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Revitalizing Endangered Languages

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Review of  Endangered Austronesian, Papuan and Australian Aboriginal languages

Reviewer: Nicholas Williams
Book Title: Endangered Austronesian, Papuan and Australian Aboriginal languages
Book Author: Gunter Senft
Publisher: Pacific Linguistics
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Kilivila
Language Family(ies): Oceanic
Issue Number: 23.2382

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EDITOR: Senft, Gunter
TITLE: Endangered Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal languages
SUBTITLE: Essays on language documentation, archiving and revitalization
SERIES TITLE: Pacific Linguistics 618
PUBLISHER: Pacific Linguistics
YEAR: 2010

Nicholas J. Williams, Department of Linguistics, University of Colorado at Boulder

This book is a collection of papers originally presented at the 6th Conference
of the European Society for Oceanists (ESfO). The conference was themed 'Pacific
Challenges: Questioning Concepts, Rethinking Conflicts', and all the papers in
this volume were presented in a special session devoted to endangered languages
cultures of the Pacific. While 'endangered languages of the Pacific' may seem to
be a relatively specific research area, the contributions to this edited volume
demonstrate the enormous range of the topic and theoretical and applied
approaches to it. First, the range of languages included in the 'Pacific' and
'Oceanic' categories is itself quite large, including all Austronesian, Papuan
and Australian aboriginal languages, as well as languages of other families in
Southeast, South and East Asia. Second, responses to the issue of language
endangerment, since it started to enter the awareness of mainstream linguistics
more than 20 years ago now, have included not only descriptive and documentary
efforts but also attempts to maintain threatened languages, prevent endangered
languages from undergoing further language shift as well as to revitalize highly
endangered and extinct languages. This short edited volume does not attempt
comprehensive coverage of these kinds of efforts in the Pacific, but simply
presents some case studies and examples of work being done by linguists and
scholars in other disciplines to describe, document and preserve the many
endangered languages in the Pacific region.

The volume starts off with an introduction by the editor, Gunter Senft, known
for his work on Kilivila, the language of the Trobriand Islanders, based on over
30 years of research. In this chapter Senft frames the contributions within the
wider literature on language endangerment and language death. Much of the
discussion draws on previous work in this area, especially Crystal (2000),
including information on rates of language endangerment and death, proposed
stages of this process, suggested causes, prerequisites for preservation and
revitalization and the response of linguists and other scholars. Following these
introductory comments, he briefly summarizes each chapter and concludes by
reaffirming the complexity of the topic of language endangerment and the wide
ranging activities linguists and others are engaging in to deal with it.

The rest of this volume is divided into three parts (a smart move for a volume
covering such a wide range of issues). Part I focuses on the documentation of
endangered languages, Part II on archiving, and Part III on revitalization, what
Senft calls ''the three cornerstones of activities for endangered languages''
(p5). Each chapter focuses on a different language or set of languages from the
Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal language groups.

Darrell Tryon starts Part I with 'The endangered languages of Vanuatu'. This
chapter is a very brief overview of the language situation in Vanuatu, a country
with one of the highest language densities in the world (at least 110 languages
and a population of only 220,000). The chapter notes previous surveys of Vanuatu
languages and discussions of recent efforts by the Vanuatu government and
Vanuatu Cultural Center/National Museum and their ni-Vanuatu fieldworkers to
document local knowledge of endangered languages. Included is a list all Vanuatu
languages, as well as lists of extinct and endangered languages. Tryon makes an
important distinction between two categories of extinct languages in Vanuatu --
those whose names are remembered but for which little or no data is available
and those more recently extinct for which some information is available.

The next chapter, 'A field report on a language documentation project on the
Marquesas in French Polynesia', by Gabriele H. Cablitz, reports on a
documentation project undertaken in the Marquesas, a string of islands in French
Polynesia. The chapter provides a wealth of information on the sociolinguistic
situation and the state of language endangerment in the Marquesas. Cablitz
discusses several factors contributing to the endangerment of Marquesan,
including the colonization of the Marquesas by the French, Tahitian hegemony in
French Polynesia generally, problems with the French-based education system, and
the role of the relatively recent media revolution in the islands. She reports
that Marquesans are in a stage of language shift from Marquesan to French as the
everyday language, then discusses cultural and linguistic revival in the
Marquesas, highlighting the limitations of this revival, which has occurred
primarily via the medium of French. In light of these issues, a documentation
project has been conducted in the Marquesas in recent years. Marquesans'
reactions to the project have varied, from open enthusiastic engagement to
guarded secrecy of certain speech genres and linguistic and cultural knowledge.
Overall the project has been a success, though, and in conclusion the author
points to an observed change in recent years with regard young people's language
attitudes, which are now giving more attention and respect to Marquesan.

In chapter 4, 'Language endangerment: situations of loss AND gain', Ingjerd Hoëm
critiques some assumptions behind concern with endangered languages including
the idea that modern and western influences are corrupting and the most
authentic documentation of a language and culture must avoid non-native
contaminants. Her extended critique of these assumptions takes the form of an
analysis of some text types in modern Tokelau. Unlike many other languages in
the Pacific, Tokelau is not highly endangered, remaining the primary language of
communication in everyday settings in the three atolls where it is native.
However, certain speech genres are threatened and many children in the Tokelau
diaspora (e.g. in New Zealand) have turned to English. This leads Hoëm to
describe the Tokelau situation in terms of both 'language loss' and 'language
gain'. This possibility of new genres of written and/or spoken language in
endangered language situations is often overlooked.

Chapter 5, 'Culture change -- language change: missionaries and moribund
varieties of Kilivila,' represents the editor's own contribution based on more
than three years of field research on Kilivila and the Trobriand Islands between
1982 and 2004. Senft documents two endangered speech genres in Kilivila ('biga
baloma' and 'biga megwa'). He also takes this opportunity to evaluate the
overall level of endangerment of Kilivila and to consider carefully the notion
of language and cultural change with regard to these moribund ways of speaking.
While languages and cultures always change, there are specific reasons to mourn
the loss of many endangered languages, and in this case, endangered speech
genres. Senft points out that, unlike the dead languages of European antiquity,
most languages being documented today have never been written before, and any
moribund varieties will likely die without any written records, were it not for
the efforts of documentary linguists.

Part II is comprised of three chapters on issues related to the archiving of
documentary materials. The first chapter (chapter 6), Nick Thieberger's
'Linguistic preservation and linguistic responsibility: examples from the
Pacific', criticizes the often heard claim that linguists' documentation efforts
are 'saving' endangered languages. If we are to come anywhere close to actually
preserving these languages for posterity (whatever we might mean by 'saving'),
we linguists need to do much more than write reference grammars of the languages
we purport to 'save' or 'document'. Thieberger suggests some best practices for
archiving documentary records of endangered languages so that these records last
and remain accessible to both linguists and the communities they originate from.
The discussion is based on the author's experiences with PARADISEC, the 'Pacific
And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures'. He emphasizes
careful treatment of metadata and warns about inappropriate use of documented
materials if informed consent and information about access rights are not
obtained from speakers. The chapter ends with a discussion of some implications
for current fieldwork projects. He further suggests ways in which archived
materials may be linked together using predictable structure to produce richly
interlinked documents. These issues are of utmost importance to linguists
working with endangered languages whose responsibility it is to preserve the
best possible record of the language.

In chapter 7, 'Digital archiving -- a necessity in documentary linguistics',
Peter Wittenburg and Paul Trilsbeek share their experiences working for the
Technical Group at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen,
host of the language archive for the DOBES (Dokumentation bedrohter Sprachen --
Documentation of endangered languages) program. The authors discuss the
influence of digital technology on research in linguistics and on the
documentation of endangered languages in particular. The paper is similar to
Thieberger's, although they delve into more detail regarding the archiving of
documentary materials, as well as the current and potential users of archive
materials. They outline the architecture of a modern language archive and end
the paper with a lengthy discussion of advanced methods for providing access to
the resources held in language archives. This is a thorough discussion of the
nature of language archives and what language archives should strive for. It
points to several directions for future development in archive management.

Part II closes with a chapter by David Blundell, Michael Buckland, Jeanette
Zereke, Yu-Hsiu Lu and Andrew Limond entitled 'Empowering Pacific languages and
cultures mapping with applied case studies in Taiwan and the Philippines'. This
chapter presents several projects associated with the Electronic Cultural Atlas
Initiative (ECAI), started at the University of California, Berkeley. This
initiative attempts to connect different parts of the world through plotting
data from various kinds of research along with spatial-temporal data. The
projects discussed include (i) a digital atlas of languages of the Pacific, (ii)
a map of Formosan Austronesian languages, (iii) an interface to Cebuano library
catalogue records, and (iv) fieldwork on language and culture mapping of Lan-yu
(Taiwan) and the Batanes Islands (Philippines). These various projects represent
attempts at applying findings of research on endangered languages and making the
results accessible and viewable in a spatio-temporal format.

The book’s final section deals with revitalization efforts and issues involved
in the revitalization of endangered languages. The first is Margaret Florey and
Michael Ewing's 'Political acts and language revitalization: community and state
in Maluku'. This chapter focuses on the authors' efforts to document and
revitalize languages in Central Maluku, Indonesia. This area is characterized by
the highest rate of language endangerment in Indonesia, with as many as 50% of
the languages endangered. The authors discuss the effects of a period of civil
unrest in the region between 1998 and 2002, called the 'kerusuhan'. While the
violence during this period caused great damage to the local infrastructure and
introduced rifts between Christian and Muslim communities, efforts at
reconciliation in recent years have led to a never before seen interest in local
languages ('bahasa tanah') as part of the cultural heritage of Maluku and one
piece of reconciliation and rebuilding a Malukan identity. Following these
changes, the authors organized a training program for local teachers and
language activists to teach the methods of language documentation and
revitalization. The aim is for future documentation and revitalization projects
to be conducted by native speakers in Maluku, and the authors see this as a
model for similar efforts elsewhere.

In chapter 10, Jakelin Troy and Michael Walsh re-evaluate the language situation
in southeast Australia, where it has been widely assumed that all or nearly all
aboriginal languages are extinct. On the contrary, Troy and Walsh argue that
this view is mistaken in light of a range of recent documentation and
revitalization efforts in the three provinces (New South Wales, South Australia
and Victoria) which comprise southeast Australia. A handful of languages in this
area are now being taught and learned by aboriginal and non-aboriginal
Australians, as high as the university level. The authors emphasize the need for
indigenous consultation and control in any revitalization efforts.

The final three chapters volume are all concerned with the revitalization of
Māori in New Zealand. The first of these (chapter 11) by Sophie Nock, entitled
'Te reo Māori -- Māori language revitalization', provides a history of Māori,
focusing on the devastating impacts of colonization and the important efforts
made by Māori people in recent years. Nock gives an overview of Māori programs,
describing the 'Te Kohanga Reo' or 'Language Nests' which have become a model
for other revitalization programs, as well as the 'Kura Kaupapa Māori' and
'Wharekura' or 'Māori Language Schools'. Today there are even 'Te Whare
Wananga', Māori Universities. Māori is truly a language revitalization success

Chapter 12, by Diane Johnson, reports on a research project underway that aims
to evaluate claims that Māori students differ in terms of learning style
preferences. Entitled, 'Learning style preferences and New Zealand Māori
students: questioning folk wisdom', this chapter uses a standardized tool for
evaluating learning style preferences to test both Māori and non-Māori students
in New Zealand between the ages 10 and 14 (approximately). While Māori students
are often claimed to prefer oral, interactive and task-centered learning, the
preliminary results of this research suggest that learning style preferences
might be much more individual than culturally-based. Furthermore, certain
learning style preferences might develop as a product of the very learning
environment the children are exposed to in earlier elementary school years. This
kind of research has important implications for curricula development and the
teaching and learning of other endangered languages.

Finally, in chapter 13, 'Classroom-based language revitalization: the
interaction between curriculum planning and teacher development in the case of
Māori language', Winifred Crombie discusses development of a curriculum document
for the teaching and learning of Māori as a school subject in New Zealand.
Crombie outlines the process of drafting the curriculum document, as well as
some issues that arose in the process of review and how she responded to these.
The discussion will be valuable to anyone developing classroom curricula for
endangered languages in language revitalization programs elsewhere.

This volume makes an important contribution to the growing literature on
language endangerment and the responses of linguists (mainly documentation,
archiving and revitalization). It provides a wealth of information on particular
Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal languages. As a whole the book raises the
call for more and higher quality work on the enormous number of endangered
languages yet to be documented. It furthermore points to several ways we can
improve the work being done, namely by documenting all types of speech and the
cultural context of the language, by looking for new emerging varieties or
styles, by paying careful attention to the quality of our documentation and
archival issues. A theme that runs through many of the contributions is the
importance of ethical research and consideration of the communities efforts and
interest (or lack thereof) in documentation and language maintenance projects.
Overall this is an excellent volume which raises many important questions and
motivates the coming generation of linguists to produce a very high quality
record of the languages we still have.

My main criticism is that it reads much more like a set of conference
proceedings than a thematically well-developed volume. In fact, all the papers
were originally conference papers presented at the 6th Conference of the
European Society for Oceanists (ESfO). Aside from the editor's introductory
comments in Chapter 1, which frame the twelve contributions and provide an
overall theme for the book, there is little to bring the book together as a
whole and make it cohere. While language endangerment is indeed a wide field,
the responses to it represented in this book appear to span too wide a range to
fit comfortably in one volume. While the first few chapters will be of much
interest to other linguists undertaking language documentation projects in the
Pacific region, the chapters in Part III on revitalization of Māori will be less
relevant (and vice versa). Furthermore, while some of the issues in the
archiving chapters are important for all linguists in the field of language
documentation to consider, they each go into perhaps too much detail for anyone
other than an archivist. Another issue is the lack of an index, which would be
useful considering the range of topics covered.

To be certain, the entire book is an enjoyable and quick read for anyone
concerned with any of the myriad issues involved in language documentation and
revitalization. Nevertheless, it might have been improved by linking the papers
together a bit more and more attention to coherence.

Crystal, David. 2000. Language death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nicholas Williams is a PhD student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA. He is beginning a project to document language and social interaction in Kula, an endangered non-Austronesian language of eastern Alor, Indonesia. His doctoral dissertation research takes an interactional approach to place reference in Kula. His interests include language documentation and description, Papuan and Austronesian languages, interactional linguistics, conversation analysis, and linguistic anthropology.