Murrinhpatha is a polysynthetic language spoken by a 2500 strong community in community in Wadeye (pron. wha-da-ya as in “Wha’-da-ya think?”) in the north west of the Northern Territory of Australia. It has a very rich morphological system in which a succession of different morphemes are added to word roots to indicate concepts that, in languages like English, would require entire phrases to express. For example, the Murrinhpatha word wurdamnginthadhawiweparlwardagathu means “then the two non-siblings, at least one of whom was female, spoke out in unison.” English-learning children tend to acquire morphological relations after they have acquired some basic grammatical relations. The question then arises as to whether or not children acquiring more morphologically complex languages show the same general developmental sequence; and if so, how is this to be achieved when so much grammatical information is embedded within a single word?

Although much is known about how children acquire isolating languages such as English, there is very little research that examines how children acquire a complex polysynthetic language like Murrinhpatha. The aim of this project is to not just provide a detailed study of the acquisition of Murrinhpatha (although this will be the first comprehensive input and production acquisition study of any non-Pama Nyungan Australian indigenous language) but also to provide detailed language information for the local bilingual program to ensure the maintenance of Murrinhpatha is optimally managed in the early school years. Furthermore, the study of such a typologically unusual language will provide new insights into how acquisition processes are created through linguistic complexity, cognitive constraints and social interaction. We seek to address these aims through the following Research Questions:

  • What does the Murrinhpatha that children in Wadeye hear in their daily interactions look like?
  • What language are 2-8 year-old children in Wadeye producing in their daily interactions?
  • What are the syntactic, morphological and socio-pragmatic features of their communications?
  • Can we identify the order of acquisition of grammatical morphemes by pre-school and school-age children and if so, how does this compare to the ordering found in other languages?
  • How does the input and acquisition of Murrinhpatha grammatical structures relate cross-linguistically to the acquisition of other structures occurring in spontaneous speech?
  • How do cognitive, linguistic and social factors interact in Murrinhpatha-learning children’s development?