New research centre to investigate how language works

24 November 2014

A new national research centre based at ANU will investigate how language works and how it makes us who we are.

Based at the University, the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language draws together the nation’s top linguists, philosophers, psychologists and roboticists to puzzle out the complex mechanisms of human communication.

The new centre will focus on four key areas: how languages differ, how they are learned, how the brain processes them and how they evolve.

“We once imagined that all languages had the same basic operating system,” said Professor Nick Evans, the Centre’s director. “We are now becoming aware of the impressive diversity of the world’s languages.

“Just as biological evolution has produced species with special adaptations for different environments, language evolution has generated unique design solutions for the problem of communication.”

Already, new findings by Centre researchers are leading to the development of advanced language-learning robots and technology-assisted dementia treatments.

No other species is capable of reproducing anything like our own highly developed communication systems, suggesting that language is fundamental to questions of human evolution and the development of culture.

But as global linguistic diversity is predicted to shrink by 90 per cent before the end of the century, the race is on to document rare and threatened languages in our region.

Teams will visit northern Australia, Asia and the Pacific to record rare languages that may hold the keys to our distant past and offer hope for a brighter future.

Funded by the Australian Research Council, the Centre is a seven-year collaboration between The Australian National University, The University of Western Sydney, The University of Melbourne and The University of Queensland, with partners in the US, the UK, New Zealand, China, Singapore, Germany and the Netherlands.