Category Archives: teaching

High School visit

I spent about 45 minutes or so at the High School this morning. I reckon it was one of the best 45 minutes I’ve spent here. The kids were great – I gave a bit of a talk about what linguists do (complete with powerpoint!), about what I was doing when I was working with their grannies and great-grannies, and they asked me some questions about uni and language work and things like that. I gave them pretty much the same talk about linguistics that I give first year uni students (I used Aboriginal English/Standard English examples instead of Spanish), and they were pretty enthusiastic about the whole thing and had lots of questions.  We also talked a bit about going to uni.

It was really useful to me to get to know them a little better, and I’m glad they’ve now got my contact details. The community is in good hands for the future with those kids! Thanks Richard for letting me take over your literacy class for a bit!


More on language resources

I had a very positive meeting with the One Arm Point Bardi teachers on Friday. Most of the teachers are language ‘remembers’ – that is, they are not comfortable in talking in full sentences in Bardi, but they all grew up hearing the language and they recognise a lot.*

As far as I know, One Arm Point has the longest-running language/culture program in Western Australia. It’s been going for more than 20 years now, which is a real testament to the strength of this community and their commitment to keeping culture strong. It’s really impressive. One Arm Point school is talking about itself as a ‘three language school’ now, which is also really good. The three languages are Aboriginal English, Standard Australian English, and Bardi.

We spent a few hours on Friday afternoon going through some things and talking about ways to get more Bardi into classrooms, and how I could help for the rest of my time here and when I’m back in the US. I also got some feedback on language materials.

  • Google earth placenames: we thought of a bunch of class activities that the kids could do with this, such as:
    • Using the ‘find’ button to find the name of their favourite fishing place and showing the class where it is.
    • Describing how to get to a place using the Bardi place names (this is the way that Bardi speakers give directions too – they don’t tend to use ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘north’ and ‘south’)
  • KirrKirr dictionary: this is shaping up to be a pretty important resource, I think, especially for the teachers. I’ve got it running at school now and will be adding sound clips and photos as I have time.
  • However, a much bigger deal would be an English – Bardi dictionary, where the English side of the dictionary has all the information that the Bardi-English side currently has. I think I’ve blogged before about the SIL Toolbox model of dictionary authoring and how badly it serves heritage speakers (and Corris et al (2004) make this point well too). I’m about 10% of the way through converting the Bardi-English dictionary to an English-Bardi one, using TshwaneLex (more on that in a future post). Doing it has made me look much more closely at how texts have been translated and what the semantic scope of each Bardi word is, so it’s quite a good exercise. Who knows how it’ll get done when I don’t have a TV to sit in front of in the evenings though..
  • Time-aligned texts. I showed the teachers a demo of a CuPED text and they thought it was really great, and useful for the older students. We’ve been proofing new (mostly short) texts in the breaks between grammar questions so there’s now a nice collection of time-aligned school texts about various topics.


*An aside: if someone can point me in the direction of good resources for helping such speakers, that would save me some time with google.

Corris, M., C. Manning, S. Poetsch & J. Simpson. How useful and usable are dictionaries for speakers of Australian Indigenous languages? In International Journal of Lexicography, Volume 17, Number 1, March 2004.

Australian folk language policy (1): the failure of monolingualism

When Kevin Rudd came to power nearly a year ago, many of us linguists thought we might get a better deal for language in Australia. After all, it’s not every day that monolingual Australia elects a prime minister who is fluent in Mandarin. I think some of us assumed that Rudd’s sensitivity to multilingualism might transfer to more support for Australia’s Indigenous languages. We were deeply mistaken, it seems.

200 years ago, more than 250 languages were spoken in Australia, from 28 different language families. By way of comparison, Europe has roughly 200 languages from four families [Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and Basque]. These days, approximately 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are being learned by children, with another 60 spoken only by adults or old people. 90% of Australia’s Indigenous languages are reckoned as endangered.

There are 9 bilingual schools in the Northern Territory, and if plans go ahead, those schools will be forced to teach the first 4 hours of every school day in English, leaving between 60 and 90 minutes of class time per day for instruction in other languages.

Apparently the new policy was developed after below par test results for grades 3, 5  and 7 reading and maths. However, the government has repeatedly told researchers trying to access to school test data that test results are aggregated across schools. I take this to mean that the NT government doesn’t actually know if the bilingual schools are doing worse than the English-only schools.

I have a suggestion: mandate the content, don’t mandate the medium. Recognise that English is a second (or third or fourth) language for kids in these schools, employ a few ESL teachers, mandate 60-90 minutes of English as a Second/Foreign Language, and teach the rest of the curriculum in whatever language the kids know best. Trial it in Arnhem Land or a Warlpiri community where there are Indigenous teachers.

Until multilingual Aboriginal communities cease to be treated as ‘English monolingual failures’ there will be no sensible education policy for these areas.

We haven’t heard a peep out of Kevin Rudd. Given that the federal government technically controls 73 NT Aboriginal communities at present, one would have thought that the federal government’s opinion was relevant here.

Why I asked about Mit the cat…

A few months ago, I had a post where I asked for American English naturalness judgments on a story. Astute readers pointed out that I don’t usually make up fake children’s stories and wondered if there was another purpose.

There was indeed a purpose to this story. As part of my research methods class for seniors, we did a study of Freshperson dialect convergence at Yale. I had noticed when I was a grad student at Harvard that the intro linguistics students’ accents changed markedly over the semester. ‘Marked’ features (US dialectal shibboleths, like ai-monophthonisation and “warsh” for “wash” seemed to disappear.

So, in order to see if we could make any generalisations about this, we recorded a bunch of Freshpeople as early in the semester as possible. They read the story (they were told it was for the students in research methods to practise recording techniques). We then took formant and duration measurements of 6 vowels: /i/, /ɪ/, /e/. /ɛ/, /æ/ and the diphthong /ai/. We also ‘earballed’ the recordings for distinctive features.

We’ve just done the second set of recordings now, so I can tell you all why I put up that story (and why it had to be ‘Mit the cat’).

We don’t have the results yet, though. Stay tuned…

Graduate Student Position

Graduate Student Position

Rice University Department of Linguistics


Rice University’s Department of Linguistics is seeking expressions of interest from students to write a dissertation on language contact, variation and/or change in Australian Indigenous languages. Funding is guaranteed for four years (including stipend, tuition remission, field equipment and basic field work expenses). The position is funded through NSF CAREER  BCS-0643517 “Pama-Nyungan and the Prehistory of Australia”, awarded to Dr Claire Bowern. The start date is August (Fall), 2008. The successful applicant would also complete the requirements for a Rice linguistics PhD (for requirements, see General information about the department and graduate program can also be found at this address.


While a first degree in linguistics is not required for entry into Rice’s program, applicants for this position should have a strong background in linguistics. An MA is preferred, but BA candidates with a strong background in the field will also be considered.

Procedure for Application

Applicants for the position need to apply to Rice’s linguistics program and satisfy departmental admission requirements (application fee, GRE scores, TOEFL scores (if applicable), letters of recommendation, transcripts, application form, and other required application materials). Applicants should include in their statement of purpose that they are applying for this position. They should also state whether they would like to be considered in the general linguistics application pool should this position go to another applicant. We can only consider applications which have been submitted through official channels. In addition, applicants should send a letter to the PI which includes a summary of the student’s background, interests, experience, and why they would like to work on this project.

Address for applications:

The application to Rice should be submitted online; see for more information. 

The letter of application should be addressed to

Dr Claire Bowern

Department of Linguistics, MS-23
Rice University
6100 Main St
Houston, TX, 77005
Fax: (713) 348-4718

Deadline for applications: February 1st, 2008.

For more information, please contact Dr Claire Bowern (<my last name>

NSF Career grant

It’s all happening here at anggarrgoon…

In the most recent round of NSF CAREER (junior faculty career development) grants, I received an award to work on Pama-Nyungan prehistory and historical reconstruction. Here’s the abstract:

The earliest detailed records of Australia’s indigenous languages date from approximately two hundred years ago, and therefore our only access to the prehistory of Australia’s indigenous past is through reconstruction in archeology and linguistics. While we know that humans have lived in Australia for more than 40,000 years, we do not know how speakers of the 250 currently attested languages came to live where they do today. This project uses linguistic evidence to trace the history of Aboriginal people in prehistoric times. Systematic similarities between words in these languages can be used to reconstruct various properties of prehistoric languages. These techniques will be used to determine the structure of the Pama-Nyungan language family, which will shed light on prehistoric population movements.

Australia’s linguistic prehistory is important for several reasons. It has been claimed that methods developed for Europe and the Americas do not work in Australia. If true, such a finding would be highly important, since these methods are based on properties of language change which until now have been assumed to be universal. However, preliminary work indicates that Australian languages show the same characteristics that we find elsewhere. Small speech community size, widespread multilingualism, and other factors have obscured relationships between these languages. These languages are an excellent laboratory for modeling what language change might have been like before the spread of agricultural communities. If we are ever going to be able to model accurately what prehistoric global language spread might have looked like, we need to understand how it operated in Australia.

As part of this award, I’ve started another blog:  Part of the grant involves educational and outreach activities, and I think that includes not only updates on the research but also documentation of the admin and other things that go into managing a grant like this. Interesting posts will be cross-posted here. The award runs for five years.

Learner’s guides and sketch grammars

I’m occasionally asked about different types of language learning materials, such as what the difference is between a “sketch grammar”, a “textbook” and a “learner’s guide”. I think the difference is one of audience/function more than anything else – it’s not necessarily the information that goes into them.

A sketch grammar is written for linguists. It’s like a reference grammar but it’s shorter. It contains basic information about phonology, syntax, and morphology (and maybe a text or two) but not too much else. Most of the Lincom Languages of the World/Materials series are sketch grammars. Such books aren’t usually very easy to use to learn a language from. They usually don’t contain a wordlist (or if they do, it won’t necessarily contain helpful vocabulary), they aren’t laid out in a pedagogically friendly way and there’s usually no attempt to explain technical terms.

A textbook is primarily written for school use. There is an implicit assumption that there will be a teacher (or that the student will have somewhere to go for help). They are usually set out by subject theme rather than by linguistic concept (e.g. a chapter heading is more likely to be “going to the cinema”, than “adjectives”). They often avoid talking about grammatical terminology at all.* Textbooks usually don’t teach phonology overtly either (although they will usually contain information about the sounds of the language).

A learner’s guide is a bit of a catch-all. The audience isn’t assumed to be school kids (that is, it’s not assumed that the language will be learned in a classroom situation). The learner’s guides are often written by linguists and assume a sketch grammar model, but they contain less linguistic terminology (or they explain the terms they use).

*<rant>: I have never understood this. Why should a concept be any easier to master if it’s not identified or named?? </rant>