaru and the contact language Kriol, and compare these with analogous non-Aboriginal conversations in Australian English in remote and regional locations.
The project expects to provide new evidence to explicate Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal conversational norms, pinpointing differences which may lead to intercultural miscommunication. Expected outcomes include new endangered language documentation, and evidence-based findings to disseminate to service providers, to communities and to Aboriginal organisations to improve ways of engaging with each other. In addition, the project will benefit Aboriginal communities with new approaches to language revitalisation.
Learning Pitjantjatjara: A longitudinal study of how children learn Pitjantjatjara
This research project looks at the linguistic development of young Indigenous children as they grow up learning the traditional Australian language Pitjantjatjara as their mother tongue.
In order to explore this topic, around 20 focus children living in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands are being recorded with their families at regular intervals over multiple years. By building such a corpus of recordings we can track children’s individual language development as well as investigate numerous aspects of language development within the cohort more generally.
This longitudinal study began in 2016, with postdoctoral researcher Rebecca Defina’s (ongoing) work in Pukatja (Ernabella), which now extends also to the community of Mimili. In early 2019 the project expanded to include children living in another two communities in the APY Lands, Pipalyatjara and Kalka, through postdoc Lucy Davidson’s research.
Learning to tell a narrative in Murrinhpatha
This project investigates the stories told by children who speak the traditional Australian language Murrinhpatha as their first language. Murrinhpatha is a polysynthetic language, spoken in the remote Aboriginal community of Wadeye, NT. While a previous RUIL project, Language Acquisition in Murrinhpatha (LAMP) explored language development in young children, this project instead focuses on school aged children (aged 7, 9, and 11), and looks at how they use Murrinhpatha when telling stories.
To date, around 30 children have been recorded at each of these three ages (7, 9, 11). Recordings were made at the local school in town, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, using two wordless picture books as elicitation materials. By analysing each child’s tellings of these two stories, we aim to describe the narrative strategies used by children at each age..
A primary aim of this project is to highlight the linguistic skills that these children demonstrate when they engage in a task in their native language.
This research is funded by the Australian Research Council.
Aboriginal language use in Darwin
The Aboriginal languages of northern Australia are remarkably diverse, and in many cases unusually complex in their grammatical structure. It has been argued that this sort of linguistic complexity develops in small societies with relatively dense, localised social networks, but although this may be true of Aboriginal languages’ traditional social contexts, it does not reflect their current reality. Nowadays, many speakers of these languages spend substantial time in major urban centres, where they engage in much wider, looser social networks. This is especially true of Darwin, where several Aboriginal languages can be heard on any given day. This project aims to investigate how highly complex Aboriginal languages, traditionally spoken by small semi-nomadic clan groups, are used in an urban context.
This project is supported by the Australian Research Council, grant DE180100872.
Chief Investigators: Dr John Mansfield.
The sounds of Anindilyakwa
The Anindilyakwa language, spoken on Groote Eylandt of the eastern coast of Arnhem Land, has unique sound patterns that have caused considerable disagreement among linguists. Interesting features include vowel assimilation to neighbouring consonants, unusually long word lengths, and an epenthetic final ‘a’ vowel added to most words. There is also an interesting degree of variability in vowel quality and syllabification.
This project aims to provide a more detailed description of Anindilyakwa phonology, using high-fidelity recordings and supported by phonetic analysis. The project will also present its findings to language workers at the Anindilyakwa Language Centre, which has supported the project.
Darwin prison Indigenous languages program
Speakers of Indigenous languages are tragically over-represented in Australian prisons, including Darwin prison where almost 90% of inmates are Indigenous and around 50% speak an Indigenous language.
Northern Territory Corrections, in consultation with RUIL member John Mansfield, is developing a plan to offer inmates of Darwin prison activity programs in their own languages. In 2019/2020 pilot sessions with Tiwi inmates were run by Tiwi elder Pirrwayingi Puruntatameri. In February 2020 Murrinhpatha elder Nguluyguy Margaret Perdjert, alongside experienced language workers Nguvudirr Jeremiah Tunmuck and John Mansfield, ran a pilot program of eight sessions with Murrinhpatha inmates. These sessions focused on use of digital tablets to create illustrated language materials and developing participants’ literacy in their first language.
Northern Territory Corrections are currently evaluating the pilot sessions with a view to rolling out a more extensive trial program for Indigenous NT prisoners.
This is a community outreach project supported by RUIL and the Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University.
Chief Investigator: Dr John Mansfield.