On South Goulburn Island, a small, forested isle off Australia’s northern coast, a settlement called Warruwi Community consists of some 500 people who speak among themselves around nine different languages. This is one of the last places in Australia—and probably the world—where so many indigenous languages exist together. There’s the Mawng language, but also one called Bininj Kunwok and another called Yolngu-Matha, and Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole, and English.
None of these languages, except English, is spoken by more than a few thousand people. Several, such as Ndjébbana and Mawng, are spoken by groups numbering in the hundreds. For all these individuals to understand one another, one might expect South Goulburn to be an island of polyglots, or a place where residents have hashed out a pidgin to share, like a sort of linguistic stone soup. Rather, they just talk to one another in their own language or languages, which they can do because everyone else understands some or all of the languages but doesn’t speak them.
This arrangement, which linguists call “receptive multilingualism,” shows up all around the world. In some places, it’s accidental. Many English-speaking Anglos who live in U.S. border states, for instance, can read and comprehend quite a bit of Spanish from being exposed to it. And countless immigrant children learn to speak the language of their host country while retaining the ability to understand their parents’ languages. In other places, receptive multilingualism is a work-around for temporary situations. But at Warruwi Community, it plays a special role.