Student Language Detectives

28 Oct 2016

Students at the School of Languages and Cultures at The University of Queensland have spent the last 6 weeks being detectives as they investigate, document and crack the code for a language that they had never even heard of.

In the first half of the semester students in the Linguistics Field Methods course were introduced to aspects about how to use tools and equipment that linguists use when in the field. This knowledge was then applied when half way through the semester they were introduced a speaker of Gilbertese, (officially known as taetae ni Kiribati), spoken by around 100,000 people in the small Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Robert (or Robati as he is known as in Kiribati), grew up speaking taetae ni Kiribati as his first language. He is kindly sharing his knowledge of taetae ni Kiribati and Kiribati culture with the linguistics students, and will meet with them for the remainder of semester. Our budding detectives will use their time with Robati and their skills in linguistic analysis to figure out aspects of taetae ni Kiribati, such as the sound system, sentence structure, lexicon and learn about the context in which the language is spoken.

Robati says “All in all, the experience has been more than amazing! I never expected such enthusiasm to come from the students. They are so keen to learn and understand the complexities, and sometimes simpleness, of my language”.

All sessions are recorded and the class is building a record of around 30 hours of data on the language. This database has the potential to be lodged in an international archive for posterity and students may be able to continue investigating the language in further details as a thesis research project.

Dr Greg Dickson who is the Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language and lecturer for the course says “It’s been great to introduce a Pacific language into the Linguistics program, given our proximity to the region and the presence of large Pacific communities in Brisbane and at UQ. The project has also created a informal link between Linguistics and the UQ South Pacific Islander Association (UQ SPIA)”.  

Robati with Linguistics student Esther