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Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
12 January 2009

About a year and a half ago I joined Facebook (see my blog post from July 2007 about it and other Web 2.0 applications). At first, it was just a bit of fun, but over the last few months, especially during the end of year holidays, some aspects of Facebook (FB) have attracted my attention in terms of what it can be used for in relation to endangered languages.

It seems I am not alone in becoming a bit of a "FB junkie" recently. Blogger Tom Leverett, who teaches English as a Second Language as his day job, has recently posted that:

"Like many people, I have found myself drawn more and more often to Facebook over [the term] break. Have free time? Check in and see what any of my extended friends are saying, doing, posting, etc. Late at night, I might troll through lists of friends' friends, finding people I grew up with or went to college with; next thing I know, I'm finding out what they're doing every day, or chatting with them. I keep up with my children, in various cities: what they do, what they say, what they say about me ..."

and:

"I know enough about it to know that millions of people are doing this just like me, though my tech colleagues are less likely to be doing it, than just my everyday friends, other teachers, social people attracted to FB like moths to light."

Over the past two months, my list of FB friends has exploded due to this kind of "friends of friends" accumulation (and today broke the 300 mark). Many of these friends are linguists, and many working on endangered languages, so itís nice to be able to hear what people are currently up to as they update their "status" postings.

Since it's a social phenomenon, Facebook is affected by trends that ripple through sub-groups of the population. Last year, for example, there was a trend to have status updates in endangered languages, typically without translations. The problem, of course, is that in many cases the only person who can read the status update is the same person who can write it, so there's not a lot of social communication going on, which defeats the whole purpose of the sociality of Facebook.

In addition to individual identities, Facebook also has Groups which are set up by one or more people and which one can join, or invite others to join. So, for example, Maia Ponsonnet, who works on Dalabon, a northern Australian language, set up a group called Use endangered language for status up-date, designed to:

"encourage using an (or several) endangered language(s) you may know to up-date your status on Face book. Every two weeks, a language becomes dormant (ie, its last speaker passes away). The world language diversity is at stake. Internet plays an ambivalent part: it makes the mastery of English compulsory, while at the same time providing a space for all variety of languages to persist and spread out. When you update your status on Facebook, your friends will read it on their screen for a while. Let's use Internet the right way"


Starting in May 2008, this group grew to 110 members but seems to have stagnated (probably due to the inherent communicative problems it results in). Other groups related to language diversity and endangered languages have been more active, like International Year of Languages 2008 (almost 3,000 members), and Supporters of bilingual education in the Northern Territory (over 1,700 members), and one I set up in November 2008 called Friends of the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project (membership 225 and growing) that aims to provide information to members about the SOAS-based project.

Another development which Nick Thieberger told me about recently is members of indigenous communities joining Facebook and using their languages to communicate with linguists and other friends. Nick recently told me via Google chat:

"I have lots of Erakor friends now who write in language [including] some I've never met before - [raising the] possibility for remote data checking"


Indeed, Nick's Facebook page has comments in several languages, including Warnman (from West Australia). This strikes me as a "more natural" use of endangered languages on Facebook and perhaps one that we might see expanding in the future. Could it be that FB will be a new domain for emerging genres of written endangered languages?

Comments

I have Bardi and Yolngu friends on facebook and even though at least some of them have email addresses we communicate much more through FB than over email. It's great! There are potential comparative audience problems though; once I posted after spending too much time on phonetic stuff that I was seeing satanic messages in spectrograms, and a friend of a friend got rather concerned for the state of my soul.

Indeed, for me also, Facebook is a place where I do have exchanges with Dalabon speakers every none an again. There is also a "Dalabon speakers" group.
I would like to mention that the purpose of using an endangered language for a status up-date is not necessarily to communicate (although there is some communication, see above!). My idea when I created the group was also that my friends who are not linguists can see that there exists in the world some languages they have never heard of.
And, last but not least, that not only English can be used for status up-dates! As a native French speaker, I don't like the fact that I feel awkward typing an up-date in French. But at this stage, I'm afraid I haven't managed to use much French on Facebook... For some reason, I feel more comfortable using Dalabon instead!

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