Early Career Researchers

Stories from the next generation of language science researchers carrying forward CoEDL’s mission



CoEDL’s success would not have been possible without attracting the highest calibre postdoctoral researchers in the language sciences. Postdocs and early career researchers (ECRs) were the driving forces behind many CoEDL projects and required a diverse range of expertise — as well as considerable ambition and ingenuity — to do this work.

As a group, CoEDL’s 70 postdocs answered the Centre’s need for specialised skills across multiple areas including qualitative and quantitative research and experiment design; language description and documentation; bioinformatics; data processing and analysis; evolutionary theory; philosophy of biology and language; corpus building and analysis; and robotics and engineering. CoEDL entrusted its ECRs with responsibility for co-supervising PhD students, designing complex research projects, and pioneering the adaption of technology and development of new methods for studying language.

Through guidance and training from senior Centre members, including mentoring opportunities organised by the ECR and Higher Degree Researcher (HDR) Sub-committee, CoEDL postdocs developed experience in and respect for transdisciplinary, innovative and collaborative research. They were vital to the CoEDL community and the Centre’s mission to transform the science of language and will carry this mission forward with aplomb.

Rebecca Defina

When CoEDL began, I was completing my PhD — investigating the relationship between language, event descriptions and cognition among adult speakers of the West-African language Avatime — at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.

I’d been talking about my interest in language acquisition with CoEDL CI Evan Kidd, who suggested I apply for CoEDL’s Acquisition of an Indigenous Australian Language postdoc position with CI Jill Wigglesworth. The goal of this position was to create a longitudinal corpus and description of the acquisition of an Australian Indigenous language. Building on my PhD research interests, I made a successful and in hindsight overly ambitious proposal to study Pitjantjatjara language acquisition, including how children acquire event concepts and descriptions.

The first and main goal was to collect a longitudinal corpus of Pitjantjatjara language acquisition and this has been the primary output of the project. The corpus follows 14 focus children with initial ages between 10 months and 5 years over a period of up to 3 years. It contains nearly 150 hours of audio and video recordings of these focus children interacting with their family and friends — an additional 40 children and 40 adults.

Several adjacent projects, collaborations and outcomes resulted from this work. A collaboration with researchers investigating and describing language acquisition in under-researched languages led to the development of a manual with best practice guidelines [1, 2]. I have been working with a growing group of Pitjantjatjara researchers including Sasha Wilmoth [3], Lucy Davidson, and Wanyima Wighton, with whom I am writing a general overview of Pitjantjatjara language acquisition. I was also able to work with community experts on issues they’d noticed relating to changes in Pitjantjatjara through their work as educators [4]. And I made a move towards describing the acquisition of event descriptions with a paper on the acquisition of Pitjantjatjara clause chains [5].

The wide-ranging depth of experience combined with the great welcoming support of my fellow-CoEDLers enabled me to build this research and my own skillset. Of particular note was the support the Centre provided to enable me to combine caring responsibilities with research work which required spending three months of each year in the field. The experience and relationships I’ve built through CoEDL and with the Pitjantjatjara community are what enabled me to successfully apply for a DECRA and be in a position to finally tackle many of the questions I posed when I began my postdoc.

Bruno Olsson

I was a freshly admitted PhD student at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore when I attended a workshop on social cognition and grammar in 2014, as CoEDL was about to open, led by soon-to-be director Nick Evans. At the time, I was hesitating between a thesis on linguistic typology (studying tense-aspect) or fieldwork in Northern India or New Guinea. Meeting Nick and other CoEDL community members proved decisive, and led to my fieldwork with the Coastal Marind community of Southern New Guinea.

I had brilliant colleagues as a PhD student in Singapore, but many of them were working on structurally simpler languages of Southeast Asia, so I was extremely fortunate to be able to learn from the CoEDLers I met and remained in contact with. I was struck by their combined interest in both detailed empirical work on small languages and big-picture questions about diversity, complexity and evolution — which, along with unfettered methodological innovativeness, became important inspiration during my PhD research. It was incredibly rewarding to receive this collegial support, and to know that my work mattered to a whole community of researchers.

Drawn by these earlier experiences, I started a postdoc with CoEDL at the Australian National University in 2018, supervised by CI Bethwyn Evans. During my almost four years in Canberra, I was able to pursue my research on Coastal Marind, resulting in a grammar of the language [6]; work on the evolution of grammatical gender [7]; research on other Anim languages (including fieldwork on the largely unknown Yaqay language); and typological work on kinship and valency in Papuan languages.

I think that one of the most dangerous traps for linguists and linguistics is specialisation, and the insularity that results when the same researchers stare at the same thing for too long. CoEDL was a remarkable place in this respect, as it brought together people with different backgrounds, interests and methods and working in most subfields of linguistics (and several fields outside linguistics). This diversity and richness of perspectives was always present. The importance of engaging with neighbouring disciplines is something that I will carry with me from my CoEDL years and try to implement in my own research and teaching.

Laurence Bruggeman

When CoEDL started, I was about half-way through my PhD in psycholinguistics at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, the site of CoEDL’s Western Sydney University node. I was working with CoEDL CI Anne Cutler and heard many enthusiastic stories about the newly established centre. I remember being a bit envious of the CoEDL PhD candidates, thinking it was a shame CoEDL had not yet been around when I started. It sounded like such an inspiring place to do a PhD! So when, in 2018, after a few years as a postdoc at Macquarie University, I was offered the chance to join CoEDL, I jumped at the opportunity.

As a postdoctoral fellow in CoEDL, I worked with CI Anne Cutler to investigate bilingual speech processing. We discovered that adaptation to novel talkers is a language-specific skill that listeners may lose if they’re not regularly exposed to unfamiliar talkers, even if the language in question is their native language [8]. In collaboration with CoEDL PhD student Jenny Yu, we also shed some more light on the reasons bilinguals may apply different strategies in their two languages for the use of suprasegmental cues to lexical stress [9].

After an exciting cross-disciplinary ‘CoEDL speed dating’ event, Anne Cutler and I joined forces with Debbie Loakes to examine whether subtle pronunciation differences in Australian English dialects affect listeners’ lexical processing. And together with Evan Kidd and Rachel Nordlinger we started to investigate spoken-word recognition in the Australian Indigenous language Murrinhpatha using eye-tracking technology.

The training and workshops offered by CoEDL (most notably at the annual Summer Schools) gave me the opportunity to strengthen my skills and learn about new methodologies. The wide range of disciplines, backgrounds and interests that were represented across the Centre’s nodes and research programs were instrumental to the new collaborations I developed and allowed me to broaden my scientific horizons. While my work as a psycholinguist is interdisciplinary by its very nature, my experience at CoEDL reminded me once more of the importance of looking outside the silos of our own disciplines. This will continue to shape my research.

Jacki Liddle

I first collaborated with members of the Centre as a postdoc when I was investigating the symptoms and impact of Parkinson’s disease. My group explored smartphone technology to monitor disease progression, including changes to and fluctuations in voice and language. Working with colleagues at CSIRO, and in collaboration with CoEDL, we also developed and tested a chatbot as a potential tool for people needing to monitor voice and communication changes.

After my postdoc, I applied for a research fellowship with the Florence Project, in what is now known as the Human-Centred Computing Group at the University of Queensland and was fortunate to join a fantastic interdisciplinary team.

For the Florence Project, I worked with people living with dementia and their care partners to codesign technologies to support communication and participation. My role focused on developing methods to do this research in an inclusive and meaningful way; exploring the needs and impacts related to technologies; and working with the team to convert these insights into technology designs. 

Despite COVID interruptions delaying some and reshaping other research, I worked with the Florence team to develop short videos and brochures, responding to a need our Living Experience Expert Reference Group identified for communicating our research findings [10]. I also explored some related areas including the way technologies can facilitate connection to people and place for older people and developing consensus on the next steps we should be taking with future transport technologies for people living with dementia. 

My experience at CoEDL took me in a different research direction and made me aware of disciplines and methodologies that had not been a core part of my previous work as an occupational therapist. Transdisciplinary practice was supported and encouraged, and I had access to diverse expertise, financial support and training opportunities to assist my professional development. I particularly appreciated my team’s approach to enabling creative and flexible ways of working and holding genuine, meaningful and ethical practice to be a central aim. We were allowed to challenge the research and tech paradigms that encourage people to ‘move fast and break things’. We were able to take time, to deeply understand and to do things differently. I will take this ethos — and the comfort I’ve acquired with engaging with other expertise and working in the spaces between disciplines — with me into future projects.


Further information

To learn more about these and other CoEDL members, explore the People subset of Connections data in map or list form.


Hero image: Members of the Lopit community conduct recordings of their language; their efforts culminated in the opening of a library of Lopit texts, which you can read about here. Image: Rosey Billington/Jonathan Moodie.

Image 1: Rebecca Defina. Image: Rebecca Defina.

Image 2: Bruno Olsson. Image: Bruno Olsson.

Image 3: Laurence Bruggeman. Image: Laurence Bruggeman.

Image 4: Jacki Liddle (R) pictured with other members of the Florence team. Image: CoEDL.


Rebecca Defina [1] — Defina, Rebecca, Shanley Allen, Lucy Davidson, Birgit Hellwig, Barbara Kelly, and Evan Kidd, Sketch Acquisition Manual (SAM) Part 1: The sketch corpus. To appear in Language Documentation & Conservation Special Publication Child Language Documentation: The Acquisition Sketch Project edited by Birgit Hellwig, Shanley Allen, Lucy Davidson, Rebecca Defina, Barbara Kelly, and Evan Kidd

Rebecca Defina [2] — Defina, Rebecca, Shanley Allen, Lucy Davidson, Birgit Hellwig, Barbara Kelly, and Evan Kidd, Sketch Acquisition Manual (SAM) Part 2: The acquisition sketch. To appear in Language Documentation & Conservation Special Publication Child Language Documentation: The Acquisition Sketch Project edited by Birgit Hellwig, Shanley Allen, Lucy Davidson, Rebecca Defina, Barbara Kelly, and Evan Kidd

Rebecca Defina [3] — Wilmoth, Sasha, Rebecca Defina, & Debbie Loakes (2021). They Talk Mutumutu: Variable Elision of Tense Suffixes in Contemporary Pitjantjatjara. Languages, 6(2, 69). https://doi.org/10.3390/languages6020069

Rebecca Defina [4] — Minutjukur, Makinti, Katrina Tjitayi, Umatji Tjitayi, & Rebecca Defina (2019). Pitjantjatjara language change: Some observations and recommendations. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2019, 82–91.

Rebecca Defina [5] — Defina, Rebecca (2020). Acquisition of Pitjantjatjara Clause Chains. Frontiers in Psychology, 11(541), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00541

Bruno Olsson [6] — Olsson, Bruno. 2018. A Grammar of Coastal Marind. (Mouton Grammar Library 87). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

Bruno Olsson [7] — Di Garbo, Francesca, Bruno Olsson &  Bernhard Wälchli (eds.). 2019. Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity, 2 vols. (Studies in Diversity Linguistics 26–27). Berlin: Language Science Press.

Laurence Bruggeman [8] — Bruggeman, L., & Cutler, A. (2020). No L1 privilege in talker adaptation. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 23(3), 681-693. doi: 10.1017/S1366728919000646.

Laurence Bruggeman [9] — Bruggeman, L., Yu, J. & Cutler, A. (2022). Listener adjustment of stress cue use to fit language vocabulary structure. Proceedings of Speech Prosody 2022, 264-267, doi: 10.21437/SpeechProsody.2022-54.

Jacki Liddle [10] — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gS6L9s8QUo&list=PLKB59ot0pqdX-oOzWrnD7r4BwBUvxPvtN