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September 2010

Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
26th September 2010

About 18 months ago I wrote a blog post about potential sources of funding for endangered languages research. I identified three main types of funders: governmental grant bodies, non-governmental grant bodies, and endangered languages grant bodies. The Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP), which is a sister to the Academic Programme (ELAP) and the Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) at SOAS, is one of the largest in the last category, distributing around GBP 1million per year in competitive grants.

As part of my current interest in meta-documentation, that is the documentation of language documentation (see this recent conference abstract, and a differently focussed workshop abstract [.pdf]), I have been looking at how granting agencies, and ELDP in particular, spend their funds. Where is funded research being carried out and where is the money being allocated to? Are there any changes over time that can be observed?

I chose to look at ELDP because it has global coverage in terms of the research areas it is interested in and in terms of which researchers it is prepared to fund. It also publishes information about the grantees and the size of the grants awarded, so data collection is easy. Volkswagen Foundation, in contrast, requires a German component in their DoBeS projects, while NSF-NEH Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) grants are restricted to US Institutions.

I wish to make it clear that although ELDP is administered by SOAS staff, its grant decision making processes are entirely independent of SOAS and are carried out by an International Panel chaired by Andrew Spencer of the University of Essex. The opinions I am expressing here are also independent of ELDP itself.

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This post began in the auditorium of Diehtosiida, the new, beautiful and ultra well-equipped building in Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino, Norway, which houses Sámi allaskuvla, the Sámi University College, as well as other Sámi institutions, including Gáldu, the Resource Centre for Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As we entered the auditorium for the first Indigenous Placenames Conference, we encountered a rack of Bosch handsets and headsets for simultaneous interpreting, and this was offered in Sámi, Russian and English. And they weren't for show - most introductions and some papers were given in (Northern) Sámi. Sámi people who spoke near-native English could, and did, give their papers in Sámi. Interpreters are at hand because of the Sámi University College - but because Diehtosiida houses other institutions, this probably increases the uptake on using interpreters, which in turn reduces the pressure to switch to a more dominant language, and widens the domains of use of Sámi.

Way to go! Where would we find that in Australia? Ah, but the price of the people and the equipment! Not even on offer at Trinity St David, the otherwise well-equipped and strongly Welsh branch of the University of Wales where the Foundation for Endangered Languages has just held its annual conference. Around 20,000 (?euros - Irish pounds thanks Peter!) for 3 days of simultaneous interpreting at a conference in Galway, said an Irish linguist. That's the financial pressure that forces speakers of small languages to give their papers in a lingua franca. But… at the FEL conference I learned from a representative of the Mentrau Iaith (Welsh Language Initiatives) that schools and community meetings can rent the equipment cheaply, and that often a bilingual parent or community member does the interpreting. They do it because they want to be able to use the minority language freely, not because they couldn't conduct the meeting in English. So it isn't best practice interpreting - but it is a choice between this and nothing - and nothing inevitably means using the dominant language.

Two important ideas came up at the FEL conference: the tipping point when bilingual speakers move to the majority language, and the conflict between authenticity and creativity.


Niue And Cook Island Māori Languages Threatened
So runs the headline in Voxy, reporting the work of John McCaffery and Judy Taligalu McFall-McCaffery of the University of Auckland.

"Our research indicates that Pacific Island languages in New Zealand show significant signs of language shift and loss, with several languages, especially Cook Island Māori and Niue language unlikely to survive unless we do something now,....There are no plans at present for Niue or Cook Island bilingual education so prospects for the survival of these indigenous languages within the realm of New Zealand seem very unlikely."

Using bilingual education shouldn't be out of the question - in Wales, Welsh-medium schools are doing brilliantly, getting better academic results than English-medium schools. Bu it seems that even though New Zealanders have done well in terms of mother tongue medium instruction in Māori, when it comes to other languages, they want to ignore the potential. Just like Australia. Take the Australian Senator Mark Arbib who says

"Indigenous Australians must be taught English ahead of their traditional languages if they are to get jobs, Indigenous Employment Minister Mark Arbib says.Senator Arbib said while he wanted to see traditional languages kept alive, the focus had to be kept on English.
"It is going to be impossible for us to solve indigenous employment unless English is taught as the first language," he told Sky News on Sunday."

We have utterly failed in getting across to the people who run the governments the facts that:
(i) children CAN do really well academically and learn excellent English and get good jobs through being educated in their mother tongue.
(ii) if children are NOT given mother tongue medium instruction, this is an immediate sign that the State thinks their languages are useless.

Last week in Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino, Norway, at the Sámi allaskuvla, the Sámi University College, was the first International Conference on Indigenous Place Names - "Exploring ways to reclaim cultural identity through place names" , beautifully, minutely and intricately organised by Kaisa Rautio Helander. The name 'Guovdageaidnu/KautoKeino' illustrates the range of the topic:

  • meaning: in Sámi Guovda 'what is in between', Geaidnu 'road'; in Norwegian, Kautokeino is a name only
  • layering: Kautokeino is the Finnish spelling, now adopted by Norwegians
  • official naming policy: which name to use officially, which name comes first on road-signs

In the spring, a single snowflake melts, joins other snowflakes, becomes a trickle, a stream, a river, a sea - this metaphor with many interpretations is the heart of a poem by an early twentieth century Sámi writer, Pedar Jalvi which Kaisa recited at the start of the conference. You could use it for place-names - one Indigenous place-name on a map doesn't convincingly show prior occupation/ownership, but thousands do. Or you could take it for this first conference itself - a river of understanding formed from trickles of people from different places - Māori, Zulu, Xaayda Gwaay.yaay (Haida Gwaii), Masai, Shipibo-Konibo, and particularly the Arctic (Sámi, Inuit, Nenets and Veps). They all have reasons to be passionately concerned about the nature, recognition and transmission of place-names.


Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
2 September 2010

During a recent vacation I took the opportunity to re-read Stephen Jay Gould's excellent collection of essays The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History" (published by Viking in 2001, the year before Gould's untimely death).

In his essay "A Tale of Two Work Sites" Gould reminds us (page 257) that it was Herbert Spencer (not Charles Darwin) who laid out in his book Social Status published in 1850 the basic approach to understanding society and culture that later came to be called Social Darwinism. This is the application of the concepts of "struggle for existence" and "survival of the fittest", a term coined by Spencer (not Darwin), beyond the realm of biology to all things social and cultural, including human language. As Gould points out:

"Darwin himself maintained a highly ambivalent relationship to this movement that borrowed his name. He felt the pride of any creator toward useful extensions of his theory - and he did hope for an evolutionary account of human origins and historical patterns. But he also understood only too well why the mechanism of natural selection applied poorly to the causes of social change in humans."

Gould continues (page 257):
"Social Darwinism often serves as a blanket term for any genetic or biological claim made about the inevitability (or at least the "naturalness") of social inequalities among classes and sexes, or military conquests of one group by another."

Spencer's approach insisted that interaction between elements in evolving systems and their environment must be left free of interference in order to ensure progress from homogeneity ("primitive" human society) to complex and structured heterogeneity (as in "advanced" industrial society). Only this will the fittest survive. This view was later dismissed, as Gould (page 260) points out, by Darwin's champion Thomas Henry Huxley as the 'gladiatorial school' of evolution.

Darwin's metaphor of the "struggle for existence" presented in The Origin of Species "included any strategy that promotes increased reproductive success, whether by outright battle, cooperation, or just simple prowess in copulation" (Gould page 260). In other words, for Darwin natural selection could be spelled out over time through coexistence between species, say, not just in a grim fight to the death.

Unfortunately, the grimmest of Spencerian Social Darwinism is alive and well today, often wrapped up in the terminology and graphical representations of mathematics and economics. An example is an article published on 15th July 2010 by Razib Khan on the Discover Magazine blog called "Linguistic diversity = poverty". Khan recognises that many minority languages around the world are endangered but argues that people who speak such languages do so at a cost, namely that it makes them poor ("The cost of collective color and diversity may be their individual poverty (i.e., we who speak world languages gain, but incur no costs"). The only way to join with other people and get economic advantages is to abandon languages and shift to dominant means of communication. This shouldn't be a problem, he suggests, because language is purely utilitarian, unlike 'cultural traits' (thus "When it comes to some aspects of cultural diversity, such as dress and religion, the importance we place on these traits is imbued by aspects of human psychology. Not so with language. Communication is of direct utilitarian importance."). So, it's good for languages to die out as this "reduc[es] transaction costs and allow[s] for more frictionless flow of information, ... it also removes one major dimension of intergroup conflict", To prove his point, Khan presents a graph showing that "very high linguistic diversity is not conducive to economic growth, social cooperation, and amity more generally scaled beyond the tribe". So there you go, give up your language and you won't be poor any more.

Some people seem to be convinced by this kind of rhetoric - one of the commentators on Khan's article says "I made a decision as a child to dump my parents’ language for English. I was born in Malta, and live in Australia since a young age. I could see no good reason to speak a minority language on any level. ... I sincerely hope that Maltese does become extinct. It does not deserve to survive on any level."

Other people are not convinced, however, and several of the commentators point out the important role of heritage and identity that is linked to language maintenance, often in a multilingual context. Language is not purely utilitarian. If it were why would people continue speaking Diyari long after it makes any 'economic sense' to do so, or why would millions of Javanese, Balinese and Sasaks continue to maintain a language, Kawi, that has not been acquired as a first language by children for 300 years or more and has no 'value' in the modern economic sense? Maybe it's not about survival of the fittest and killing languages to stop being poor after all.


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