The talk, unfortunately, isn't about his language acquisition as far as I can tell (I speak Spanish and spent a bit of time with Portuguese back in the day, so I can generally follow it), but I just thought it was amazing to actually find clips of him speaking. The entire talk is in Portuguese, and he appears thoroughly comfortable.
Here are some articles on Ken Hale, for those who never heard of him. An extraordinary man, with a fully humanistic mission toward preserving endangered languages and cultures who represented some of what the best humanity had to offer.
http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/ ... 44,00.html
http://www.anu.edu.au/linguistics/nash/ ... goyan.html
http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/events/t ... onies.html (my favorite...the stories are amazing)
Here are just a few excerpts from his retirement congratulations...
Ken's linguistic ability is legendary. Everybody has a story to tell about it and I am no exception. In my early days at MIT, I think it was somewhere around 1978 Ken and I went to the Linguistic Society of America meeting in New York City. At lunchtime he had a couple of errands and asked me if I would like to come along. The first stop was at the Irish Consulate. He needed a visa for a visit. When we went into the consulate, he began the conversation in Gaelic. Ken and the person behind the counter must have conversed for about five minutes when the other person asked Ken if he spoke English. She apologized that her own Gaelic was not up to his.
I have told this story on other occasions and people have wondered why Ken spoke in Gaelic in the first place. The answer is simple courtesy. Ken believes that it is a mark of respect to speak to someone in their own language. If only I could be that respectful.
After the consulate we went to an international bookstore where Ken found a novel and a dictionary in Dutch. He was going off to Holland for a year to teach and work and wanted to learn a little Dutch before he got there. About a year later Jan Koster told me this story. He was walking through one of the corridors at the University of Tilbourg when he heard, but could not yet see, someone lecturing in Dutch on linguistics. He was surprised that there was someone on the Tilbourg staff who could lecture so authoritatively on the languages of the American South West and when he entered the room, he was astonished to see that it was Ken Hale. Jan told me Ken's Dutch was flawless.
Maybe the myths about Ken as a language savant are true. After all, he did come back to the department suddenly speaking Japanese after watching the mini-series Shogun with subtitles. I remember going to him my first year at MIT and discussing some ASL data that I thought might lead to a generals paper. A full year later, in the middle of a practice presentation for my generals exam, he raised his hand and corrected me on an ASL example that was inconsistent with the ones he had seen the year before. And, I had indeed mis-signed the example.
I'll never forget the time I had given you a handout containing St'at'imcets data, and we were to have an appointment. I walked into the appointment, and you immediately began writing St'at'imcets sentences on the board. Without looking at the handout. Making up St'at'imcets sentences from scratch (without mistakes), and in addition telling me how they reminded you of switch reference in a language I had never even heard of. There is no-one else who can instantly draw connections between phenomena in different languages the way you can.
Within a week of arriving in Yuendumu, many people started talking to me in Warlpiri - some because it was the only language they spoke - but others because they had heard I was a linguist, like that Japanangka from Mirika. You see Ken was the only linguist they had had experience of and he learned Warlpiri instantaneously, so all linguists must have this extraordinary power of being able to learn languages like Ken Hale. Sounds logical enough. Imagine the pressure, if one didn't learn to speak the language pretty darn quickly then what credibility did one have as a linguist? One was clearly a fraud. So to save face one threw oneself into learning to speak and understand Warlpiri as fast as one could.
About three months after settling into Yuendumu, I met a young Warlpiri man George Robertson Jampijinpa with whom I worked very closely for quite a few years. He had been taught to write Warlpiri by Ken in 1974 and he had a real flair for writing and for linguistic analysis. He used to regale me with stories about Ken Hale. He told me how he had travelled around with Ken to a number of Warlpiri communities and to other Aboriginal settlements.
He loved to recount how, in one of these villages called Lajamanu (known as Hooker Creek in those days), old ladies who were coming away from the local store with their arms full of purchases saw him with this white man and then as they approached (George was one of their relatives) they heard the white man speaking Warlpiri fluently and correctly - such was their shock that they dropped their shopping and fled!
Another of George's Ken Hale stories was that they would typically arrive at a place around 10am, Ken would start recording the local language with someone or other, and then by lunchtime Ken was conversing fluently in the language with the locals. George never ceased to be amazed at how quickly this white man could learn a new language. Warlpiris, like most Aboriginal people in central Australia, tend to be multilingual but white people in their experience rarely are. They have great difficulty understanding or speaking an Aboriginal language. Missionaries who had lived among the Warlpiri for over 20 years only knew a few words. So in this context, Ken was indeed exceptional. But then he was a linguist!
In August of 1997, my father and I had stopped for breakfast at a restaurant outside of Tsaile, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation. It was a day typical of those I recall during my childhood here: windy, bright, with clouds moving across the broad expanse of sky, casting sharply demarcated shadows which sped across the contours of the beautiful and rugged landscape. As we walked across a dusty lot, passing cattle grazing on the median between the restaurant and the roadside, we were approached by a Navajo man. He asked if we had any change to spare. My father gave him several dollars and began conversing with the man in Navajo. In all of the many times that I have seen my father speak beautifully in diverse and indigenous languages, my amazement and wonder at his gift for language have never abated.
This unexpected fluency obviously surprised the Navajo man as well, whose face lit up with a smile and a look of comfort and familiarity. My father and the man continued with a short conversation, the meaning of which escaped me beyond the familiar Navaho salutations. As we walked into the restaurant, I asked: "What did you say, Dad?" He answered by saying only: "He used a word [in referring to us] reserved for those who are considered friends of the tribe, as close as a white man can be without being Navajo."