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[From Lise Dobrin, our correspondent in Virginia]

The media blitz on David Harrison and Greg Anderson's recent Expedition to a Hot Spot has given everyone (including my mother!) a chance to reflect on what endangered language work really ought to be about. We shouldn't be parachuting in and out. We should be putting our money into *real* documentation, not demo documentation. We shouldn't be putting money into documentation at all, but into community revitalization programs (see Ellen Lutz's 24-9-07 letter in the NYTimes). We should be working to better use the press. No, we should become the press!

But what I find most remarkable about the whole story is this: a couple of linguists start a non-profit to further their own language documentation work. What? Since when do we do that? You can argue the finer points of Greg and David's methods, or who is (or ought to be) reaping the benefits, but irregardless, their model is an interesting one: if you want to do something that the academic/big agency funding model is not ideally suited to support, nothing is stopping you from creating an institution and doing it on your own instead. The university is not the only possible institutional setting for our work, and it may not always be the best one. It's just the one many of us are used to.

I've been thinking about the institutional infrastructure of documentary linguistics and language preservation since I got involved in a little side project on the relationship between academic linguistics and the powerful Bible translation organization SIL (where I work, in Papua New Guinea, the discipline of linguistics practically is SIL. At the Linguistic Society of PNG meeting in Madang last year, five of the nine presentations were made by SIL linguists). We usually think of SIL as two-sided: academic and Christian mission. But in fact that's only part of the story. SIL has a crucial third side that academic linguists would do well to note: they are a transnational NGO -- a development agency, really. It is SIL the language development NGO that negotiates contracts with governments. It is SIL the NGO that does local vernacular literacy, teacher training, orthography development, etc. It's a model that allows any number of good works, linguistic or otherwise, to be slipped in alongside.

Could secular linguists take a lesson from SIL and organize themselves that way too? Language documentation, community language development, and language activism have a rather peripheral place in the academy, especially in the US. And things will conspire to keep it like that. Ever feel like you're pushing on with the parts of your work you value most despite your job, rather than because of it? But then again, we do need our health insurance.

So in setting up Living Tongues, David and Greg might really be onto something. There's certainly no question of getting their own prioirities into alignment with those of the institution. And the media blitz is simply the modus operandi of an activist NGO: see something that needs to be done, and set up an organization to do it. Associate it with a cause and a caring expert. Attention to the cause gets drawn through the caring expert, who (eventually, you hope) can attract speaker fees and hefty book advances (maybe even a role in a film project? or a contract with National Geographic?). Use that to promote and support the work of the organization, which may consist of no more than the caring expert him- or herself (plus a press agent and a website). Developing a caring expert profile is not for everyone. Many of us would rather leave that to the Jared Diamond set. But it is an effective common practice in the activist NGO world (take a look for example at the International Forum on Globalization site and scan down the list of speaker bios.)

Of course, there is still a moral bottom line: Addressing real needs. Sending a useful message. Not letting your public profile get hijacked by somebody else's objectionable cliches. But the NGO model of cultivated self-promotion in the service of an activist agenda is a reasonable and workable way to have your intellectual fun while doing good. Maybe it's something the rest of us ought to be thinking about too.


Hi Lise, your points are well taken tho I think Australia already has organisations that work in this way, Language Centres. These are non-profit organisations that carry out language documentation and revival/maintenance work and (commonly) employ linguists. While they largely depend on government support many of them have also been successful at getting funds from other (including non-govt) agencies. Australia's Language Centres have not however been very successful at the kind of self-promotion that 'Enduring Voices' has done. I think there are several reasons why that is, tho one might be that someone else's indigenous people are always far more interesting than one's own, which suggests that the Language Centres should be trying harder to present themselves to an international audience.

Interesting post - I agree with you about the "moral bottom line". David Harrison's ability to get media exposure is truly impressive, but I wonder if he is paying attention to your point about "not letting your public profile get hijacked by somebody else's objectionable cliches". The video clip of his appearance on the Colbert Report on 25th September (see http://www.comedycentral.com/motherload/player.jhtml?ml_video=103268&ml_collection=&ml_gateway=&ml_gateway_id=&ml_comedian=&ml_runtime=&ml_context=show&ml_origin_url=%2Fmotherload%2F%3Flnk%3Dv%26ml_video%3D103268&ml_playlist=&lnk=&is_large=true) presses plenty of cliche buttons for the Comedy Central audience.

We have set up two NGOs to support language work and archiving, the first is the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity (RNLD), and the second is the Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC). Both of these are incorporated bodies with their own bank accounts and PARADISEC is a Deductible Gift Recipient, meaning it can attract large bequests (one day!). RNLD runs training courses and a mailing list and is in the process of setting up a wiki for advice on language issues.

These were set up for some of the reasons that Lise Dobrin outlines, but focused on the language work itself rather than on publicity, namely:

- we need cross-institutional agencies to emphasise the collaborative nature of our work to support minority languages (in contrast to the current university model which increasingly pits us against each other in competition for scarce resources);

- we need to reach out of academia and support language initiatives wherever they occur, and that is not usually supported by our university employer or the system for giving out academic brownie points;

- we need to curate the existing resources so that we and the communities we work with can access them (again, universities are only slowly moving to open-access or eprints repositories, and, even then, these typically provide for documents rather than for primary fieldwork material);

- in addition to gaining popular support for work with minority languages, we also need to educate our recalcitrant colleagues who think that fieldnotes and fieldtapes (if made at all!) are best stored for eternity in their offices. This is a basic issue of professionalism in our discipline that should be addressed within the academy, but to date has not been;

- we need to train newcomers to the field and to provide tools (for transcription, interlinearisation, dictionary creation, data presentation (multimedia) and so on) and standards for those tools to conform to.

I'd like to think we could attract funding from philanthropists for this kind of work without having to spend lots of time talking to and being misrepresented by journalists.

It's not just us academics who have reservations about the Harrison/Anderson approach. Have a look at:


for a documentary maker's view.

Good post.
Pluralism has long been a part of democracy.

Universities are not above this.

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