Carmel O’Shannessy, Language contact and children’s bilingual acquisition

Carmel O’Shannessy, Language contact and children’s bilingual acquisition: Learning a mixed language and Warlpiri in northern Australia. University of Sydney. Supervisors: Melissa Bowerman and Penelope Brown (MPI Nijmegen), and Jane Simpson (University of Sydney).

This dissertation documents the emergence of a new language, Light Warlpiri, in the multilingual community of Lajamanu in northern Australia. It then examines the acquisition of Light Warlpiri language, and of the heritage language, Lajamanu Warlpiri, by children. Light Warlpiri has arisen from contact between Lajamanu Warlpiri (a Pama-Nyungan language), Kriol (an English-based creole), and varieties of English. It is a Mixed Language, meaning that none of its source languages can be considered to be the sole parent language. Most verbs and the verbal morphology are from Aboriginal English or Kriol, while most nouns and the nominal morphology are from Warlpiri.

The language input to children is complex. Adults older than about thirty speak Lajamanu Warlpiri and code-switch into Aboriginal English or Kriol. Younger adults, the parents of the current cohort of children, speak Light Warlpiri and code-switch into Lajamanu Warlpiri and into Aboriginal English or Kriol. Lajamanu Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri, the two main input languages to children, both indicate A arguments with ergative case-marking (and they share one allomorph of the marker), but Lajamanu Warlpiri includes the marker much more consistently than Light Warlpiri. Word order is variable in both languages. Children learn both languages from birth, but they target Light Warlpiri as the language of their everyday interactions, and they speak it almost exclusively until four to six years of age. Adults and children show similar patterns of ergative marking and word order in Light Warlpiri. But differences between age groups are found in ergative marking in Lajamanu Warlpiri – for the oldest group of adults, ergative marking is obligatory, but for younger adults and children, it is not.

Determining when children differentiate between two input languages has been a major goal in the study of bilingual acquisition. The two languages in this study share lexical and grammatical properties, making distinctions between them quite subtle. Both adults and children distribute ergative marking differently in the two languages, but show similar word order patterns in both. However the children show a stronger correlation between ergative marking and word order patterns than do the adults, suggesting that they are spearheading processes of language change. In their comprehension of sentences in both Lajamanu Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri, adults use a case-marking strategy to identify the A argument (i.e. N+erg = A argument, No = O argument). The children are not adult-like in using this strategy at age 5, when they also used a word order strategy, but they gradually move towards being adult-like with increased age.

For copies, contact: Carmel O’Shannessy, Language Resource Officer, DEET NT, PO Box 1420, Alice Springs NT 0870, ph no: 08 89 517 006,