[lg policy] Another Kind of Language Expert: Speakers

Stan-sandy Anonby stan-sandy_anonby at SIL.ORG
Sat Jun 6 02:16:10 UTC 2009

When can we consider a language revival program to be successful? I think Fishman would say we can breathe easier when mothers are passing the language onto their children. Intergenerational transmission is the natural way for people to learn a language. Is that happening in Maori? In Wampanoag? Either way, both cases are astonishing. 

Stan Anonby

On Mon, 1 Jun 2009 17:08:42 -0400
 Harold Schiffman <hfsclpp at gmail.com> wrote:
>>>From the issue dated June 5, 2009
>Another Kind of Language Expert: Speakers
>As linguists search for ways to preserve at least a record of
>endangered languages, they increasingly are enlisting native speakers
>to help them in their work. Since 2003, Peter Austin's
>endangered-languages program at the University of London's School of
>Oriental and African Studies has run a master's program to train about
>16 students each year, whose eventual goal is to document an
>endangered language. Some 20 SOAS students have done that by
>undertaking doctoral work in the United States or Germany.
>But Austin's program is also going out to the communities where
>endangered languages are spoken. Last summer, program linguists held a
>training course in Ghana to provide East African language activists
>with equipment and training. Austin told them about successful earlier
>efforts. He described, for instance, helping to persuade the state
>government of New South Wales, in his native Australia, to institute
>grade-school programs that teach Aboriginal children songs and stories
>in their fading local languages. "Part of the task is simply
>sensitizing people to the possibilities," he says.
>Increased collaboration with native speakers reflects a growing
>recognition that "languages are owned by their native speech
>communities, as a kind of intellectual property," says K. David
>Harrison, of Swarthmore College. (His and colleagues' fieldwork was
>the subject of the documentary film The Linguists, which was
>enthusiastically received at last year's Sundance Film Festival.)
>The last speakers of a language are often the most linguistically
>gifted members of their communities, and thus well suited to academic
>training, notes Nicholas Evans, a linguist at Australian National
>University. More's the pity that few universities will enroll them,
>citing their lack of formal academic credentials, he says. He objects
>that while candidates may enter Ph.D. programs with little or no
>knowledge of the languages they will study, the potential of expert
>speakers of languages rarely opens academic doors.
>Collaborations with native speakers become more and more crucial given
>that "you wouldn't want to be sending your students into some of the
>environments where documentation is needed," many of which are
>dangerous because of wars or civil strife, says Suzanne Romaine, a
>professor of English language at the University of Oxford.
>Sometimes native speakers can be found closer to home. "Here in
>London, we've got dozens of African and Asian languages that there is
>virtually no documentation on," says Austin. One of his students, for
>example, discovered that a housemate, an economics student at the
>London School of Economics and Political Science, spoke a little-known
>Tibeto-Burman language. (Austin warns that hardened field linguists
>will scoff that taking a London bus to your site, rather than jungle
>trails, "is not real linguistics: It's not hairy-chested enough.")
>Crucial to any language-revival project, of course, is that speakers
>want it to happen. Many do. In Hawaii and New Zealand, for example,
>immersion programs are thriving — "language nests" that allow students
>from preschool through college to take some of their studies in native
>languages. Under a master-apprentice program set up in 1993 by the
>Berkeley linguist Leanne Hinton, young American Indians in California
>have spent many hours with elders, learning what they can about 50
>survivors of the more than 100 languages that were spoken in the state
>at the time of white settlement.
>Among a few astonishing cases of people's reviving their own languages
>from seeming extinction is one in eastern Massachusetts. Beginning in
>the 1990s, language activists and a linguist-in-training from the
>Wampanoag tribe, working with a famed MIT linguist, the late Kenneth
>L. Hale, resuscitated their language. It had not been spoken or
>written for well over 100 years. To revive it, they used historical
>documents dating back to the 1600s, surviving stories, and comparisons
>with surviving languages, and taught it to a few children who were
>still capable of using it creatively, as children naturally do when
>learning any language.
>But such efforts are extraordinary: They are so dependent on a small
>number of extremely gifted and motivated activists that they are
>unlikely to be widely emulated.
>http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review
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