Learning to talk whitefella way

Assoc. Professor Brett Baker and Dr Rikke Bundgaard-Nielsen (UWS)
ARC Discovery Project DP130102624

Learning to speak a new language requires the learner to notice the difference between his/her own speech sounds and those of the new language. But what if the learner already uses most of the words of the new language? This is the case for 20,000 remote Indigenous children and adults, speaking Kriol, a language historically based on contact between Indigenous people and English-speaking newcomers, producing a language different to both. The words are mostly derived from English, but many of the grammatical meanings mirror those in the Indigenous languages. There have also been effects on the way that Kriol is pronounced: it has inherited features of both English and the Indigenous languages' sound systems.

This project provided the first description of the sound system of Kriol based on rigorous phonological and acoustic analysis. Based on what was find out about its sound system, the project studied Kriol speakers' perception of sounds and words of English and Kriol. In the short term, this enabled us to pre-empt problems that Kriol-speaking children might have in learning Standard Australian English, because of the differences between the two languages. More generally, the study helped us to understand the cognitive mechanisms involved in learning new languages and in particular the role of the lexicon in this process.