ACT News

Research centre forges new 'gang' to study science of language dynamics

Historically Australia was an "incredibly multilingual" continent before being dominated by English and now the country must go full circle to catch up with major trading partners like China.

That's the view of Professor Nick Evans, the director of a new research centre which will go beyond "the same old gang" of language experts to bring together linguists, anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, speech therapists, computer scientists and roboticists to "forge a new science of language" based on its diversity and constant evolution.

Researchers at the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, launched at the Australian National University on Monday, will work to answer many questions about language over the next seven years thanks to $4 million of funding each year.

Professor Evans said the "interlocking aims" of the centre would focus especially on the languages of the Western Asian pacific region.

"Every language is a constantly changing system, whether that be measured in thousands of years or the day-to-day existence of someone who may be a patient suffering from Alzheimer's ... or a student learning a foreign language," he said.

"Australians are going to have to move in that multilingual world [of its major trading partners].


"Where we have been at in the last century or two has been something of a monolingual aberration."

Professor Evans said traditionally linguistics assumed all languages were spoken the same way with a similar structure, but evidence from indigenous Australian languages showed that  wasn't the case.

"This paradox we have that we are essentially a monolingual society living in the most multilingual part of the world shapes the need for our centre," he said.

The outcomes of the research could be far-reaching with aims to revolutionise the way people learn new languages, keep indigenous languages alive, and help people with communication disorders and speech loss from conditions such Alzheimer's.

Professor Evans said collaboration between roboticists, computer scientists and linguists could one day lead to a recording device combining facial recognition to help prompt older people as they started to lose their power of speech.

Technology combining GPS systems with recording devices could help researchers better document and save traditional indigenous languages which use compass directions instead of left or right and have different meanings based on eye contact or gesture.

"These are all elements of the face-to-face context which at the moment we are not recording," he said.

"Books and recordings are just a pale reflection of real languages … with robotic technology we can get a much richer capturing."

As well as benefiting indigenous people, preserving indigenous languages also unlocked scientific information that would otherwise be lost, Professor Evans said.

"In languages of western Arnhem Land there is a separate verb for every hopping of every kangaroo species and even the male and females hop differently," he said.

"If you speak that language you're immediately taught to tune in to those."

The centre is co-funded by the Australian Research Council, ANU, University of Western Sydney, University of Melbourne and University of Queensland and partners in the US, the UK, New Zealand, China, Singapore, Germany and the Netherlands.