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Acquiring a polysynthetic Australian language: From infancy to school

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Title: Acquiring a polysynthetic Australian language: From infancy to school
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Wadeye (Port Keats), a community of approximately 2500 people in the Northern Territory of Australia, is one of a small number of communities in which the traditional indigenous language is still being acquired by children as their first language. Children in this community speak Murrinh-Patha prior to attending a bilingual school where they begin learning English.

This paper investigates the Murrinh-Patha input to and production of infants and pre-schoolers and examines attitudes to language learning from the early years at home through the transition to school. Longitudinal language sampling was used to explore how children acquire complex verbal structures. Data were collected from five children (four girls; one boy), starting at age 2;7 over a two-year period.

Murrinh-Patha is a polysynthetic language, with complex verbal predicates which are formed with discontinuous stem elements and are semantically noncompositional. In languages like English, these words would require entire phrases to express. For example, the Murrinh-Patha word WURDAMnginthaDHAWIWEPERLwardagathu means “then the two non-siblings, at least one of whom was female, spoke out in unison”, with the two bolded elements jointly providing the predicate ‘speak out in unison’.

Courtney and Saville-Troike (2002), investigating the acquisition of the polysynthetic languages Navajo and Quechua, found that children extracted the verb roots first, before acquiring affixes. Yet how are Murrinh-Patha children to do this when the verb root is itself complex and distributed across the verbal word? Little is known about the acquisition of polysynthetic languages and the linguistic and pedagogical theory for creating tools to support language practice and literacy is based on vastly different language and socio-cultural foundations.

A major motivation for this study is that the school bilingual program is developing educational materials in Murrinh-Patha, but with no knowledge of how children actually learn the language. Much of the pedagogical foundation for materials development comes from research based on widely spoken, more isolating languages such as English, Spanish and French. In these languages children learn literacy through whole word or syllabic teaching methods (Moats 2000). In Murrinh-Patha, where words are very long, it is possible that a syllabic approach to literacy-teaching would be successful. However, with little knowledge of foundational language learning in the language it is a challenge to develop appropriate literacy materials. This research will lay the foundation for ongoing investigations into language acquisition in Murrhin-Patha, with an aim to ensure the persistence and vitality of the language for future generations.

Courtney, E. H. and M. Saville-Troike (2002) “Learning to construct verbs in Navajo and Quechua” Journal of Child Language Vol. 29(3), pp. 623-654.
Moats, L. Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. New Jersey, Brookes Publishing
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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