Meet Nancy Ngalmindjalmag and Richard Dhangalangal.

Nancy and Richard are a lovely husband and wife happily living in South Goulburn, a luscious green isle off of Australia’s northern coast. If you eavesdrop on their conversations, you may be left thinking that something must possibly be wrong with your hearing… you could have sworn that you heard the two speaking to one another in two completely different languages without skipping a beat. Well, rest assured.

No need to visit an Ears, Nose and Throat specialist anytime soon: Nancy was asking a question in Mawng and Richard, responding in Yolngu-Matha. 

Nancy and Richard belong to the Warruwi community, consisting of 500 people who speak nine different languages amongst themselves. Mawng, Bininj Kunwok, Yolngu-Matha, Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole and English. Given that there are so many languages, one would think that a lingua franca would be used amongst the islanders or that the islanders themselves, would be polyglots. But, reality paints a separate picture. The high intelligibility of the nine languages allow the community members to express themselves in their native tongue without the need to translate or speak in the language of the other interlocutor.

This mêlée of spoken indigenous languages within such a small-scale society is indeed, astoundingly rare, and reflects what linguists call “receptive multilingualism”.

This mode of interaction--in which speakers use their respective preferred languages while understanding the language of the other--is not any novel phenomenon. Norwegians, Danish and Swedish are able to speak to one another in their respective native tongues without compromising the integrity of their conversations. Similarly, in Catalonia, it is not uncommon to find native Catalan speakers recounting an amusing experience in Catalan to Spanish-speaking individuals, and communication, nonetheless, flowing like the river to the sea.

 However, there are two distinctive differences that draw notoriety to this indigenous collective. Primarily, passive understanding in Europe easily arises as a result of languages stemming from the same linguistic families. This is not the case for the Warruwi community: many of the languages spoken derive from six different linguistic families. Secondly, while receptive skills exist throughout many parts of the world, these capabilities in the Warruwi community express real linguistic proficiencies and diverge from the commonly-held belief that understanding another language is but another stepping stone on the course to spoken abilities. It suffices to understand the other language, not actually speak it. 

Certainly, this incredible linguistic observation suggests that varying modes of communication induce a degree of perplexity for societal relations. In the case of the Warruwi community, the receptive multilingualism weaving throughout upholds social harmony and attempts to respect the unique identity and diversity inherent in each of the indigenous languages. However, in greater, Western societies, what are the implications or rather, lessons of such linguistic occurrences? To examine such a line of curiosity would, by any means, be the start of an interesting conversation.


Sources: The Atlantic 

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