The many roads to becoming multilingual: Lessons from small-scale speech communities

2019 is the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages. This year's Einar Haugen lecture will be held by Nick Evans (external link) who has made significant contributions to the study of endangered indigenous languages, especially focusing on the indigenous languages of Australia and New Guinea.

About the lecture

Picture of Nick Evans
Photo: CoEDL

There is a tendency for research on language teaching and learning to reproduce the same distorting emphasis on large-scale languages that has dogged theorization about the nature of language. But just as crucial evidence from little-known languages has in recent decades made the field reevaluate a host of claims about what is universal in language structure, so does evidence from small-scale speech communities hold great potential for illuminating how humans go about acquiring multiple languages in informal settings. Since most of our evolutionary history as human beings has been spent in such small-scale speech communities, and since strikingly high levels of achieved multilingualism characterise so many of them, it is reasonable to suppose that the ability to learn languages later in life has characterised most or all of our evolutionary trajectory as speaking hominids. The field of language education thus stands to benefit greatly from research on how second language learning occurs in such small-scale communities.

After giving some general evidence for the above claims, the main part of this talk will be devoted to illustrating the extent of traditional multilingualism in indigenous communities in Northern Australia and Southern Papua New Guinea. I will report on case studies in which community members do not merely interview one another about their language competence in a range of languages, eliciting a wide range of sensitive judgments about competence levels, but also conduct substantive interviews in a range of different languages allowing us to evaluate how far people’s claimed competence in multiple languages is accurate. Finally, I will consider some crucial aspects of language socialisation, language ideology and conversational practice which produce high levels of achieved multilingualism in these settings.

Nick Evans

Nick Evans is Distinguished Professor at the Department of Linguistics, School of Culture, History & Language at Australian National University and the Director of the Australian Research Council funded Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL), with participation from The University of Queensland, Australian National University, The University of Melbourne, and Western Sydney University. Evans is renowned for his work on endangered indigenous languages, especially for his 2010 book Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us, which sets out a broad program for the field’s engagement with the planet’s dwindling linguistic diversity.

The Einar Haugen Lecture

Photo of Einar Haugen
Einar Haugen

The renowned scholar Einar Haugen (1906 – 1994) was born into a Norwegian family in the US and grew up bilingually.  His fascination with language led him to doctoral studies in linguistics and a career in language and linguistics that extended across many decades. He served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and until his retirement as Professor of Scandinavian and Linguistics at Harvard University. Haugen’s many influential works contributed to the then emerging field of sociolinguistics for which he is credited for having had an important impact, particularly in the domain of language policy. His pioneering work The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior (1953) is a landmark study in the field of bilingualism.

The annual Einar Haugen lecture pays tribute to this eminent Norwegian-American scholar and celebrates linguistic diversity.


Published May 15, 2019 4:08 PM - Last modified June 25, 2019 1:11 PM