Language diversity research featured in The Conversation

A map of languages spoken in Australia
August 2, 2017

Joint work by Professor Claire Bowern and ten other researchers from various countries and disciplines was featured in The Conversation. The article, written by Michael Gavin of Colorado State University, describes a project that seeks to model the geographic distribution of languages spoken in Australia using computer simulations.

Certain robust patterns can be found in the distribution of languages throughout the world. For example, areas close to the equator are typically home to more languages than areas far from the equator. While these patterns have been known to scholars for centuries, why these patterns occur is still not well-understood. The model that Claire, Michael, and their colleagues constructed tests three possible hypotheses that address this question. Firstly, the model assumes that populations generally move towards space unoccupied by other populations. Secondly, since different regions of Australia vary considerably in terms of precipitation, the model assumes that people concentrate in areas with high rainfall. Finally, the model assumes that once a community reaches a certain maximum size, the community separates into two subgroups.

To make predictions with the model, the researchers developed software that simulates individual language speakers moving around a map of Australia. The map was divided into hexagonal cells that varied in terms annual rainfall and carrying capacity, and communities were able to expand into neighboring cells as their populations grew. On average, the model accurately predicted that 406 languages would be spoken in Australia today—the actual number is 407.

The full paper for the project was published in Global Ecology and Biogeography on January 5, 2017. The Conversation is an online periodical that introduces results from academic studies to the general public.

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