Gillian Wigglesworth is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Melbourne and Chief Investigator on the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.
She is recognised for her expertise in first and second language acquisition and bilingualism.
Her ongoing research focus is on language and language acquisition of Indigenous children living in remote communities.
My work now is pretty much exclusively with Australian Indigenous children who live in remote communities where they have variable access to English and often start school with very limited English. It is particularly focused on issues around bilingual education and learning English at school.
My PhD was in first-language acquisition of English. When I finished that I got a job here at the University of Melbourne (UoM). I subsequently went to Macquarie for several years to work in the applied linguistics area, and moved into the areas of language testing, second language, bilingualism.
A colleague from Sydney who documents Indigenous languages suggested we might look at children's language, because in general there's been very little done on Indigenous children's languages in Australia. That was in about 2000 and I've been working in that area ever since. Much of that work is still in collaboration with the same person. We’ve had a couple of large ARC grants and now we've got the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.
The big moments for me? Having my kids and finishing my PhD (they were both born during my PhD!). When I first came to UoM I did a lot of work in the area of language testing, which was something I knew nothing about before I started the job in the Language Testing Research Centre. But it was an area I really enjoyed working in.
We worked on a large government project to develop an assessment for the language skills of immigrants - a proper test rather than the various things used at the moment. It was exciting to work on, and I really enjoyed it. I had a large team to work with, and we worked on the oral skills component of the test, which is complicated.
Then the government pulled the funding, so that was the end of that! But really my heart is in what I'm doing at the moment; for me that's the highlight. It brings together all the things I've done over the years: I started working with children during my PhD, and then moved into assessment, second languages and bilingualism, which is all brought together by working in this context with these Indigenous children.
Impact and Legacy
I would like to see an increasing number of academics and others working with children and Indigenous languages, who are keen to continue down that path and who recognise the breadth of language knowledge the children have. I've now got a good body of students that I've supervised, most of whom are still working in the area, and some of whom I still work with. Slowly we are getting the recognition that the context is not a simple one for Indigenous children who come from remote communities with different language backgrounds.
At the moment, all the issues in their communities are blamed on social factors: they don't attend school, they don't have enough to eat, and they live in poverty. Of course, all of these factors have an impact, but we need more recognition in education policy that actually language is a really crucial factor in all of this.
At present we don't tend to think about the competence children have in their first language (or languages), instead people tend to think in terms of them not having English. We need to think more carefully about how children are growing up in Australia: while it might be an English-speaking country, these children are not growing up in an-English-speaking context. Their access to English is largely at school, and from the ever-present television.
Children from immigrant backgrounds are given a year of English-learning tuition. We don’t do that for Indigenous children. We don't have ESL teachers working in the communities on the whole; we send them to schools with often very young teachers who know practically nothing about language. So that's the kind of thing I think that we've got to change. Teachers of these children – or really all children - should have some training in language.
In terms of the research I do I'm actually advantaged by being a woman. I've had male students, and it's more difficult for them to work with kids in remote communities because they have to spend a lot of time there before they're really accepted and trusted with children. The reality is that you're working mainly with women: most teachers are women, mostly its women looking after the children.
One of my biggest challenges though is field work. This is because all the communities I work with are a day's travel away and then a day's travel back. It is easier now my kids are grown up, but the timing's quite difficult in terms of collecting data and visiting people and doing workshops and that kind of thing.
I think you can manage an academic career with kids probably more easily than you can manage it in other professions because it's more flexible. If you can't go to work for a day for some reason it's not usually a disaster, whereas if you're a lawyer and you can't turn up at court, it may be.
I’d always say don't not have children because of your career, and don't wait for a right time, because there won't ever be one! If you want to have a family, have a family, and work your career around it. I had my babies when I was doing my PhD and it all worked fine. But you've obviously got to have a supportive partner. I was a single parent for a lot of the time, because my husband died when my kids were 11 and 14, and I was Head of School during that time as well. You've just got to be very determined and expect not to have much time for yourself.