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FiFo fieldwork

20 September, 2007

Huge media attention has been garnered by K. David Harrison's National Geographic funded fly-in-fly-out trips to document endangered languages in settings mostly remote and picturesque. See for example the Independent, and the Australian (the article also features Brownie Doolan, perhaps the last speaker of Lower Arrernte, and Gavan Breen, a linguist who has been working with him for years on a dictionary).

I was rung up in a supermarket by Jenny Green who was rung up on the road by a journalist who.. wanted to know more about endangered languages. So much for all our online information.. This started me thinking about two questions:

•How can we build on this media interest to do good things for endangered languages and their speakers?

•How could fly-in-fly-out trips be made useful for endangered languages and their speakers? (For some problems with Harrison's recent FiFo trip to Australia, see Anggarrgoon today).

Suggestions welcome, my present suggestions below..

How can we build on this media interest?
Harrison's Living tongues website is silent on options other than funding projects by him and his colleagues.

But we can alert journos and any potential benefactors to the fact that fly-in-fly-out trips should be seen as a last resort, NOT as the best approach. We can show them that:

•Languages are such complex systems that it takes a long time to carry out proper documentation and analysis.

•We need to work with speakers to maintain their languages, and we need documentation to be done in collaboration with the communities and to be accessible.

•We need to support Indigenous language centres which work in communities with community members to maintain and document languages - as Jenny said to me, the Australian Government cutting the CDEP program means that the Indigenous staff in many language centres will lose their jobs. If language centres have to close down, it will be hard to build them up again - and very hard to regain the trust and momentum and memory of what works. See Wamut's post on the abolition of CDEP at Ngukurr.

•We need to provide information on successful ways of maintaining and documenting languages.

•We need to support preservation and distribution of language material - through public archives of language material, e.g. the DELAMAN network of digital archives of endangered language and cultural material. In Australia these include digital text archives such as ASEDA at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, as well as audio-visual - at AIATSIS, and (of course!) PARADISEC .

•And we need to support good quality publishers of endangered language material - both material for speakers and about languages e.g. (again of course!) Pacific Linguistics.

•The enlightened rich can be invited to support the major private foundations for supporting language documentation and maintenance, (do a Warren Buffett - why reinvent the administrative wheel?). Such as the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project (which funded some of Harrison's early work) and the Volkswagen Stiftung DOBES (Documentation of Endangered Languages), the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Endangered Languages Fund.

How could you make fly-in-fly-out trips worthwhile?
FiFo trips clearly have a place in garnering media attention, and I suspect that Harrison is using them as a way to introduce himself to the speakers and to spark people into giving him donations to fund further work. They may also be the only possibility in some rare instances - some speakers may well prefer not to put up with linguists for years and years, but might derive amusement and interest from a linguist dropping in from the sky for a couple of weeks. Some places may be dangerous or otherwise difficult for outsider linguists to stay long periods.

But for the documentation to be useful, the FiFo linguist would need to do a lot of pre- and post-trip work. Before the trip - getting acquainted with existing materials and linguists familiar with the area and the people, (why reinvent the linguistic wheel - Yet Another Wordlist of Bodyparts...). Ditto for making the documentation accessible to speakers - no need to invent Yet Another Spelling System. After the trip, copies of the material need to be returned to speakers, and for long-term safety, kept at local archives.

Memo to Living Tongues: the site says good things about some of these points, but doesn't actually lead the enlightened benefactor to other sources of information on them. No link for example to the archives where Living Tongues members have archived their field material - you have to dig deep into the project information to find that Munda material "will be housed in, ELAR, at the School of Oriental and African Studies". ELAR is the Endangered Languages Archive of the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project.

I suppose the problem is that Living Tongues is competing for funds along with all the other foundations and organisations. Sigh.


It's a shame that the National Geographic site is so reductive and I can't comment on its factual accuracy, but it looks like the kind of site that might just grow and improve if there's enough momentum and genuine cooperation.

The MPI has set up a fun multi-archive interface that uses Google Earth. It includes DELAMAN and a bunch of other archives that I haven't heard of. Although it's designed for linguists there's nothing in its structure that would necessarily preclude language centres from adapting such an interface to the needs of speakers (access to technology permitting).
You can download it here:
I'd be interested to know what people think.

Meanwhile, have a look at Claire's update at Anggarrgoon posted today: http://anggarrgoon.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/update-on-enduring-voices/

Well sometimes you can't win with the journalists - David Nathan of ELAR was contacted by The Independent journalist the day before their story appeared. David spent several hours on the phone discussing the story sent out by Associated Press with the London reporter, and organised for her to speak to several of our students and post-docs about their research. Only one of these (Serge Sagna) was mentioned in the published article, and our project at SOAS was not even named, despite David insisting at the outset that this was a sine qua non for his efforts to provide accurate and up-to-date information, along with sources that interested readers could follow up.

Peter, if they agreed and the interview was taped, he should complain to the editor.

Hi Jane,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It is indeed worth having a discussion about the purpose of short-term field visits vs. long-term fieldwork. We can also all profit from a discussion about when/whether linguists should talk to the media at all, and whether the heavily filtered information that may get published as a result is useful to endangered language communities and/or to linguistic research. Your suggestions above contribute greatly to both areas.

I would like to clarify a few points about our project:

1. This is not just my work, it's a joint project with linguist Greg Anderson and photographer Chris Rainier.

2. To suggest that the articles in the Independent, and the Australian are about the field visit (or were merely publicity "garnered" by it) is to read them very selectively. The Independent article has only one paragraph that mentions our trip to Australia. Rather, the article focuses on our launch of the language hotspots model (Please see the current issue of National Geographic Magazine), which we have been developing for over 2 years and unveiled in a press conference at National Geographic last Tuesday. (We eagerly await feedback from our colleagues on this new model so we can improve it) Paragraphs 1-5 are about that, as is para. 8, while paras. 9 and 10 are derived from an interview with a SOAS student, as noted by David Nathan in his posting here. Paras. 11 through 15 are based on materials from my March 2007 book "When Languages Die", while paras. 16 and 17 are based on our (Greg Anderson and my) 2007 trip to Bolivia, but do not mention that it was a linguistic expedition. Para. 18 derives from our expedition to Australia, but does not identify it as such, rather focusing appropriately on the excellent revitalization efforts we observed there.

Similarly, the article you refer to in The Australian has four brief paras. about our Hotspots model, mentioning the expedition only in a single passing phrase "The linguists who visited Australia over the past few months..." Commendably, and as we had hoped, the journalist used the occasion to showcase local voices, as he should have, devoting a full 17 paras. of the article to that theme. We're glad to have served as a catalyst for that.

3. I am both a practitioner and funding recipient for what you call "proper documentation". I spent a full year living in Siberia in 1998, and every year since then have spent between 4 to 8 weeks in the field, mostly Siberia and Mongolia (and recently India), the most I can manage given family and work obligations. This year I spent 7 weeks in the field. I won’t forego the joys of long-term fieldwork for FiFo junkets.

But short-term visits also have a purpose, as you suggest. Linguists usually need to make short trips to potential field sites before they can develop local contacts, or even contemplate working there. I don't think that it is a "last resort". It can often be the start of a solid long- or medium-term project. And I take to heart your advice about pre- and post-field work. We read as much as we could in preparation. Post-field we are sending copies of all media we recorded back to local communities, and in one case following up by developing a funding proposal to aid a local revitalization program.

4. Our trip to Australia was not for the purpose of language documentation. Rather, our goal was to interview as many local experts as possible on the very specific topic of language REVITALIZATION, and that's what we devoted 95% of our time to (I confess, we fell into old habits and spent a bit of time doing elicitation of words and sentences). In 3 recent interviews with Australian radio stations, I spoke at length about the local experts and inspiring efforts at revitalization that we witnessed in Broome, Darwin, at the Garma Festival, and elsewhere, suggesting that Australia is leading the world in this endeavor.

5. Regarding the Enduring Voices website hosted at NGS (over which we have some influence but not editorial control), you suggest that it "is silent on options other than funding projects by him and his colleagues". I would draw your attention to the page titled RESOURCES


which links to 35 language revitalization programs around the globe (any of which would be excellent places for people to donate money to), including SIX in Australia. We hope to steer people precisely to those areas where they may contribute.

To conclude this rather long-winded comment, though my primary work has always been in language documentation, this joint project with National geographic presents a very new (to us) and intriguing opportunity for public outreach/science journalism and education, raising awareness, and perhaps attracting new people to the field. This could ultimately benefit many of the varied stakeholders. I hope our colleagues will continue to offer their guidance as we try to do something useful.

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.


Papua New Guinea FAQs from Eva Lindstrom Papua New Guinea (New Ireland): Eva Lindstrom's tips for fieldworkers

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E-MELD The E-MELD School of Best Practices in Digital Language Documentation

Tema Modersmål Website in Swedish with links to sites on and in many languages

Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project: Language Documentation: What is it? Information on equipment, formats, and archiving, and examples of documentation

Linguistic fieldwork preparation: a guide for field linguists syllabi, funding, technology, ethics, readings, bibliography

On-line resources for endangered languages

Papua New Guinea Language Resources Phonologies, grammars, dictionaries, literacy, language maps for many PNG languages


ACLA child language acquisition in three Australian Aboriginal communities

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DELAMAN The Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archives Network

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Murriny-Patha Song Project Documenting the language and music of public songs and dances composed and performed by Murriny Patha-speaking people

DOBES Endangered language documentation and archiving, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and sponsored by the Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen.

DELP Documenting endangered languages at the University of Sydney

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