New project on Children’s language learning and intersubjectivity in the PNG Highlands

In this post, Prof. Alan Rumsey and Prof. Francesca Merlan summarise their latest research project, one of several ANU-based ARC-funded projects for 2013 with a focus on the Pacific.

[Left: Children at play near Kailge, Western Highlands Province, where the project will be based.]

One of the biggest mysteries about the human species is that of child language acquisition – how children manage to learn, in a few years, systems so complex that no computer can yet model their use, but using a set of skills that is flexible enough to let them learn languages of widely differing structures. Another big mystery is the development of intersubjectivity – the uniquely human capacity for sharing and exchanging intentions and perspectives with each other. In this project we will help to improve the understanding of both language acquisition and intersubjectivity by studying them in relation to each other, in a region where neither has been systematically studied before – the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Studies of the relation between language acquisition and intersubjectivity have been very limited in the range of evidence they drawn on. They have been done almost entirely with children in North America, Europe and Australasia, speaking a narrow range of the world’s languages. This has led to overgeneralization based on false assumptions about the universality of particular linguistic structures and understandings about how the mind works. We will help to make up for those shortcomings by close study of the relation between language learning and intersubjectivity in a setting where the language and the people’s ideas about human psychology and personhood differ greatly from those where most of the research on this topic has been done.

The project will be conducted by Prof. Alan Rumsey of the Department of Anthropology, College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU, in collaboration with Prof. Francesca Merlan, of the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU. The field research will be based in the Ku Waru region of the Western Highlands Province, where Rumsey and Merlan have been studying other aspects of the language and culture since 1981. They will work in collaboration with field assistants John Onga and Andrew Noma, who will be making audio and video recordings of Ku Waru children’s interactions on a regular basis, and helping us to analyse them. Assistance with computerization and further analysis of the material at ANU will be provided by Research Assistants Dan Devitt and Tom Honeyman. The project is funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council and will run from 2013 to 2016.

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