ELAR Occasional Seminar Series

When: 5PM, Tuesday 4 June, 2013
Where: Room L67, SOAS, Russell Square, London ... location information

Dr Ruth Singer
Dr Ruth Singer

Continuity and change in a highly multilingual Australian Indigenous community

Ruth Singer

University of Melbourne, Australia

Warruwi Community, Arnhem Land is one of the few places left in Australia where children grow up speaking numerous Indigenous languages. This situation was apparently the norm across Australia before White contact (Wilkins & Nash 2008). The set of languages spoken at Warruwi Community has changed since White contact, but the way that multilingualism is practiced seems to reflect long-standing practices underpinned by persisting language ideologies. Warruwi Community is of particular interest because most remote Indigenous Australian communities have already or are in the process of shifting to a single community language. This single language may be a variety of English, a contact language or a traditional Indigenous language depending on the community (Brandl & Walsh 1982).

At Warruwi Community most people speak at least two Indigenous languages as well as one or more varieties of English. Linguistic repertoires are extremely diverse, even among close family members. However, the continuity of multilingual practices at Warruwi masks the fact that children are no longer learning a number of languages traditionally spoken in the area. In addition, language ideologies about the way that social groups are linked to specific languages seem to be changing under the influence of mission policies that assumed language identity was indicative of high level social groupings (Irvine & Gal 2000). However the language ideologies that support multilingualism persist at Warruwi Community. The ideologies of monolingualism that prevail in broader Australian society have made few inroads and multiple indigenous languages are still being maintained. Multilingualism at Warruwi seems to be motivated at least partly by the high value placed on having strong connections to multiple social groups. This motivation for multilingualism is similar to what Di Carlo finds in an area of Cameroon with very high linguistic diversity (Di Carlo forthcoming).

This talk draws on linguistic biography interviews with adults and schoolchildren (Busch 2012), in combination with recordings of naturalistic multilingual interactions. Differences in shared language ideologies across the generations that are apparent in interviews are related to the gradual dissolution of cultural, political and linguistic boundaries between Eastern and Western Arnhem Land clans. Recordings of naturalistic conversational interaction show how ongoing tensions between the groups are negotiated is through the traditional practice of receptive multilingualism where each person speaks using their preferred language, while understanding the other language well (Zeevart 2007). Some aspects of documenting and archiving multilingual material will be discussed, including the problems of labelling language used in multilingual recordings.


Brandl, M. M. & Michael Walsh (1982). Speakers of many tongues: toward understanding multilingualism among Aboriginal Australians. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 36: 71-81.

Busch, Brigitta (2012). The linguistic repertoire revisited. Applied linguistics 33: 503-523.

Di Carlo, Pierpaolo (forthcoming). Multilingualism, solidarity and magic: new perspectives on language ideology in the Cameroonian grassfields.

Irvine, Judith T & Susan Gal (2000). Language ideology and linguistic differentiation. In Kroskrity, Paul V. (ed.) Regimes of language: ideologies, polities, and identities. Santa Fe/Oxford: School of American Research Press/James Currey.

Wilkins, David P & David Nash (2008). The European ‘discovery’ of a multilingual Australia: the linguistic and ethnographic successes of a failed expedition. In McGregor, William (ed.) The history of research on Australian Aboriginal languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. 48550.

Zeevaert, Ludger (2007). Receptive multilingualism and inter-Scandinavian communication. In ten Thije, Jan D. & Ludger Zeevaert (eds.) Receptive multilingualism: linguistic analyses, language policies and didactic concepts. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 103-135.

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