Monthly Archives: May 2007

What are linguists good for?

About two weeks ago our entire group attended the Workshop for American Indigenous Languages (WAIL) in Santa Barbara. There are 8 linguists on our team and 4 community language activists, making ‘our entire group’  a rather overwhelming, but nonetheless easy-going crew.

 We gave a group presentation on collaborative linguistics. What our presentation stressed was the necessity of forming a collaborative partnership between academics and communities in efforts to maintain and revitalize endangered languages.

 Our talk was the last one of the session on the last day of the conference. Now of course, the audience was hardly impressed with the linguists on the team, but the community language activists were literally pummeled with questions after the talk was over.

 One woman asked the language activists something like, “What one aspect of linguistics has been crucial to the development of your project?”  She said she wanted to know because she was interested in teaching linguistics to community activists and would like to know where to start. (I know that she was looking for an answer like, ” Oh it was morphology! Once I understood the morphology and how to break words apart into meaningful units everything else made sense!” I know that she really wanted to hear what part of linguistics was actually useful to people doing language work.)

However, the answer she got form our community language activists was not like this at all. Instead they responded by mentioning how enthusiastic the linguists always were about doing language work (they said something like, ” they keep showing up”), and how much they enjoyed meeting with us, and ultimately how much they trusted us. Later on at the party I heard someone fondly summarize their answer as “Trust and love. What are linguists really good for? Trust and love.”

At first, after hearing this, the academic in me was disappointed. There has to be something from my discipline which is more useful to language revitalization, right? I mean, I’ve been studying linguistics for over 5 years … was it all a waste of time? But then I got to thinking about how many negative things linguists have done throughout history … when it comes down to it, I ought to be overjoyed that there is a community that likes me and thinks I’m a trustworthy academic. In fact, in the end, maybe it’s not so bad to be known for that.

But the question still remains: what are linguists good for? I’m interested now to hear from other community language activists. Is the best thing we have going for us not so much our knowledge of language structure, but rather just our enthusiasm for language, and our willingness to assist in some way?

And what do the linguists think? Did you ever think you would be appreciated merely because you showed up? How does this influence the way you work on language projects?

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a few weeks now and I’d really like to hear from everyone.


Back in NM

Hey Sophus…

It was nice seeing you… in Santa Barbara… next place is Australia!…. right…

Good News

I have just heard that the United Nations has declared 2008 International year of  languages.! Nice one. They say:

“It will aim to promote unity through linguistic diversity. The Assembly called upon States and the Secretariat to work towards the conservation and defence of the world’s languages and requested the Secretariat to appoint a coordinator for multilingualism.

Representatives from several States made contributions. The Andorran representative said, “Protecting languages is one of the fundamental pillars of cultural diversity”.
Meanwhile, there was refreshing news for our Breton, Basque, Occitan and Corsican readers when the representative from France said, “The right to use your own language, the capacity to communicate and, therefore, to understand and be understood, the preservation of an inheritance that dates back centuries or even millennia, should be of prime importance to the United Nations”.
The idea of devoting a whole year to languages was proposed by Austria two years ago at the 33rd UNESCO General Conference held in Paris. (Eurolang 2007).”

This information was copied from here. There is also a press release from the United Nations here.

On the one hand the UN is putting its money where its mouth is and actually implementing its beliefs by making sure that all of the six official languages of the UN  (Spanish, English, Chinese, Arabic, French, and Russian) have all documents and services in these languages, and that linguist diversity is important.

On the other hand they offer very little about the state of indigenous and minority languages of the world explicitly. But I hope putting the idea out there will help get it on governments agendas…

Some other good news is that the:




In Washington DC, for more details about this click here.

The health of Australian Aboriginal people

The health of Australian Aboriginal people is in a dismal state, as the latest Oxfam report indicated, often comparable to ‘people in the world’s poorest nations’.  Check out this article published in the ABC news online:

Underlying history a factor in Indigenous health: academic

The co-author of a report to the World Health Organisation (WHO) says acknowledging the wrongs done to Aboriginal people would significantly improve their health.

The report by University of New South Wales researchers says while the past 100 years has brought overwhelming improvements in health for the western world, Aboriginal and Torres Strait people continue to suffer problems like leprosy.

Co-author Lisa Jackson Pulver from the university’s Indigenous Health Unit says social factors stemming from colonisation are very significant, including the Federal Government’s refusal to apologise for the past.

“One of the things that we’re looking at in the inequity picture is the ongoing intergenerational grief, if you like, an intergenerational problem that seems to be stemming because of a lack of acknowledgment,” she said.

Dr Jackson Pulver says social factors underlie the differences in health.

“You have to marry an increase in resources and very targeted programs along with other things that have a more emotional and other impact,” she said.

“Such as acknowledging what has gone on and acknowledging that we do need to mobilise some specific resources for for this population.”

This discussion is a constant undercurrent in Australia. But usually it is insinuating something like: why can’t Aboriginal people get it together..?

I am very pleased to read something that cuts to the heart of the issue. It also implies that there are underlying issues that need to be acknowledged and resolved in Australian to help us all move forward together. One of these issues is acknowledging that Aboriginal people had, and continue to have, a legitimate social and cultural world view that is different from mainstream Australia.

I think that reports like this also lend weight to the argument that language and culture are integral to the state of indigenous peoples health in Australia. It is amazing how difficult it is to ‘justify’ to the Australian government (and people) that Aboriginal languages are well worth investing time, money and expertise in, over the long term.