The island where 9 different languages are used, but only with 500 people 

The island where 9 different languages are used, but only with 500 people 

The Warruwi inhabit South Goulburn Island, a small forested island off Australia's northern coast. With barely 500 residents, conversation can take place in up to 9 languages. This is one of the few regions in Australia, and possibly the globe, where numerous indigenous languages exist.
Hòn đảo 500 người nhưng sử dụng đến 9 ngôn ngữ khác nhau
Hòn đảo 500 người nhưng sử dụng đến 9 ngôn ngữ khác nhau

The Warruwi inhabit South Goulburn Island, a small forested island off Australia’s northern coast. With barely 500 residents, conversation can take place in up to 9 languages. This is one of the few regions in Australia, and possibly the globe, where numerous indigenous languages exist. Languages spoken here are Mawng, Bininj Kunwok, Yolngu-Matha, Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole, and English.  

With the exception of English, none of the languages listed above have more than a few thousand speakers. Some, such as Ndjébbana and Mawng, have a few hundred speakers. When considering how to communicate so that everyone here can understand each other, some individuals believe that the people of South Goulburn Island speak multiple languages or that they have decided on a single linguistic system. Simple and easy to use, like a bowl of soup with many linguistic stones as ingredients. Individuals on the island communicate only in their native language(s), since those who are unable to talk may nonetheless grasp one or more of the nine languages.  

Where does receptive multilingualism occur?  

This arrangement, known as “receptive multilingualism” by linguists, exists all across the world. This phenomena happens by chance in some places. For example, many English-speaking Anglos residing in states bordering the United States can read and understand Spanish thanks to linguistic exposure. Many immigrant children learn to speak the language of their host nation while still understanding their parents’ language. In other places, responsive multilingualism serves as a short-term solution. However, in the Warruwi community, this phenomenon has a special significance.  

Ruth Singer, a linguist at the Australian National University’s Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity Project, discovered this by chance and recently wrote about multilingualism. Language and Communication magazine was sent to the Warruwi community. Singer and her husband hauled a Toyota pickup from Darwin via water during a field trip to South Goulburn in 2006. Although the island is small and there are few cars, having a car allows them to interact more easily with the locals. They became friends with an island couple, Nancy Ngalmindjalmag and Richard Dhangalangal, who owned a boat and a trailer but no car. The two couples went fishing, hunting, and digging for turtle eggs in the water. Singer then observed that Nancy always spoke to Richard in Mawng, but Richard always responded in Yolngu-Matha, despite Nancy’s fluency in the language.

Singer noted in an e-mail, “When I first started investigating multilingualism and getting acclimated to how individuals use multiple languages, I started hearing multilingual conversations. Picked up in Warruwi, such as two men mending a fence or two people talking in a shop.

She feels that there are numerous factors contributing to this phenomenon. Richard does not speak Mawng because he is not a Warruwi native. His mention of Mawng was interpreted as a violation of the rule that persons of non-local origin do not have certain rights. Yolngu-Matha speakers are more numerous but less bilingual compared to speakers of other languages. 

 

Limit evaluation to one language 

More broadly, the Warruwi community is just avoiding the transition to a single language for social and personal reasons. Some families insist on their children speaking exclusively the family’s language, which is usually the father’s. Languages associated with a certain place or territory on the island are considered the language of the clan that possesses it. Breaking the guideline of only speaking the languages authorized is considered a sign of animosity.  

Assessing one’s ability to grasp or “hear” a language has no limitations, as Nancy stated in her interview. Singer wonders if receptive multilingualism in Australia has been there for a while. During travels into mainland Australia in the late 18th century, several of the first European settlers documented this event. “Even though we natives and the strangers spoke to each other and understood each other completely, we spoke different dialects of the same language,” a settler was quoted as saying by the publication.  

Although receptive multilingualism is not unique to Australia, Warruwi stands out for its mastery of receptive skills. Whereas the academic foreign language industry considers language acquisition abilities to be half-learned, incomplete, or, worse, failures, at Warruwi, students can learn to utilize language as if it were their natural language. Anglos in Texas frequently do not list the ability to “understand Spanish” on their resumes, whereas offspring of immigrants may feel embarrassed if they comprehend but do not speak their parents’ language. Another distinction between the Warruwi group and other receptive multilinguals is that the skills they learn do not lead to speaking abilities. Richard Dhangalangal, Singer’s acquaintance, is an excellent example. Richard had spent the majority of his life around Mawng speakers and was competent in the language, but no one expected him to have to speak it.  

Receptive multilingualism has become institutionalized in some places. Switzerland’s school system promotes receptive multilingualism, ensuring children learn the local language, their second language, nationality, and English from a young age. In theory, this should assist people grasp other people’s languages. According to a 2009 research, the Swiss population is predominantly monolingual, with Italian speakers being the most likely to be multilingual and French speakers ranking lowest. Furthermore, each group of people who speak one language harbors negative feelings toward other languages. Languages in Switzerland, like those of the Warruwi community, have been formed by social conditions and cultural beliefs.  

Even Switzerland considers it reasonable to comprehend but not speak Australia, as many individuals in Europe know various languages similar to their own (such as English). Roman, Germanic, and Slavic. This allows children to use vocabulary and grammatical structures from the same language as they use for passive comprehension. In contrast, the Warruwi community’s languages come from six different language families and cannot understand each other, resulting in complex acquisition skill sets. It’s unclear how many languages a person can learn without speaking them.  

Multilingualism benefits people in both Switzerland and the Warruwi community by allowing them to express themselves and their roots without pushing others to do the same. According to Singer, this promotes social stability in the Warruwi community by allowing all groups to feel secure and confident in their identities. “Linguistic and social diversity in Warruwi is viewed as a fundamental component of social harmony rather than a barrier, emphasizing the importance of everyone asserting distinct identities rather than expressing the same color. Maintaining peace is difficult without a huge hierarchical social organization like a clan community, kingdom, or nation.  

Other countries of the world choose to maintain linguistic peace by allowing everyone to use a common language, or even a bridge language. This is referred to as “adaptation,” and it is an important aspect in decreasing inequalities within the society. However, other countries in the world do not value adaptability and do not even consider this alternative. Singer realized, as he did in the Warruwi village, that those who assumed ownership of the community (and, by extension, the language) had no intention of speaking another language.  

Lessons learned from multilingual acquisition 

Receptive multilingualism in the Warruwi community teaches us the following lesson: Small indigenous communities are remarkably complex, both socially and linguistically, and receptive multilingualism is both a cause and a result of that complexity. This phenomena could play a significant role in the future of languages with tiny and declining speakers. More research is needed to improve the ability to acquire and speak a language. In the words of Singer, “If we have a better grasp of receptive ability, we can design language teaching for these people that will help people who only understand their heritage language begin to speak that language in life. “ 

The island where 9 different languages are used, but only with 500 people 

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