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October 2010

[ from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
27th October 2010

The Trace Foundation is a New York based non-profit non-government organisation that has been working with Tibetan communities in China since 1993, mainly on education, health, rural development, and culture. The Foundation offers grants in these areas, and hosts the Latse Library of Tibetan materials at its home base in Greenwich Village in New York City.

Over the past two years Trace Foundation has organised various events, both exhibitions and lecture series on a range of topics, including minority and endangered languages, especially Tibetan. The series has included the following language-related symposia:

  • Minority Language in Today's Global Society -- 22 November 2008
  • Perspectives in Mother Tongue Education -- 21-22 February 2009
  • Vitality and Viability of Minority Languages -- 23-24 October 2009
  • Perspectives on Language Standardization -- 27 March 2010
  • The Relationship between Language, Culture, and Ecology -- 24-25 September 2010

On 20-21 November 2010 the sixth and final symposium called Alive & Digital will be held, bringing together scholars and experts who have worked extensively on minority language preservation and new technologies. The main topics to be discussed are what technological breakthroughs lie ahead and how technology today is impacting linguistic minorities worldwide. The first day will involve a diverse group of speakers discussing past and present trends in the relationship between technology and language, and the second day will explore technological issues specific to the Tibetan language including the Tibetan font converter, Unicode, and iPhone applications.

This event is free and open to the public, but registration is requested.

1 comments |

It was very sad to learn* of the death of the linguist Michael Clyne. He will be remembered for his original work on the immigrant languages of Australia, on sociolinguistics (pragmatics, language contact and quantitative work on census data), and on bilingualism.

But most of all, many of us will miss his great generosity and his passion for helping speakers of all languages use the languages of their choice. Two strongly-held beliefs which he fought hard to get his colleagues, Governments and people to share were:

1. the importance of language rights: the right to learn a language and the right to learn through a language

2. the dangers of the monolingual mindset which, through ignorance, both discriminates against speakers of other languages, and destroys the social, cultural and economic resources that multilingualism affords a country.

Letters, speeches, opinion pieces and articles flowed from him in support of these causes (e.g. 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). Good that his efforts were recognised - he was made a Member of the Order of Australia.

Another cause was the need to bridge the divide between applied linguistics and general linguistics, a divide that he strongly believed was unnecessary and counter-productive. Bridging it in himself, he was a member of both the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and of the Australian Academy of Humanities. Until illness slowed him down, he faithfully attended annual meetings of both the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia and the Australian Linguistics Society. And he devised a delightful way of bringing them together - by establishing a prize administered by both societies - for the best postgraduate research thesis on some aspect of immigrant bilingualism and language contact.

What a man. Vaarwel, adieu, farvel, addio, farewell.

6 comments |

[from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
25th October 2010

Back in 2003 David Crystal published a paper entitled "Endangered Languages: what should we do now", in the first volume of Language Documentation and Description in which he suggested that it was time that the Arts got interested in endangered languages and he wondered when we would be seeing TV programmes, novels, plays, paintings, symphonies, sculptures etc. about the general issues of language endangerment and loss. He says (page 27):

"the genre which puzzles me the most, because it is the genre most applicable to expound our subject, is theatre. Where are the plays? ... there have been works which deal with the problems of a particular linguistic/cultural situation ... But what plays deal with the problems of language endangerment in general?"

He then tells the story of his own play Living On and the difficulties he had with getting it staged in the UK. Since that time David's play has had several readings (including one at SOAS during our innaugural Endangered Languages Week in 2007) but it has yet to see a full performance.

Well suddenly, this year, there are two new plays dealing with endangered languages issues. Julia Cho's The Language Archive was staged in Costa Mesa, California earlier this year and is currently on stage in New York City. The play deals with George:

"a brilliant linguist whose obsession is cataloguing the world's dying languages. He estimates that every two months, one of the world's existing 6,500 languages dies, either from its last speakers perishing or from their dropping it in favor of a more culturally dominant tongue.

George's name for this project is The Language Archive, which he works on with his devoted assistant, Emma ... It consists of finding the last speakers of an endangered language and recording them in simple conversation in order to fully capture the human dimension of their tongue, rather than merely writing down what certain words mean.

Into George's office step Alta ... and Resten, the last speakers of Ellowan, a vaguely Eastern European-sounding language. The problem is that Alta and Resten are no longer speaking to each other: Decades of married life have apparently caused them to loathe one another."

And so it goes on (the OCR Weekly has a detailed positive review of the California production -- the New York Daily News review is rather less keen on it).

The latest news from the RNLD mailing list is that another new play called Mother's Tongue written by Kamarra Bell Wykes (see her brief biography[.pdf]; she is also the daughter of linguist Jeanie Bell) is to be staged for a month by the Yirra Yakin Aboriginal Corporation in Perth starting on 29th October. It is described as follows:

"Mother's Tongue is a contemporary Indigenous story about David and Ngala, a brother and sister trying to find their way in life after the death of their grandmother, the keeper of secrets and last custodian of the knowledge of a whole language group. After her death, David is the only person left alive that can speak his mother's tongue."

So perhaps David Crystal was just seven years ahead of his time.

Stateline has a good interview (and transcript) with various staff of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies [thanks Sarah!]. It's about the audio visual archive and you can hear snippets of recordings, and also hear about the problems with machinery going obsolescent..and the importance of metadata...

AIATSIS (misspelled 'IATSIS' alas in the transcript) actually has a fantastic print/manuscript collection as well. We're lucky in Australia that nearly 50 years ago, some far-sighted enthusiasts got the Government to set up AIATSIS (then AIAS) and pay for the archiving and dissemination of materials related to Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.


"A regulation will stipulate that the family names comes first before the given names when spelling using the Chinese phonetic alphabet, said Li Yuming, deputy director of the State Language Commission, according to the Beijing News on Monday." [People's Daily Online]

So, Li Yuming, rather than Yuming Li. My Chinese students have usually politely reversed the order of their names to conform to English speech community practice. But I can see that once there's widespread contact, and new multilingual communities, it would be a battle.

It looks as though some elements in the Chinese government may be concerned about creeping English-ism, since the writer goes on to lament the report that some Shanghai universities have stopped testing science students on their Chinese language skills.


In a recent blogpost I mentioned the decline of Cook Island Māori and Niue. I later learned that there had been some support for the use of these in schools - in 2007 the then NZ Education Minister Steve Maharey announced guidelines for using Niue in early childhood education in NZ schools, joining other Pasifika languages (Samoan and Cook Island Māori).

Now the current NZ Government has decided to ditch 33 Pasifika bilingual education units. What evidence did they use to justify this? They clearly haven't studied what has happened in the NT following their decision to stop bilingual education. There's no sign yet that the NT changes are producing good educational results. And looking to a distant future, saying change is slow, doesn't help those kids in classes right now.

I don't know if they discussed this decision with the families. If they did not, then the message this sends the children and their families is that your wishes, your views on education and your languages are of no value.


Ísland: Iceland
Population: around 313,000

For the traveller to Iceland, the first sign of clever marketing of Íslenska (we speak English but think about what else we speak!) is in the Icelandair aeroplane, in which Icelandic is used for

  • announcements
  • briefing cards
  • on the seat antimacassars, Icelandic phrases and commentary e.g. on the 'soft and cuddly sound' of Góða nótt 'good night' [check the cuddly claim here].
  • and on the paper cups, 14 words for drinking vessels


[ Photo courtesy of David Nash]

Surely the smallest language group to have its own airline.

In Reykjavík, there are plenty of signs of belief in the power of writing. Despite its location on the route between several big English-speaking countries, it has managed to resist much of the pressure to advertise in English and have signs in English. For print-addicts, the city language-scape is a treasure-house - vocabulary is reinforced by seeing words in other languages in signs and notices both public (roads, schools, monuments) and private (shop and business names and windows, advertisements, churches, graveyards). And hey! vanity plates using Icelandic diacritics [Gróa was a witch healer in Norse mythology].


[ Photo courtesy of David Nash]

Cyber-space is also sparkling with .is pages in Icelandic for enterprises, commerical, public and sociable - even the knit cafes get mentioned.. (see Handprjónasamband Íslands (the Hand-knitting association of Iceland). BUT the website for the parent airline group appears in English and doesn't advertise an Icelandic alternative. Uhuh. Commercial decisions are probably the coal-mine canaries for language health.

We went into several bookshops (Eymundsson and Mál og Menning) with cafés. It is impressive how much is written in Icelandic, and how much is translated (check out Forlagið). It's wide-ranging - from Richard Dawkins on God (a big display) to translations of Finn Family Moomintroll, Astrid Lindgren and Harry Potter, to Bill Bryson, to a whole heap of airport reads (John Grisham, Jodie Picoult, Charlaine Harris). All this with a small population, and having to import paper.

All of this must be helping standardise ways of talking about new ideas, so expanding the domains in which it is easy to talk Icelandic. The Berlitz guidebook to Reykjavík shamed its parent company by sniffily commenting on the Icelanders' 'pedantic' habit of compounding Icelandic roots to form words for new concepts. But does that reflect the views of outsiders complaining about Icelanders not using loanwords, or the frustration of some at the language purism of others? Anyway I am sorry now that I didn't check how 'vampire' was translated, let alone 'true blood'.

4 comments |

[from Peter K. Austin
Linguistics Department, SOAS
24th September 2010 ]

Last month I wrote a blog post about quantification in language documentation and "[h]ow much of the corpus needs to be linguistically annotated so that 'later researchers will be able to reconstruct the (grammar of the) language' or indeed so that the rest of the corpus can be parsed". Note that I was talking about linguistic annotation (not just transcription) here, but in his very useful comments on my post, James Crippen wrote:

"Some folks I know have well over 1000 hours of recorded material, and I think nowhere near ten percent of that has been transcribed. Asking for someone to do the ten percent for this before being willing to accept it is a bit unreasonable."

Well, the first thing I have to say is: 1000 hours is an awful lot of recordings. It's about 7.5 times the average DoBeS corpus (based on the figure I mentioned in my previous post) and if it's video it's equivalent to around 550 feature length movies (which average around 110 minutes each). If you spent every waking hour of the working week, with no time for eating, bathing, shopping, checking e-mail etc, it would take you six and a half months to merely watch or listen to it all, let alone create any metadata, analysis, transcription, or index (and remember that this is probably going to be in a language you don't understand and with no subtitles). You'd want to have a good reason to do so, I reckon.

Anyway, be that as it may, James' comment prompted me to seek some empirical data about this issue, so I wrote to five colleagues who are responsible for archives of materials on endangered languages, namely Peter Wittenburg of the DoBeS archive, Heidi Johnson of the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America AILLA, Gary Holton of the Alaska Native Language Archive ANLA, Nick Thieberger of the Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures PARADISEC, and David Nathan of the Endangered Languages Archive ELAR at SOAS. I asked them the following questions:

"If someone approached you about depositing 1000 hours of recorded digital data on some language, less than 10% of which was transcribed, what advice would you (Archive_Name) give them? What would be the minimal requirements that you would have in order to accept the materials for deposit?"

2 comments |

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