Are Australia’s Community Languages worth studying? – report on the Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub 13th June 2017

A report on this month’s Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub by Ana Krajinovic (University of Melbourne / Humboldt University)

Our discussion this week was led by James Walker who asked us an intriguing question about the linguistic research areas represented in Australia. Coming from the background of studying variation and change in community languages in Toronto, James became interested in these research topics in the Australian context. Melbourne is a multilingual city, and just like in Toronto, community languages brought through immigration by non-English speakers started appearing in Melbourne in the 20th century. We asked ourselves why the linguistic diversity of different communities isn’t equally well represented in the Australian research agenda. Is the study of indigenous languages of Australia seen as inherently more valuable and, if so, why?

Throughout the discussion we addressed several topics. Firstly, we questioned whether the study of community languages and varieties of English is indeed underrepresented in Australian linguistics. There are linguists working on these topics, but it seems there are in fact many more linguists working on indigenous languages in Australia. We tried to identify different factors that might have led to this preference. Some participants highlighted reasons driven by specific research questions focussed on the typological diversity of under-described languages. The importance of documenting indigenous languages before they become extinct also seems to be one of the main driving forces for language documentation in general. On the other hand, many community languages, such as Mandarin, are ‘big’ languages that are not endangered. However, there are some research agendas in academia that are not necessarily determined by our personal or scientific preferences for research topics.

Many of us recognised that certain research topics are more fashionable than others. For instance, historical comparative linguistics does not enjoy the same level of interest as it used to. Besides that, depending on the institution or even the country, different research areas might be regarded as more fashionable than others. So, what makes indigenous languages in Australia a hot topic? One of the things we discussed was the attraction of funding and possible influence of national politics. Perhaps studying indigenous communities in Australia is seen as in the national interest and this creates more funds for linguists to work in that area. On the other hand, community languages associated to different migrant communities might even be perceived as negative in the current political context. One example of this is the term ‘multiculturalism’ which is nowadays seen as  a problematic word because of its association with social and political issues. In other words, if researchers want to attract funding for projects on multiculturalism, they should avoid phrasing it as such.

From the point of discussing different practical factors in academia, we came back to research-driven motivations for choosing an area of linguistics. James mentioned his ongoing projects where the study of variation and change in community languages is compared to the same languages spoken in the country of origin. These studies are open to many different research questions, ranging from language contact to diachrony. Asking some of these questions not only in the context of community languages in Australia, but also in the indigenous context, would develop the existing areas of linguistic research. Nevertheless, applying the sociolinguistic variationist approach to under-described languages represents a challenge, because our understanding of relevant local sociolinguistic categories is often insufficient. Thus, we agreed that the first step in any linguistic study on an under-described language is the descriptive and documentary work. Indeed, making a full description of a language is essential if we want to address any theoretical questions. In that respect, Australian linguistics is developing many resources coming out of documentation projects, such as linguistic corpora. The corpora are of vital importance for the future development of linguistics, especially when it comes to quantitative methods. We finished our discussion with this future prospect of uniting the existing products of descriptive research with methods for their theoretical analysis.

Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub will be ‘resting’ over July, see you again in August!



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