Institute aims to keep languages alive

It’s common to hear of activists working to save an endangered animal or plant. Some scientists travel the world to find ways to preserve a dying species.

Since June, people from across the globe have been on Kansas University’s campus doing just that: trying to save something that’s endangered. But these visitors aren’t working to keep a certain creature alive; they’re on campus to keep languages from becoming extinct.

The CoLang 2012 Institute on Collaborative Language Research, sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Documenting Endangered Languages Program, is a six-week opportunity for participants to become better trained in linguistic documentation. The institute takes place every two years at a different university.

The first two weeks of CoLang involve a class or track that participants take to learn about areas they feel they are struggling with in the language documentation process. Classes range from theory and grant writing to technology use. The second part of the institute is a practicum in either the Uda, Cherokee or Amazigh language. Each practicum uses the language as the base for fieldwork, and the purpose of the practicum is to learn better linguis­tic analysis and language techno­logy.

Participants at the institute are professors, activists and students, all of whom are interested in linguistics and the maintenance and strengthening of dying languages.

“For many of the community activists who attend, the survival of their language is threatened, and this institute is a way in which they can get some tools to (stop endangerment),” said Colleen Fitzgerald, a linguistics professor at University of Texas at Arlington who will be the CoLang 2014 director. ” … This allows people from language communities to take charge and get the tools they need and empower them to work on behalf of their own language.”

Linguists wear two hats: They are scientists, but they also do fieldwork, and that is the most important part of being a linguist, said Leland Kusmer, who is participating in the Uda practicum. Uda is an African language spoken primarily in Nigeria.

The fieldwork many times is useful to other researchers in the linguistics field; however, it isn’t always information a basic community can use. The institute teaches participants in the workshops and practicums to use the fieldwork by creating tools such as manuals.

“As linguists I think the biggest thing we can do is to make sure … to produce something useful to the community,” Justin Bender, a participant in the Amazigh practicum, said. The Amazigh language is spoken in North Africa, now primarily in Morocco.

Yamina El-Kirat, professor of lin­guistics in the English department at the University Mohammed V-Agdal in Rabat, Morocco, is the instructor of the Amazigh practicum. Amazigh is now the official second language of Morocco, but El-Kirat said that just because it is an official language doesn’t mean it is being used, and that the best way to maintain and strengthen an endangered language is to create awareness in the culture’s community and in other communities.

El-Kirat said that she and her team, two language consultants also fluent in forms of Amazigh, have proposed to host CoLang 2016. This way, other linguists from communities closer to Morocco will be able to attend CoLang 2016, but the institute will also be able to draw attention to the endangerment of the Amazigh language throughout North Africa.

The only concern from El-Kirat is the lack of financial means to host the institute, but she and her team hope that with support from American foundations and universities, hosting the institute in Morocco will be possible.