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"Anyone who talks people into a language inferiority complex is obstructing democracy"

PICAIS fellow Professor Ingrid Piller researches language and diversity. A conversation about communicating without a common language, her origins in the Bavarian Forest region and her adopted home in Australia.

Panoramic view of the Bayerischer Wald (Bavarian Forest). Photo: Colourbox

Professor Ingrid Piller. 

Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University in Sydney. The sociolinguist researches intercultural communication, multilingualism and cultural participation. She is part of the leadership team of Next Generation Literacies, a network her home university founded together with Fudan University in Shanghai and the University of Hamburg. In 2018, she was awarded the Anneliese Meier Award for her research work. She like to talk about her work outside of academe as well, for instance on her blog Language on the Move and on Twitter. Professor Piller spent May 2023 as guest researcher at the Passau International Centre for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (PICAIS), more specifically at the Chair of English Language and Culture headed by Professor Daniela Wawra, one of the two PICAIS directors. Having lived in Sydney, Australia, for the past 25 years, it is her first time at the University of Passau even though she is at home in the region: She originally hails from the small municipality of Achslach in the district of Regen. When she talks about her home region she slips back into Bavarian, whereas when she talks about her research she speaks "nach der Schrift" (the way you write), as they say where she comes from. There are reasons for that.

Bayerischer Wald or Australia?

Both are highlights. Two very beautiful places in the world. In terms of nature but also in terms of culture and the flavour of life there.

How did your connection with Passau come about?

That's fairly recent, actually. I read about PICAIS a while ago on the "Research Professional" database which my home university operates in Sydney. Once a week, the database sends me an update on openings that fit my research profile or my current career stage. And that's how I found out about the research-in-residence fellowship PICIAS offers and figured: Hey, that's really interesting, their research focus on migration, global change and digitalisation aligns perfectly with my areas of interest. As I'm obviously rather fond of this part of the world, I thought to myself that this would be a wonderful opportunity to combine pleasure with doing something useful.

What is your research project at PICAIS about?

I study linguistic diversity and social participation. At the moment, I'm working on the third edition of a textbook on intercultural communication that I wrote. I just told my students at the University of Passau in a lecture I delivered to them about one of my studies: how intercultural communication works if you don't have a common language – and I used the first British settler in Australia in 1788 and the first Australians who have been living there for 60,000 years as an example.

Canyons of the Blue Mountains in the National Park in New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Colourbox

And how did that work out?


The great thing about the First Fleet officers, i.e. the commanders, is that they wrote lots of journals. They recorded their observations regarding their encounters with the indigenous population as well. That's why we have a fairly good idea of how those took place. And sometimes it allows you to infer what the indigenous population thought. Let me give you an example: The British wrote a lot about how badly the Australians smelled because they used a mixture that included fish scraps to protect themselves against sun exposure, rubbing it into their hair just like fish oil. It protects against the sun, against drying out. However, from the point of view of anyone who hasn't rubbed themselves in with that mixture, it stinks of course. One of them wrote that he was able to tell from the reaction of one of the indigenous people that they were just as disgusted by the newcomers. You have to imagine: The British arrived in February 1788, so it was high summer, and they were wearing felt jackets. They must have smelled to the high heavens as well, just of sweat and felted, unwashed humanity.

The study came to the same conclusion: communicating with your hands and feet doesn't work.

How did they communicate?

They used their hands and feet, but that didn't go well. The study came to the same conclusion: communicating with your hands and feet doesn't work. The officers noted that it was easier when there was an object, "something concrete", but even that didn’t really work. The British were familiar with the word kangaroo because Captain Cook had shot one in northern Queensland, stuffed it and brought it back to England. He had picked up the word kangaroo from the natives there. The officers thought that all Australians spoke the same language but in fact there were around five hundred different languages. In the area around Sydney, no one knew that word. They thought it was the English word for animal. Unfortunately, the English spoken in Australia today has only few indigenous words, most of which are for plants and animals.

Professor Piller talking to her host at the University of Passau, Professor Daniela Wawra. Photo: Uli Schwarz/University of Passau

What do you expect from your stay in Passau?

I'd like to have an exchange and to network with other researchers, especially regarding language in diversity contexts. How does language change, what do we have to do to ensure that schools are as inclusive as possible for people who speak other languages? With this in mind, my home university in Sydney, the University of Hamburg and Fudan University in Shanghai launched an international project called the Next Generation Literacies Network. I would like to see contacts established with colleagues here at the University of Passau as well.

What role do dialects play in linguistic diversity?

Dialect is part of what makes language diverse. There is no such thing as a homogeneous language. Every human being is multilingual. Even if you've never learned English or French at school, even if you only speak dialect, you're multilingual because you always adapt. Who am I speaking to? What's the context? In a semi-official interview like this one I speak differently than I do at home arguing with my family about who's going to do the dishes. That's something we're often not aware of. And then you have various levels of adaptation. So: dialect and standard language are in themselves part of human multilingualism. I like my dialect. My daughter hardly speaks dialect, understands a bit of Bavarian, but she's learned German well, and I'm even a bit proud of that too. Many immigrant children no longer speak their parent's language, or they end up forgetting the language, sometimes they're even ashamed of it.

When does Bavarian come through in your case?

When I speak with my family, naturally. Interestingly, it also comes through when I want to describe something. Some very apt words just don't exist in other languages. Pfloutsch, for example. Are you familiar with that?


A pfloutsch is someone who's a bit on the clumsy side or dumb. When that happens, I would love to say: "So a Pfloutsch" (What a pfloutsch) – but it makes no sense to say it if no one understands.

How should schools deal with dialect?

I find that schools have a duty to teach children the standard variety of the language. There is a point in learning standard German: in order to retain a sense of agency, and, where necessary, to have a choice in the way you express yourself. I'm from an older generation and wasn't able to speak standard German until I started university in Regensburg. There was a watershed moment in an undergraduate seminar I was taking. I had written a paper on Hölderlin. I was so enthusiastic and really gave it my all. When I went to pick up my assessment, my professor said: Your paper is really first-rate. It's unusual for someone who speaks dialect to be so intelligent. I was left speechless and couldn't say anything in response. And I felt an anger well up in me that continues to drive me today, about how unfair it is to consider people dumb if they speak dialect or German as a second language with an accent. The onus is not only on schools but also on us as linguists. We need to find ways to make all that a bit fairer, to break open those ideologies of language.

Anyone who talks people into a linguistic inferiority complex – by saying they're stupid because they speak in dialect or didn't learn German until later in life – is obstructing democracy.

To what extent does this issue have to do with democratic participation?

Democracy thrives on open discourse. We usually think so in connection with foreign nationals. But naturally it applies just as well to anyone who speaks a dialect. In their case, you've also often got generations that are unable to participate. Anyone who talks people into a linguistic inferiority complex – by saying they're stupid because they speak in dialect or didn't learn German until later in life – is obstructing democracy. In democracy, we need to be able to talk to one another. And that's not the responsibility of an individual person. If I immigrate to a new country, for instance, and I need to learn a completely new language as an adult, it'll take some time. Not because I'm not willing, but it's just generally difficult to learn a language as an adult, the more so because you need to take care of other things as well. When we have lots of people with such difficulties in society, we need to find out how we can facilitate effective communication, how we can create structures where everyone gets to participate. In a way, that's becoming easier all the time, also because of the new technical possibilities and creative ideas. Let's take an example from healthcare: Someone who doesn't speak German is brought to the emergency department. First, you will have to find out what language that person speaks. Precious time is lost. In the US, they started to use a communication device during the COVID-19 pandemic where all you needed to do was press a button for the device to contact an interpreter who would then be able to talk with the patient via the device. That's another area I hope to stimulate with my research – the question of how technology can help us to facilitate communication.

Interview: Kathrin Haimerl, Research Communication


If you would like to contact Professor Ingrid Piller, send an email to:

Professor Daniela Wawra

Professor Daniela Wawra

conducts sociolinguistic and cross-cultural research

How do culture and language shape analogue and digital interactions?

How do culture and language shape analogue and digital interactions?

Professor Daniela Wawra has held the Chair of English Language and Culture of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities since 2010. From 2018 to 2020 she was Vice President for Study, Teaching and Internationalisation at the University of Passau. 

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