> July 2009 - Transient Languages & Cultures

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July 2009

Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
29th July 2009

At the Linguistic Society of America Summer Institute in Berkeley last week (17-19th July) the National Science Foundation sponsored Cyberling 2009, a workshop exploring how computational infrastructure (called "cyberinfrastructure" in the US, and e-Science or e-Humanities in the UK) can support linguistic research in a variety of fields. There was a panel discussion about data sharing that looked at the proposal:

"A cyberinfrastructure for linguistic data would allow unprecedented access [to] the empirical base of our field, but only if we collectively build that empirical base by contributing data. This panel addresses the benefits of data sharing and the obstacles to the widespread adoption of sharing practices, from the perspective of a variety of subfields"

But the bulk of the workshop was given over to closed discussion sessions by seven working groups looking at annotation standards, other standards, new multi-purpose software (so-called "killer apps"), data reliability and provenance, models from other fields, funding sources, and collaboration structure. The group discussions and resulting final day presentations are available on the Cyberling Wiki.

I was co-chair of Working Group 4 that was charged with discussing "protecting data reliability and provenance", i.e. how to keep track of the creation of data and analysis and its passage through the electronic infrastructure as researchers access and use each other's materials. As the Cyberling Wiki says, this is crucial

"for data creators (who need credit for the work they have done and the academic contribution of collecting, curating and annotating data) and the data users (who need to know where the data has come from so they can form an opinion of how much credence to give it and how to give proper credit to the originator of the data)".

We also looked at how to establish a culture of data sharing and what mechanisms might be put in place to encourage people to share data. Clearly, for endangered language research where data are unique and fragile, these are very important issues.

After two and a half days of intense discussions our group came up with a set of proposals relating to data reliability and provenance that can be summarised as follows:

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The New York Times has just published an article about the role technology plays in helping to save endangered languages. A few specific projects are mentioned, including some work supported by SOAS and MPI Nijmegen and our own mobile phone dictionary project.

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The "Understanding Children's Languages Project" of the Queensland Department of Education is developing a very rich website, (yay Denise!), which will have heaps of resources and sensible explanations of what's going on with Indigenous children's languages. Really useful if you have to explain things to teachers, parents, community members, or anyone who goes to sleep at the drop of a noun. A lot of the content is still under development, but they have uploaded some interesting interviews with Queensland Indigenous people about language histories (Under "Language awareness") .

There's lots to think about in the interviews, but I'll just single out 2 things which intrigued me. Very relevant to the current English literacy push is Val Wallace's comment

I think the kids need a pat on the back really. That is just a part of living biculturally really regardless of the language you speak at home and what you are taught at school. English should be seen as picking up another skill rather than it being something that is 'the be all and end all' of you getting an education. There has to be a reason for learning English. You shouldn't actually just tell people to do something without giving a reason as to why they are doing it.

We are in danger of forgetting that kids should learn other things than English at school - and if the focus is all on learning to read English, when do they learn about science, dinosaurs, geography, their family's history, the country's history, law-making, and all the things that we take for granted that English-speaking teachers will talk about with English-speaking kids from early on.

And an entirely different point - it's worried me for a long time that we may be overemphasising the substrate influence from local Indigenous languages on new Indigenous languages such as Kriol, Broken and so on. The structures of the traditional languages vary considerably - especially if you add Tok Pisin from Papua New Guinea as Cherry Royee does

There are a lot of Torres Strait Islanders here and they use the word Creole to name their talk. Pidgin is another name I've heard - my husband is Papua New Guinean so they speak that or Broken. I just call it Murri Talk or Murri Way, I never really thought about it. Is there a proper way? I never heard about it!

In other words, in contrast with traditional languages across mainland Australia, the Torres Strait and PNG, all these new languages is so similar, that it is easy to learn one if you know one of the others. So, to find substrate effects, we have to look at more subtle differences - i.e. look at regional differences among new languages and see if they correlate with regional differences in the older languages.

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Good news! There's interest at federal ministerial level in a National Indigenous Languages Policy for Australia. [thanks Ngapartji and Sarah!]

Apparently the person to contact is John Prior (Electorate Officer for Senator Trish Crossin, Northern Territory). He is researching a National Indigenous Languages Policy for Minister Garrett's office. He welcomes comment as well as pointers to resources and references. He is unsure of the timeframe of this stage of development, so it is suggested that you contact him as soon as you are able:

John Prior
John.Prior AT aph.gov.au
Electorate Officer
Office of Senator Trish Crossin
PO Box 946
Palmerston 0831
Ph: (08) 89310830
Fax: (08) 89310513
Mob 0409 671 892

Buffet style linguistic eating was available in Melbourne last week - first the Annual Conference of the Australian Linguistics Society, and then the Conference of the International Pragmatics Association's annual conference. Galactic conference fees put IPRA out of many people's reach (earlybird rego 350 Euros), but ALS still sticks to the cost recovery principle and makes sure the costs are low. Thanks to the La Trobe University organisers!

Australian Indigenous languages featured heavily at ALS: fieldwork, a whole session on the language Murriny Patha, papers on historical linguistics, word order and information structure... and the future of linguistic work at AIATSIS, and information about projects happening there. On non-Indigenous stuff, there was a brilliantly argued plenary by Anne Cutler (MPI and MARCS) on native listening - she has a book in progress which will be a must-read. I almost regretted not having followed a psycholinguistics path.

And there were good outcomes from the ALS AGM:

  • The Society is continuing to support Pacific Linguistics, about the only place that continues to publish books on languages of our region that are properly copy-edited and don't command galactic prices. (Disclaimer: I'm on the board)
  • The Society is expressing its concern about the decision to close down bilingual education in the Northern Territory
  • The Society's journal AJL is going to appear more often, and is now ISI indexed which means
    • better awareness of the work published therein
    • more people will want to publish in it
    • probably more work on Australian languages will be published, and will become better known

The first plenary at IPRA was also on Australian languages - Peter Sutton's musings on how Australian Indigenous people's beliefs and practices about languages have been altered by the move to settlement life, and how this leads to them speaking English, a creole or a lingua franca instead of their traditional language.

Sutton's book, The Politics of Suffering was launched, and has been much discussed in the news. Gotta read it, because I bet the arguments are more subtle than their portrayal in the media. Another book has hit the streets and the media too -- Nick Evans' Dying Words: Endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Oh to have time to read them! Class preparation..sigh. Nick's book has attracted a long and luscious piece from Nicolas Rothwell (The rest is silence (18/7/09). He mentions Nick's joy in learning from speakers of other languages, but the piece exudes the melancholy of a healthy man at the burial of a distant acquaintance.

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Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
9 July 2009

The website of a new project called World Oral Literature Project: Voices of Vanishing Worlds has just gone live at the University of Cambridge. The project kicked off early this year under the leadership of Mark Turin, an anthropological linguist whose major research area is Nepal (his PhD thesis was a grammar of Thangmi, a hitherto undescribed Tibeto-Burman language spoken in eastern Nepal). The project is supported by private donors and "has been established to support local communities and committed fieldworkers engaged in the collection and preservation of oral literature by providing funding for original research, alongside training in fieldwork and digital archiving methods". Small research grants are available (follow the link for details of the application process), and a two-day workshop on oral literature with a focus on collections from the Asia-Pacific will take place at Cambridge 15-16 December this year. People interested in contributing papers to the workshop should contact Mark directly (I plan to present a talk on documentation of lontar reading performances in Lombok, eastern Indonesia).

Mark is also involved with the Digital Himalaya Project that began in 2000 with the aim of archiving and making available ethnographic materials from the Himalayan region (via the web and on DVD). The currently available collections include films, scanned copies of rare books and manuscripts, maps, an interactive tool to access 2001 census data for Nepal, dictionaries, fieldnotes, folktales and music, and Thangmi songs. It is an incredibly rich collection of data and analysis that has an interface that is both beautiful and easy to navigate and use. As fellow blogger Jeremy Hammond has recently pointed out, publishing materials on the internet is a good way to make both data and analyses available to a wide range of users. The Digital Himalaya Project is an excellent model of how to do this in a highly appealing and usable fashion.

Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
7 July 2009

The two-week 3L Summer School continued last week with plenary lectures on documentation and linguistic theory, language policy, language archiving, and documentation and language typology. Courses in the second week included Amazonian languages, Caucasian languages, Grammar writing, and documenting special vocabulary, together with the continuation of documenting sign languages, and sociolinguistics of language endangerment.

The Summer School ended in London last Friday with a Student Conference organised and run entirely by a group of SOAS PhD students with presentations from attendees at the summer school. The papers covered a wide range of topics and were of excellent quality -- so many good papers were submitted that the organisers decided to run two parallel sessions from 9:30am to 5:30pm. Here are the titles of the presentations organised by topic:

  • Language maintenance and revitalisation
    • New media forms and language revitalisation
    • Making use of resources from language documentation and description to enable language-based development
    • Visual representation of language maintenance and shift
  • Documentation theory
    • Challenges in documenting a moribund language: Ngarla
    • Documenting Ava-Guarani in the context of linguistic heterogeneity
    • The role of semi-speakers in language documentation
    • The importance of language documentation for languages which are not yet endangered
    • Old archives and the documentation and description of extinct languages
    • Edited fieldnotes and onomasiological grammar
  • Sign language documentation
    • Name signs in Ethiopian sign language
    • Is there a sentence in ASL? Insights on segmenting signed language data
    • Documentation of sociolinguistic variation in contemporary Auslan
  • Phonology and language documentation
    • The joy of doing prosodic research in a lesser known language
    • A tone inventory of Njanga
    • Lost in perception: transcribing distinctions not present in one's native language
  • Language overviews
    • The Istro-Romanians
    • The Katukina-Kanamari language
    • Megrelian: one century of language change
  • Multimedia, data and archiving
    • Central Alaskan Yup'ik: a linguistic research project
    • OLAC metadata and the need for improved metadata practices
    • How many languages are described?
  • Varia
    • Cultural worldviews and their implications for linguistic attitudes
    • Motion event segmentation in Jaminjung
    • Syntactic features in a linguistic atlas

The sign language documentation session included two presentations by deaf researchers (the session chair was also a deaf researcher) and at least one other was the first talk in English by
a presenter (and very well done too!). The talks were all of a high quality and prompted lively discussion among the 70 or so participants.

After a Farewell Party many of the students spent their last night in London dancing salsa at a club in Soho (photos can be found on the 3L Summer School group page on Facebook for those interested). I myself had to skip the dancing to go home and pack for a morning flight the next day to San Francisco to join the LSA Summer Institute where I am teaching a course on Syntax of Indonesian Languages for three weeks (the first lecture on Monday morning seems to have gone OK, despite the effects of an 8-hour time difference from London and the resulting jetlag).

The 3L Summer School series will continue in 2010 at Leiden University in The Netherlands. Details of the dates and organisational information will be announced by the 3L consortium members later this year.

[from Jeremy Hammond]

As linguists and anthropologists working on small and often endangered languages, we should consider distributing the materials that we accumulate over time. Obviously institutions such as PARADISEC provide a repository for the data, and this is an important role for the safeguarding of raw materials for long-term forward compatibility. But we also have all the other outputs of the research such as publications, courses or even transcriptions and edited recordings. Some of these obviously appear in various journals, presented to conferences or are published as manuscripts. But, even though they are originating from the same primary evidence or research group, they occur in disparate locations.

So how do we collate all the papers and dissertations, transcriptions and translations and then link these to the data that has been collected? One really good solution is to create a website that is research group specific. So, if you have been given a grant for language documentation or research, then one of goals should be to create a space on the www that collects all inputs and outputs together. Some kind of macro-output.

The stimulus for these thoughts is the newish website created by Daniel Everett and Robert Van Valin here. This is a really good example of what research groups should consider for the presentation of their work on information structure. In its blurb it states, “this site is dedicated to presenting research recently undertaken on the topic of information structure in Amazonian languages”. And it does this very well.

Not only does it provide a .pdf copy of all the papers produced by the group (including unpublished materials such as Honours theses) but it also provides all the semi-sanitized data so that other linguists can do their own analyses or check on any of the paper’s claims. There are photos (my favourite is of the tapir like animal), audio files of various genres and registers and their accompanying transcriptions.

The layout is easy to use, with separate sections for each language that was documented. There is no need for fancy linguistic software, with all the data presented in cross-platform formats such as .wav, .jpeg and .pdf. The transcriptions are presented with a neat 3 line interlinear gloss. The site is definitely user friendly, even for researchers who are interested in the data for non-linguistic purposes.

It has solved the problem of how to present “unpublishable” data that is still important to the linguistic or research community. The data that journals won’t publish is still valuable, and if research groups make an effort to self-publish this in open and accessible formats, then linguistic theory should benefit by being able to access new and interesting materials. Anyway, if you have a passing interest in information structure, Amazonian languages, language documentation or web presentation check out the site. It is an excellent 21st Century contribution to the linguistic field.

Last Friday was AIATSIS's Research Symposium on Bilingual Education, organised by Sarah Cutfield and Cressida Fforde. At the end, Mick Dodson launched a paper by Pat McConvell, Jo Caffery and me, which is now available online Gaps in Australia's Indigenous Language Policy: Dismantling bilingual education in the Northern Territory [ new link - .pdf]. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Discussion Paper 24.

Friends of Bilingual Learning have put out a media release on the subject, and resolutions from the symposium are expected soon, both long-term and short-term.

I was saddened to learn of the helplessness and isolation of the people who've been working with mother tongue medium programs. Many are Indigenous; many non-Indigenous staff have worked in these remote communities for decades. They're stayers. They get very little support. Policy-makers don't listen to them; they're treated as problems because they can see the importance of starting from where the children are at. They came in their holidays, some got funding from NGOs. It was humbling to hear that the symposium was valuable to them.

What came out strongly from the Indigenous participants in the symposium was the sentiment behind some of the paper titles: They are our children, This is our community (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma), and Nganimpa-nyangu kurdu-kurdu, nganimpa-nyangu Warlpiri Our children, our Warlpiri (language) (Warlpiri community members and Wendy Baarda). Yes we love our children, yes we want the best for them, yes we think they can learn both ways and live in both worlds. It is movingly expressed by Connie Nungarrayi Walit, a Warlpiri health worker:

“The one thing we have left from our parents and grandparents which is really our own is our language, Warlpiri. This is the last thing we have left to pass on to our children and grandchildren,”

The people who have decided that English shall be the language of the classroom will have taken that language away from Nungarrayi's grandchildren. Unintentionally, with the best will in the world, thinking they're doing the Right Thing by Nungarrayi's grandchildren.

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From: Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
29 June 2009

Well, we have just passed the half-way point of the 3L Summer School and things seem to be going pretty much according to plan. Despite some last minute scrambles (presenters dropping out and needing to be replaced, equipment needing to be bought, rooms being taken out of service) all the classes got organised on time and have run well so far. Even Blackboard, the e-learning support environment, is functioning faultlessly, enabling us to do away with photocopying handouts and having useless piles of paper at the end of each class.

There are 97 students attending the 3L summer school, representing 42 nationalities (Argentinian, Australian, Belgian, Benin, Brazilian, British, Cameroonian, Canadian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Ethiopian, Finnish, French, German, Ghanaian, Greek, Indian, Indonesian, Irish, Israeli, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Malian, Mexican, Nigerian, Norwegian, Pakistani, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Saami, South African, Spainish, Swedish, Swiss, Taiwanese, Ugandan, USA). There are 18 instructors, who come from the three consortium universities (SOAS, Lyon and Leiden), along with colleagues from University College London. Three tutors from SOAS and a group of student volunteers, plus our Administrator Alison Kelly, make up the rest of the 3L team.

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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.
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