[lg policy] Ling Research in Fragile Language Communities

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 17 17:04:17 UTC 2012

Ling Research in Fragile Language Communities

Introduction to the project:

We intend to interview fellow researchers on endangered languages
about their fieldwork experiences, focusing in particular on the
challenges of conducting linguistic fieldwork in fragile speech
communities. The findings will be published in a book with the working
title “Linguistic research in fragile language communities: Lessons from
the field”.

The field of linguistics has heard an international ethical call to assist in
the documentation of endangered languages. Linguists have
responded by working to develop programs to educate and support
documentationalists. As they enter the field, these linguists take on
personal responsibility for linguistic community development, language
teaching, and language revitalization. In some cases, these linguists
may be charged with creating the only documentation that will exist for
a given language, serving as the only liaison between their language
community and linguistic academic, and providing the only academic
input into community language revitalization efforts. In other cases,
they must integrate their work into layers of previous or ongoing
academic and social intervention, which can greatly complicate their
task. It is in these fragile language communities that we see the need
for research on goals, methodology and academic preparation. It is
our own colleagues, the linguists who have experience in working with
fragile communities, whom we wish to interview for this project.

On the academic side, the nature and quality of data is also affected by
linguistic fragility. Linguistic methodology necessarily differs, and if
any success is to be achieved, goals must often be adjusted. It is easy
to tell a student to gather data from a variety of linguistic genres such
as every-day conversation, narrative, formal oratory in addition to
elicited paradigms. It is completely different to actually gather these
data if the language is not spoken on a day to day basis, if there is
nobody who still understands formal oratory, and nobody to listen to a
narrative. Similarly, a typology of speakers is useful only if there is a
large number of speakers with an interest in language work: If there
are only 15 speakers willing to work with a linguist, then chances are
very high that particular documentation tasks will not be possible. The
field situations are often very different, leading to questions such as,
"Who is the language community? Who gets to decide what happens
with the language? What level of revitalization is possible? What is the
proper role for the linguist in revitalization? What is the top priority for
the community (as opposed to the researcher)? What challenges are
there in working almost exclusively with elderly people? What
challenges are there in working with no monolingual speakers?" and
many others. We hope to answer some of these questions. Foci of our
interest include community relations; work flow; unexpected, irregular,
or patchy data; linguistic fragmentation through different genres or
registers; data protection and preservation; results, dissemination and
evaluation of project success.

We also know that the questions that have arisen out of our own work
in fragile language communities in North America are not the only
questions. For this reason, rather than writing a book that will
inevitably be colored primarily by our personal experiences, we want to
open the discussion to a much larger group of linguists whose
experiences may complement our own. We have identified a number of
challenges above and will be happy to send you a more complete list.
Depending on your own experiences, you could discuss one of those
or you could add to the list. You could submit your answers in writing,
or be interviewed by us, by Skype or telephone, or as chance allows in
our respective travel arrangements (our work is unfunded at present,
but chance can be our friend.) Allow us to quote or to paraphrase, be
named or be anonymous, respond to questions or simply instruct us in
the areas you feel are most important.

Our methodology will not involve computation. We are interested in the
expression of our participants’ ideas. However, this book will not be a
simple compilation of individual experiences. We would like to address
the basic question: what does it mean for linguistic work to be
successful in a fragile language community? We hope to be able to
consider this question and to arrive at some answers that will help the
field of linguistics to advance as more and more language communities
reach states of fragility.

If you are interested in participating in our research, simply contact one
or both of us and we will send you a consent form and our
questionnaire. We will then discuss how to best be in touch with you.

Dr. Olga Lovick
Department of Interdisciplinary Programs
First Nations University of Canada
(306) 790 5950 ext. 3311

Dr. Siri Tuttle
Alaska Native Language Center
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation


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