Bilingualism


This is evidently my first post in some six months and I have to confess, I have been thinking about throwing in the towel altogether. Two of the reasons for this were that I have been writing (although again, not lately) on Fully (sic), Crikey’s language blog, and that I was so busy teaching over the past few semesters in Sydney that I couldn’t put in the time or effort that this blog deserved.

But, a lot has changed in the past couple of months and I’ve been encouraged to get back into the whole writing thing. First and foremost, I am now enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, and the relatively light workload (compared with teaching undergraduate linguistics classes) allows me much more time to write. Also as a direct result of moving to Melbourne from Sydney to commence said PhD, my social life is far less active.

I wrote of my intentions to do a PhD well over a year ago but I only managed to commence last month. The reason being that I was unsuccessful in scoring a scholarship at the time, and so had to reconsider my plans – as I was unprepared to start a PhD without the security of a stipend. After some months of weighing up several possibilities, including enrolling part-time and working as much as I could, I was approached and asked to join the ARC research project on Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition and have the Tiwi Islands as my field site. After attending a couple of meetings with the other ACLA researchers, I decided it would be a good idea.

Thus far I have already been to the Tiwi Islands for a pilot trip; to garner support for the project from the community and various levels of government and administration and to gauge the linguistic situation as best I could in the two weeks1. I discovered that the award-winning Murrupurtiyanuwu Catholic School, which is a co-educational primary school that has been running a successful bilingual education program since 1974, has this year ceased the program. The decision is apparently not related to the NT’s first four hours in English policy, but I have yet to investigate2. But it is a fact that the independent school was not required by the government to cease its bilingual program.

Another thing that warrants a mention is the release of a volume on language maintenance and revitalisation that includes a chapter by me about the theory and practicalities of electronic dictionaries. The book is Re-Awakening Languages edited by John Hobson et al.3and my chapter is Electronic dictionaries for language reclamation.


  1. All this without actually doing any ‘research’ as such, as I didn’t yet have permission from the Tiwi Land Council to do so.
  2. I’m also careful not to go poking around before I have permission from all stake-holders to do my research
  3. Hobson J, Lowe K, Poetsch S & Walsh M (2010). Re-awakening languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

In the last few weeks, the topic of bilingual education in Australia has been receiving a fair amount of coverage in the mainstream media. Last week, I happened upon an article in the Herald, echoing earlier reports in voicing the widespread opposition from educators and academics towards the Northern Territory government’s policy of English-only education for the first four hours (leaving only a single hour of tuition) each day. The article quotes Patrick McConvell, co-author of the AIATSIS discussion paper1 that effectively brought the debate to the forefront of Australian politics.

The coverage of this issue continues tonight at 8:30 (EST) on ABC1, as Four Corners looks at the history of bilingual education in remote Australia, which they also covered way back in 1986, and dissects the policy decision by Marion Scrymgour in October 2008, before she quit her portfolio as Minister for Education. Our very own expert in this field, Dr Jane Simpson, was interviewed for the program several weeks ago, so I suggest watching it.


In other news altogether, I have finally had my honours thesis published online in The University of Sydney’s eScholarship repository. It was just under three years since it was marked in October 2006, but better late than never! You can access the pdf version here2.


  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery (2009) Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory Canberra: AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24.
  2. Wilson, A. (2006) Negative Evidence in Linguistics: The case of Wagiman Complex Predicates. Honours Thesis. Sydney: The University of Sydney.

As Jane announced last week at Elac, a Research Symposium on Bilingual Education was held on Friday at AIATSIS, at which their 24th discussion paper was launched by Mick Dodson.

Ordinarily, such an event wouldn’t even enter the consciousness of the population, and would soon slip into the æther. This symposium, however, and the discussion paper, made it onto ABC’s online news, twice.

The paper is Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory1 and is co-written by Jane Simpson, Jo Caffery and Patrick McConvell (and edited, partly, by me).

It addresses the issue of bilingual education in the Northern Territory, describing its history, beginning more than 25 years ago, up until late 2008, when the decision was made to force all Northern Territory schools to teach at least the first four hours of English per day out of five hours of lessons, leaving a single possible hour per day for tuition in a language other than English. This decision, made by prominent Tiwi woman, Education Minister and Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour shortly before being moved from the Education portfolio to the role of Attorney-General, will take effect in time for the commencement of the 2010 school year.

The theory, of course, is that children learn a language most effectively through what’s known as immersion; a child surrounded by language X will pretty quickly become proficient in language X. But placing 30 kids who speak Kriol or Warlpiri as their first language(s) in a classroom with a single teacher who speaks only Standard Australian English and has no training in ESL/EFL can scarcely be considered ‘immersing’ the poor children in a sea of English.

I can personally attest to this paper being a very insightful discussion of the topic and, perhaps along with dozens of other interested people, have sent it on to Chief Minister Paul Henderson, the Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Education, Malarndirri McCarthy, and the Minister for Indigenous Policy, Alison Anderson, asking them to take the hour or so to read it.

If the 2010 school year begins and the 9 remaining bilingual schools in the Northern Territory are forced to teach what is effectively English-only, I believe the consequences will be detrimental not only to the few remaining healthy indigenous languages, but also to the children who will be thrown into the deep-end of an education system that is entirely foreign to them.


  1. Simpson, J., P. McConvell & J. Caffery 2009: Gaps in Australia’s Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory (AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 24)

This morning’s post at Language Log on code switching reminded me that I intended to write about an instance of code switching by a friend of mine that I was fortunate enough to witness.

This friend is South African and her first language is Afrikaans, although she has been speaking Australian English for long enough that she only occasionally appears to have a twang of an accent. She still speaks Afrikaans with members of her family, as all live in Australia and speak often.

I was doing a favour for said friend which basically entailed my sitting in the passenger seat as she drove from her house to the RTA in her “Smart” Car. I put ‘smart’ in double quotes for good reasons, which shall become clear below.

While we were en route, we had the misfortune of running over a nail, which caused one of the rear tyres to deflate, which we noticed only after it was too late; the tubeless tyre was shredded, and would need replacing. My friend’s driving test is minutes away.

“No worries,” I said, “I’ll put the spare on.”

“There’s no spare.” was my friend’s reply. “Smart cars don’t come with a spare,” ironically.

With no other option, we limped into a service station and asked whether they could fit a new tyre. The reply was that Smart Cars, being so terribly smart, use a slightly different sized tyre than any other car; their wheel size is absolutely unique and, owing to the minority of the Smart Car market in Australia, tyre suppliers don’t generally keep them in stock. I hope you can see now why I put ‘smart’ in quotes.

To cut a long and largely irrelevant story short, my friend had no way of taking the test that day, so we set off back to her house. On the way, she phoned her brother to tell him, in Afrikaans, what had happened. Now, my Afrikaans is about as good as my Walmajarri, so I won’t try and transcribe it here, but when she related to her brother the cost of a new tyre, she did so while code switching into English.

As her Australian English accent is so good, she’d normally have no issue saying “a hundred and eighty five dollars” as [əˈhʌndɹədnˌeɪɾifaɪv.ˈdɔləz], exept that it came out as a particularly stereotypical Afrikaaner [əˈhʌndɹətəˌnaɪtifɒf.ˈdɔləs]1.

This is interesting to me because I’ve barely done any psycholinguistics or bilingualism in my undergrad studies, so I enjoy it when I come across cool little bits of evidence that allow me to make broad generalisations about the mind and the language faculty, such as the following.

This implies to me that my friend, and bilingual speakers in general, have an L1 bit2 of their brain and an L2 bit. Each bit contains a lexicon; the vocabulary of each language, and each bit contains a phonology. So, what happens during code switching? From this I’d take a naive guess that code switching is the act of moving out of the Lx bit, and taking a word from the lexicon of Ly (in this case she moved out of her L1 to select a word from her L2’s lexicon).

A question emerges here; where does a word’s phonetic representation come from? I would have previously thought (again, naively) that the mental lexicon contains the phonetic representation, much as a dictionary entry contains an IPA transcription. But here, the borrowed words are fed into the phonology of the borrowing language, so the words don’t bring their phonology with them.

My broad and uneducated conclusion then, is that within one’s L1 or L2 is contained separate modules of language: a lexicon, a phonology, a syntax and all the rest of it, and when speaking using L1, you use all the modules in that language, diverging from them as little as possible. So code switching allows words to go between L1 and L2 or vice versa, but the phonology being used is still that of the language you’re speaking.

If you were fluent in two languages and code switched from one to the other, I believe it would take a conscious effort to use those borrowed words with their ‘normal’ pronunciation, by which I mean, the pronunciation they usually take in the language they belong to. Conversely, if you’re a learner of a language, you haven’t yet formed a distinct and independent L2, so the pronunciation of the new language is all a conscious act, in which case, when code switching back to their L1, they’d still use their L1 phonology.

The more I think about this, the more it appears to be commonsense, so I apologise if, for instance, your an expert in bilingualism and either a) you’re wondering why anyone would other writing a thousand words on something so natural, or b) I’m completely wrong.


  1. My apologies if you can’t read IPA; just trust me that the way she said it was almost what I’d expect of a satire.
  2. For want of a better term. I realise that there’s no single bit, but I’m talking abstractly.