The death and life of languages
February 21, 2012 11:32 PM   Subscribe

Help me sort out the best way to approach language preservation, as an academic interest and as a guideline for volunteer work.

I understand this is a very complicated topic, and that there are multiple ways to approach this. I am a consultant working in language education, and am interested in volunteering / starting projects related to language preservation. I am very new to this field, so I don't know who the big players are, what the big struggles are, and the best way to go about my research. I have a few questions I was hoping the community could help me with, as I know there are many skilled and intelligent linguists on this site.

One thing I'm curious about is the many different approaches to language preservation. It seems to me there are a few reasons to try to preserve endangered languages, for example:
1. to preserve cognitive diversity, i.e. the 'ethnosphere'
2. to preserve cultural identity (which is a very politically charged area, as it is tied to notions of nationhood fex. Kurdish language)

Hoping that the mefi community can make some suggestions re:
- books / resources on language preservation
- big names in the field
- major initiatives at universities
- online efforts (w/r/t to materials development and online education in general)
- start-ups / initiatives
- regions where this is a particular concern

I'm interested in resources that are very applied in nature (i.e. not something like 'The Death and Life of Languages', which I read and enjoyed). Also interested in a Pareto approach to the problem (applying 20% of effort to achieve 80% of effect).

As an exercise, I requested the endangered language databank from UNESCO (who were kind to oblige) and have been making some analyses. Would be great to identify 10 languages as a start (for developing some sort of online platform, open educational resources, etc.) -- of course that decision is highly subjective, but am curious to hear what the community's opinions are on which languages could really use a boost.

From one perspective, English education (and other world languages like Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesian, Spanish, etc.) is a benefit to development; for many people learning a world language can be a lift out of poverty. I'd be interested in counter-arguments, or examples where language preservation contributes to development.

There are strong demographic / economic / historical forces involved in language death but I would love to contribute to stemming the tide in some way.

In case I seem like someone wanting to interfere in a delicate process (without sufficient background or skills) my interest is not just in assisting with projects / volunteering but also on the possible degree programs being offered, the leading academics, institutions, etc. Also, I am interested in assisting organic efforts to preserve languages (i.e. by the communities actually affected), providing assistance with technology and materials development.

I'm planning to speak to academic departments about this issue but am also curious to hear a variety of perspectives (hence, Metafilter!).

I apologise for the broad nature of this question, and am thankful in advance for any pointers. Thanks y'all.
posted by mammary16 to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Recovering Voices.
posted by gudrun at 12:12 AM on February 22, 2012

I had to first check that my own language, Welsh, is considered endangered by UNESCO! It is, as I guessed it would be, but one of the better ones. If you decide you want more information about Welsh I'll try and help you (no expert but could perhaps put you in touch with resources). Quite a bit of discussion at the moment since some rather depressing statistics have just been released (we are apparently losing 3000 speakers a year) and also since it is 50 years since Saunders Lewis' influential lecture 'Tynged yr Iaith' which led to the formation of 'Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg', the Welsh Language Society.
The growth in Welsh language education might be interesting for you you to consider (a growing number of non Welsh speakers wish their children to be educated through the medium of Welsh, primarily in areas of the country that have to a greater or lesser degree lost the language).
posted by sianifach at 12:34 AM on February 22, 2012

Some big voices in the field are Peter Austin & David Nathan (HRELP, ELDP, SOAS) and the DOBES, MPI, Volkswagen fund crowd. Have a read around on the websites of these projects to see what sorts of things are being done. (Have a look at previously funded projects). Googling Peter or David (or Nikolaus Himmelmann), especially on Google Scholar, will give you access to some of their papers. They tend to publish in open access venues and are quite readable.
posted by lollusc at 1:00 AM on February 22, 2012

1) You may want to check out the efforts of the Diwan schools to preserve Breton language and culture in Brittany (a region of France that considers itself to have closer ties to other Celtic cultures--like Welsh--than to French).

2) Many aboriginal languages in Canada are in danger of becoming extinct. As a result, several groups have undertaken projects and put together resources that attempt to preserve indigenous languages.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:02 AM on February 22, 2012

Also, as for languages, obviously there are plenty of them, but two regions where there will always be plenty of endangered languages are Papua New Guinea and Australia. Australia is politically a bit charged - some communities do not want interference from whitefella linguists and do-gooders. PNG can be a bit dangerous, but communities there seem quite keen on linguists. Having a linguist in a community can bring a lot of prestige. I don't know so much about the work going on in the USA, but there is plenty happening there too.
posted by lollusc at 1:04 AM on February 22, 2012

Don't work alone and try to reinvent everything. Devote your energies to an existing program (CELP, for example) with experienced people. The organization and people you work with will likely depend on where you are and the language you want to work with. Unless you are able to relocate for a long time, you should identify a language with strong roots near you that needs your help.

If you want to do some work on your own:
  • Find and record native speakers. If possible, make real friends with them so you can join their social networks. Don't just be the foreign dude with the microphone and notebook.
  • Connect them to other native speakers and make it easy for them to communicate. If there are isolated communities (or just lonely individuals), find ways to connect them. If nothing else works, you might need to transport grannies from place to place so they can talk to one another and work with you.
  • Create language learning programs to teach children. Incorporate the natives in your activities, but it's best to have solid teacher training and experience to really teach a language, so the natives alone (unless you can find or develop teachers among them) might not be good at transferring their knowledge to others. Find or create or become a teacher of the language.
  • Create culture learning programs to get people interested in and familiar with the related culture. Otherwise, the language is no better than some concocted game.
  • Distribute literature and create news (audio, video, printed) in the language, so people get a steady stream of the language for practice.
  • Create regular (daily, weekly, monthly) events that do anything at all but that do it using the language. Field trips for kids. Coffee meetings. Bowling. Drinks and snacks. Car repair. Genealogy clubs. Just jeep the language current by using it in various settings.
  • As a step to creating new literature in the language, get learners to write short stories and plays in the language, or to translate stories into the language.
  • Get a daycare center to start teaching the language.
A tiny language almost certainly will still die, but it won't vanish without a trace if you work hard.

Just don't waste your effort. Coordinate your work with others and publish it online as you work (papers, blogs, etc.) so everyone is always aware of what you're up to. Learn how others are doing the things listed above, because you don't want to make the mistakes they made when they started out.
posted by pracowity at 1:20 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know people who are involved in this. A good place to look is the Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice (kind of expensive, get it from a library).

Leanne Hinton at Berkeley pioneered the successful "Master-Apprentice" Program. Here's her article on how to do it -- highly recommended by those who've tried.

Some other approaches are described by the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity's Language Maintenance center.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:27 AM on February 22, 2012

Check out David Harrison, a linguist who I gather has some prominence in this field. He has a couple of books aimed at a general audience if you want an introduction to the topic, and he featured in a 2008 documentary about endangered languages.

Of perhaps more interest to you is that he has been involved in an effort to codify the world's "linguistic diversity hotspots," (see here, although I get a server error, or here for some details) an analogue to the well-known biodiversity hotspots scheme.

You could probably contact him directly if you want some advice on how to proceed.
posted by col_pogo at 1:48 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you have an interest in any of the Native American languages, Jack Martin at the College of William and Mary would be a great resource.
posted by pecanpies at 3:43 AM on February 22, 2012

You may be interested in the efforts to preserve Irish in Ireland, and Welsh in Wales. (Of interest: there are both Irish and Welsh versions of Wikipedia!) Although the status of each is different in each country, we were sitting around an Irish table this weekend with some Welsh people and it was interesting to note that there were similar concerns around some of the preservation efforts.

For example, absolutely everything from road signs to legislation to government reports must be translated out of English and into the protected language. In theory this is great and how academics tell us we must preserve a language. In reality, if you look at what actually happens, there's no demand for this. A 1,000 page report on sanitation is translated into Irish or Welsh, respectively. 40 copies are printed. They promptly go into 40 libraries, because nobody else wants then, where nobody ever reads them. The cost do this for every single item of the nation's business is astronomical - it's €30 million euros a year, and that's just for Irish translations of EU matters, never mind domestic sanitation reports. (The EU commission is translating 33,000 pages a year into Maltese, for pity's sake.)

One person at our table noted that health information in Wales for her department's website had to be translated into Welsh at enormous cost. Their web stats show this information is literally never viewed. This is money this department could otherwise use for frontline services, like actually treating people with drugs and doctors. In addition, without Welsh certification, she is not eligible for promotion to key management positions in her department. I have not taught for 15 years, but I could not teach in Ireland without an Irish certification. Since my specialisation was early childhood education and we are talking about an audience of 2 and 3 year olds with around 200 acquired words, this seems short-sighted.

So, while everyone wants a vibrant language culture, not everyone is happy with many of the formal efforts around preservation. In addition, there are concerns that the focus on Irish in education and civil service is being used as a barrier; teachers in Ireland must pass Irish to be certified, but frankly I want the best science teachers to teach science and the best Irish teachers to teach Irish, and outside of an Irish-speaking school it is insane that science teachers should have to speak Irish, or indeed that a police officer outside of the Gaeltacht should be required to speak Irish. The effect is that it is basically a miracle we have any non-Irish born officers at all. I can tell you the same one Sikh guy keeps being trotted out for "ethnic diversity" photoshoots. It's problematic. (You know what we really need? Polish speaking officers.)

I am not an academic or anything other than someone who lives here but did not grow up in the Irish education system, and these are just my impressions from what is basically an external point of view. I would consider myself a supporter of Irish preservation, I just observe that many of the current mechanisms seem unnecessarily costly and are actually working to the detriment of the larger society. I consider the second issue to be much more vital.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:32 AM on February 22, 2012

Great thread. As someone who works in this area, this is already a terrific compendium of resources.

If you are anywhere near southern California, the annual Workshop on American Indigenous Languages (WAIL) is happening on April 26-28 at UCSB, and generally features both experts in this subject and a lot of very current work in the field discussed in the sessions. You would need to register. More info and registration at:

If you're really serious about it, getting a degree in linguistics is probably worth the trouble.
posted by spitbull at 4:59 AM on February 22, 2012

Also, if you live near a major university, find out if anyone is doing this work in the linguistics, anthropology, or Native/Indigenous Studies departments, and see if there are opportunities for volunteers, talks you could attend, etc.

This is an applied field, meaning that while there is plenty of literature, much of it is descriptive and not theoretical, and far more work is happening "on the ground" than is yet being written up. The National Science Foundation has an endangered languages grant program and their proposals are public record, so I'd recommend rooting around among their successful grant proposals to see who's doing the cutting edge stuff and what it looks like.

The main direction of all of this is "community based" research, meaning working with communities to help them develop the resources, infrastructure, and expertise to sustain and renew their own languages (which really depends on creating immersion environments for young children).
posted by spitbull at 5:03 AM on February 22, 2012

One more resource: the Digital Endangered Language and Music Network (DELAMAN):
posted by spitbull at 5:04 AM on February 22, 2012

I wrote a non-academic paper about this topic in 2009: Why we don't all speak Dutch. To me, the Papuan approach to language preservation stood out as making a lot of sense:
Is it realistic, then, to attempt to slow down the rate of language extinction? Are there positive steps that societies and governments can take, not just to prop up or document failing languages, but to nurture them? The most language-diverse nation, Papua New Guinea, a former colony of Great Britain and Australia which gained independence in 1975, offers the world a surprising example. Of its 823 languages, in 2001, 380 were being used in teaching the early grades of primary schools, and there were plans to add 90 more. (By the way another 300 or so languages are spoken on the other half of the island of New Guinea, Iran Jaya, which is part of Indonesia, meaning that about one-fifth of the world’s languages are spoken on this single island – it’s the world’s second largest island, about 15% larger than Texas.) The Papua New Guinea language program, developed beginning after independence and formalized in 1989, has had surprising results: the literacy rate has increased, not only in native languages but in the common language, English. Sixth grade test results have increased considerably compared to the former system of English immersion at all levels of primary school. Parents have become more willing to send their children to school; dropout rates have decreased, and more girls are staying in school. The choice of language for the initial grades is up to each local community.

Papua New Guinea offers schooling in about half its languages. In the U.S, with 162 indigenous languages, schooling is offered in a much smaller proportion – in fact, children are learning only about 20 of the surviving native languages in the US. The apparently enlightened policy in Papua New Guinea stems from the fact that none of the 800-plus language groups have anything approaching political dominance, so a set of policies has evolved that places a high value on mutual respect among the language groups and on the rights of groups to education and information in their own language. Consequently, the island nation has seen the extinction of only 10 of its native languages, although another 22 are on the brink. By contrast, in the United States 73 native languages are now extinct, and 68 more are listed as nearly extinct, typically with only a dozen or fewer known speakers. In Alaska alone, there are 20 indigenous languages, only two of which are now being learned by children as a first language at home. In Hawaii, of 240,000 native Hawaiians, only 500 learned Hawaiian as a first language, and all of these are older adults. A century ago, there were 37,000. Worldwide, 516 languages are in the nearly extinct category, so the U.S. accounts for almost 15 percent of those. The problem in the U.S. is not so much the pressure for English-only and Official English, as the lack of interest in, and support for, helping native American groups preserve their heritage.
posted by beagle at 5:57 AM on February 22, 2012

Great thread! Have you seen We Still Live Here?
posted by mareli at 6:19 AM on February 22, 2012

On the plus side, the big push to mainstream Irish here means that of our four national broadcast channels, one of them is in Irish. And that means we get Spongebob Squarepants and Clifford the Big Red Dog as gaeilge!
posted by DarlingBri at 6:39 AM on February 22, 2012

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