Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition workshop 2014

ACLA researchers Sally Dixon and Susan Poetsch (ANU), and Gemma Morales and Jill Vaughan (UniMelb) participated in a workshop on child language acquisition in Indigenous communities at the ANU on 31 January 2014.

Workshop at the 9th International Symposium on Bilingualism, 2013


ACLA researchers Aidan Wilson (ACLA2), Gillian Wigglesworth (ACLA1 and 2), Samantha Disbray (ACLA1), Sally Dixon (ACLA2) and Jane Simpson (ACLA1 and 2) participated in a workshop entitled “Child multilingual acquisition in remote Indigenous Australian communities” at the ISB9 in Singapore in June 2013, chaired by Carmel O’Shannessy (ACLA1).

Workshop details

Indigenous Australians have traditionally been multilingual. Before colonisation adult individuals typically spoke several traditional languages and varieties of those. Colonisation brought English and extreme social disruption. Creoles and Indigenous varieties of English developed, and the functional role of traditional languages narrowed or declined. The pressure on Indigenous language speakers in the Northern Territory of Australia (NT) to become monolingual Standard Australian English (SAE) speakers is very strong. Despite this, multilingualism and multidialectalism is very much alive in the NT. Typically, the input Indigenous children in remote communities receive is not clearly delineated in terms of interlocutor, domain, or context, because most speakers code-switch and style-shift between varieties and/or languages frequently. So children growing up in remote Indigenous communities in the NT are exposed to continua of varieties and/or languages, which interact in complex ways.

We focus on how children navigate these complex linguistic contexts, in which they seek to find and interpret systematicity in the interactions of varieties and languages spoken to and around them. In each context in focus here, children code-switch between languages and/or varieties, and create interpretations which are socially meaningful. On Bathurst Island 3–5-year-old children code-switch between Modern Tiwi, English and Kriol in socially meaningful ways. In two desert communities children learn local Indigenous varieties of English (Alyawarr English and Wumpurrarni English) and SAE. Yet there is no explicit teaching of the differences between varieties in schools. We investigate how school-aged children in the two communities recognise, analyse and produce each variety. Their perspectives of salient features of the varieties emerge, and we see how they make use of these in interactions.

Children might not merely reproduce the input they receive, but can be agents of contact-induced language change. In one desert community, code-switched input directed to children has led to the creation a new mixed code, which is now the primary variety of the children. The mixed code, Light Warlpiri, consists of elements of Warlpiri and of varieties of English and / or Kriol. We focus on the role of young children in creating morphosyntactic innovations in the auxiliary system of Light Warlpiri.

Finally, we ask how the education system responds to these complex arenas of multilingualism. A Warlpiri-English bilingual education program is evaluated according to two types of criteria – those used by government evaluators, and those described as best practice in education literature.

ALS workshop 2011


In December 2011, we ran a workshop through the Australian Linguistics Society (ALS) 42nd Annual Conference. The workshop was titled “Kids, Kriol(s) and Classrooms” and conveners were Sally Dixon (ANU), Jane Simpson (ANU), Gillian Wigglesworth (University of Melbourne) and Aidan Wilson (University of Melbourne).

Workshop details

With the Australian federal government commitment to ‘close the gap’ there has been greater interest at a political level in increasing the educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. However, simultaneously, support for bilingual programs in NT schools is at an all-time low, and it is as yet unclear what the role of languages is to play in closing the gap on education for Indigenous children.

This workshop aims to bring together researchers whose work addresses issues critical to understanding language as a variable for Indigenous children in the classroom. The focus of this workshop is Indigenous children living in remote communities who speak traditional Indigenous language(s) and/or contact language(s); therefore, children for whom the classroom is a foreign language environment (ie where there are no or few other children speaking the ‘target’ Standard Australian English).

In light of the recent release of the national languages curriculum shaping paper (‘Draft Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Languages’), and the continued problematic implementation of NAPLAN tests throughout remote Australia, it is urgent that research which addresses these issues be shared and discussed, so that we may continue to apply pressure for evidence-based policy making at every level of government.