Language Documentation

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Sat Mar 26 03:53:01 UTC 2005

Hawaii Reporter
Freedom to Report Real News

Entrepreneurial U.H. Students Setting up Language Documentation Center

By Lisa Ann Ebeling, 3/25/2005 1:18:16 AM 

Two years ago in fall 2003, Meylysa Tseng, an international student from
Taiwan was inspired by the rich cultural diversity at the University of
Hawaii at Manoa. Meylysa, a Ph.D. student in linguistics, was looking
for a good community service project to organize. Suddenly, she
realized that there were many speakers of different endangered
languages studying at the university and that graduate students of
linguistics could teach language documentation skills to these
students. At first many were skeptical. They thought the project would
not take off. But, that did not discourage Meylysa who went on to
recruit her other classmates to seek support from various departments
within the University. One semester later, nine previously
under-documented languages of the world received much needed attention,
were further away from extinction and the effort saw the winning of two
awards: the Jacob Peace Memorial Award and the NAFSA "Partnership in
Excellence Award."

Today, the Language Documentation Project (LDP) continues its social
mission by training students from countries with endangered languages
on how to document their languages and to apply for grants to expand
their projects. This semester there are 20 students being trained by
graduate students in the Linguistics Department, led by an equally
dedicated graduate student, Valerie Guerin from France. The project now
utilizes computer software to improve the documentation and archiving
process and places its resources on the Internet for speakers of the
languages documented, as well as other researchers to access them.
Valerie’s dedication has been rewarded. This May, she will present the
project at the NAFSA international conference in Seattle. According to
Valerie the LDP director, the project’s secret ingredient is, “the
spirit of aloha and cooperation in reaching out to the international
student community at the university. The students who speak endangered
languages are placed in a constructive environment where people care
about their languages and culture. And in cooperation, everyone wins.
The Department of Linguistics benefits by having its student engage in
real and useful research. The University as a whole is enriched by the
presence of these laudable efforts. Graduate students in linguistics
are provided with an opportunity to pass on their training and skills.
In the process, everyone broadens their cultural knowledge and is
motivated of the importance of language preservation.”

One of the languages documented so far is the Kemak language spoken by
approximately 50,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste,
commonly known as the East Timor. There are more than 15 other
languages spoken in this newly formed nation, which was recognized as
an independent state from Indonesia in 2002. The Kemak language faces a
serious threat of extinction as it is no longer widely spoken. To date,
there has been very little documentation of the Kemak language. Matias
Gomes, an East Timorese student joined the LDP in spring 2004 and
worked together with linguistics graduate student, Ryoko Hattori to
compile a basic 300-word vocabulary list, a writing system for the
language and later the first alphabet picture book in the Kemak
language. Their work was later recognized and awarded the Jacob Peace
Memorial Award. Matias and Ryoko were funded by the United States
Agency for International Development (USAID) to continue their work.
Since then, they have produced other products such as a recording of a
Kemak funeral song and a Kemak sketch grammar.

[photo inset - East Timorese students recording sound files. Three East
Timorese students, Alvaro, Joao and Nelson, are working on a
comparative word list for various dialects of Makasae. Matias, now in
his third semster with the LDC, is continuing his work on Ema. Ryoko
and Frances, their advisors, look on. Photo by Lisa Ann Ebeling.]

[photo inset - Philip Lee]

What happens next? Recently, an entrepreneurial business student has
been working to take LDP to greater heights. Philip Lee, a
Japan-focused MBA student from Malaysia began working with Valerie and
the LDP team to write a business plan to transform the LDP into the
leading language documentation center in the Asia Pacific region. The
business plan was short listed in the semi-finals of the 2005 U.H.
Business Plan Competition and the final winner will be announced at the
end of this month. When interviewed, Philip’s eyes gleamed with
optimism, “we plan to get state accreditation for The Language
Documentation Center (LDC) within the next year. And our five year plan
is to position LDC as the premier language documentation center in the
Asia Pacific region. We have innovative ideas and determination. The
spirit of cooperation that springs from the team will see great
success”. Philip adds that the University of Hawaii at Manoa is one of
only two universities in the world currently offering a language
documentation Masters program and the unique culture in Hawaii that
respects diversity promotes the success of this center. “Our work is in
line with the University’s Strategic Plans to position itself as one of
the world’s foremost multicultural centers for global and indigenous
studies. Yes, maybe my goals for LDC have been rather conservative, as
we are truly capable of being the world’s leader in language

The LDC will hold an exhibition in Bishop Museum on April 2nd and 9th.
Its booth will present an interactive world map that allows visitors to
select languages on the screen and hear greetings in some of the
endangered languages from around the world. The LDC will also
demonstrate its virtual museum of languages archived on its website
demonstrating a goal in line with the Bishop Museum’s conservation
mission. Native speakers who have been working on the project will also
be present. These future local language leaders will proudly display
creative works of their culture and language. The LDC expresses its
appreciation to Bishop Museum for its partnership in this exhibition.
“As we continue to form more partnerships with Hawaiian organizations,
we will be able to enlarge our social mission. It is impressive how
Hawaii has developed its culture and language and I believe as we have
more intercultural exchanges, we will learn and enrich each other’s
cultures. We will even help others in preserving their culture”, Philip
eyes glitter with optimism again.

Come support the language documentation project at the Bishop Museum.
Also on display at the Bishop Museum from April 1 onwards is the
“Journey With A King” exhibit and there is a celebration on April 2
from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. A special performance will be rendered by the
Konan High School Jazz Band from Japan and the Le Jardin Academy
Ukulele Choir. “The Journey With A King” recounts stories of adventure
and travel, from King Kalakaua’s personal journal and other interesting

Lisa Ann Ebeling is a first year MA student in liguistics from
California. She has been working with the LDC since Fall 2004. Contact
her at: lebeling at reports the real news, and prints all editorials
submitted, even if they do not represent the viewpoint of the editors,
as long as they are written clearly. Send editorials to
mailto:Malia at

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