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

This year's Einar Haugen Lecture will be held by Nicholas Evans, who has made significant contributions to the study of endangered indigenous languages, especially focusing on the indigenous languages of Australia and New Guinea.

The lecture was streamed live, and can be watched by clicking the video above.

2019 Einar Haugen Lecture

Multilingualism is not new. Our world has always been multilingual, but across the globe, indigenous languages are disappearing at an alarming rate. What does the world lose when these languages disappear? 2019 is the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages. To mark the occasion, MultiLing has invited Nicholas Evans whose influential work on endangered indigenous languages focuses both on documenting these languages and investigating the consequences of their loss.

Nicholas Evans

Nick Evans
Nicholas Evans has done extensive fieldwork documenting indigenous languages in Australia and New Guinea. Photo: CoEDL

Nicholas 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. 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.

Lecture abstract

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 itself. 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 characterize so many of them, it is reasonable to suppose that the ability to learn languages later in life has characterized 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.

About the Einar Haugen Lecture series

a black and white photo of Einar Haugen
The annual Einar Haugen Lecture pays tribute to this eminent Norwegian-American scholar and celebrates linguistic diversity.

On September 26, the European Day of Languages, MultiLing honors Einar Haugen with the annual Einar Haugen Lecture. Haugen was a Norwegian-American linguist and a Professor at Harvard University in the 1960-70s. Haugen is considered a pioneer in multilingualism research, and his studies on Norwegian in North America is a landmark study in the field of bilingualism.



Published Aug. 1, 2019 4:08 PM - Last modified June 3, 2020 1:16 PM