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.


11 responses to “What are linguists good for?

  1. Thank you for this delightful posting! We should listen to those community language activisits. If our interactions with language communities are not about “trust and love” then we are missing an opportunity. What, after all, leads to voluntary language shift in the first place but a lack of that stuff? So if we do it right, our work can serve as a sort of corrective, just by the fact that we are doing it. I have come to this conclusion after reflecting on my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, with villagers who have a sense of abandonment by outsiders. I would be curious to know how your situation is (and is not) parallel.

  2. tsindipovi

    It’s great to hear from you! I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

    In my experience with Native American communities, there isn’t so much a sense of abandonment as there is a sense of distrust of outsiders. Of course, this distrust exists because many academics in the past have unmercifully exploited and used the communities (their resources, their culture, their language, you name it), taking much and leaving very little. As a result of these types of practices, often community members are really wary of any outsider coming into the community.

    In response to this, what our group has done from the very beginning is make sure that the community language activists take on leadership roles in our project. The linguists working on the project acknowledge that the language and the culture belong to the community, and that as outsiders we have no claim over it. As such, the language activists determine the direction and the goals of all of our work. The linguists are more like assistants or consultants than anything else.

    And while I believe very strongly in the validity of this approach, I still wrestle with the idea of how it can be instituted in cases where a linguist has set out to do fieldwork in a particular community. Obviously, fieldwork is a necessary part of linguistic study, and we are all expected to do it at some point or another, so how can we go about it and still maintain that the community itself has control and ownership over the language? Should linguists doing fieldwork submit to the authority of community language activists? What if there are no language activists when the linguist arrives in the community? Is it possible for linguists to work under the authority of an indigenous community and still meet the requirements of academic institutions?

    These are not necessarily questions you have to answer, they are just the thoughts that plague my mind as I lie awake at night contemplating my place in the discipline I have chosen.

    Please tell us more about your experiences in Papua New Guinea. We’d love to hear from you! Perhaps you’d consider becoming an author on this blog?

  3. This is a great post! I think this is something that linguists have to struggle with (to do community work or research work?!), when ideally we should be able to manage both.
    In the community I work in in AustraliaI think we were managing to do both, though in that case there was a language centre and a full time linguist devoted to language projects in the community. After working there I had some ideas for a PhD and with the help of a good friend and collegue now sadly passed away, I think we struck up a good balance.
    Though I am sure this is different for every situation, I think it would help if universities recognised community based work as important and ‘value adding’, and would offer some acknowledgement or support of this work to linguists…
    I was also very struck in that talk by the very same thing- that trust was the most important thing you have built together- and I think you guys should all be very proud- you are changing the landscape of ‘linguist’ ‘language speaker’ relations in the US. Go Tewa language group!

  4. Thank you all for your wonderful posts. I agree that we should be very proud that trust has been established between the Nanbé language activists and the linguists at UNM. I was totally flattered that the question was answered in that way, instead of the classic/expected “morphology answer”. I also agree with Sophie that academic institutions should support this type of work more than they do. Without establishing a positive and trustworthy relationship with the communities around the university, the university (from a university perspective) loses out in may ways: low student enrollment from those communities, little or no grant money coming in for research purposes, eventual loss of potential research material to further theoretical academic study. We all know this already, but it is apparent to me that what we need to do is convince universities that quality community work is economically beneficial to the institution. Universities are businesses, unfortunately, and they are not always modeled in a fair trade framework. What seems appropriate is something to the effect of a shift from free trade to fair trade.

  5. Interesting questions:

    Should linguists doing fieldwork submit to the authority of community language activists? What if there are no language activists when the linguist arrives in the community?

    One way around it is for linguists to work with communities that have expressed a desire for whatever work to be done on their language(s). That way the linguist is just responding to a need or request for help. Having a language centre or a body representing the interests of language and culture can be a great tool for this – hopefully they’d have project ideas ready to go and then the linguist can go to a community knowing they will be doing something the community has said they would like to see happen.

    As for ‘submitting’ to language activists, fieldwork is always about two-way negotiating, both the activists and linguists should clearly understand that both parties have outcomes in mind and will need to negotiate how to best achieve each other’s outcomes (that is, if they clash – as they usually seem to!).

    The left-wing compassionate middle-class linguist can sometimes fall into the trap of ‘submitting’ to the needs of the needier, casting your own priveleged needs aside. We can still do a great deal of good, without losing focus on our own social, cultural and vocational needs.

    My two cents… feel free to disagree!

  6. “The linguists working on the project acknowledge that the language and the culture belong to the community, and that as outsiders we have no claim over it.”

    What rubbish! How can anyone own a language? This is like saying the German and Austrian people own German or the Brazilian and Portuguese people own Portuguese or Chinese people own Mandarin!

    I am glad I am not a linguist! No community owns their culture. If some one from Kansas wants to learn how to tango or sing Celtic songs, does he or she have to get permission from the so-called owners–the Celtic or Argentinian people? How absurd!

    Culture and language are to be shared and treasured.

    Dozens or hundreds of Australian aboriginal languages will die out unless people from
    all continents USE the language to further our own cultural expression! We will use the languages–all it takes for an aboriginal language to survive and thrive if it has 5 or 10 speakers now is to find 20 or 30 people in Europe, Asia and the Americas who are willing to learn and use the language, in e-mails, blogs, and in person!

    Do I have to have a license from the peoples of Australia in order to play a didgeridoo?

    Do I have to have a license from the Celtic peoples to listen to some Irish music?

    Linguists are trained and skilled in gathering the words and grammar of a language, alive or defunct.

    We the people are SKILLED in propogating and continuing languages–look at Hebrew!

    Why not set a baseline of 100 speakers worldwide for each Australian aboriginal language?

    On the Internet, this can be done!

    Think big!

    Purity is great, but people avidly learning and continuing a language is better!


  7. Fair Trade Ideas.

    1. BLOG. Train a native speaker in each Australian aboriginal language to use the internet and moderate a blog, where people on all 7 continents are encouraged to learn the language and post ideas and poems IN THAT LANGUAGE! The language would expand by gaining new speakers/bloggers and we would be creating one good job for a native speaker of that language.

    2. KARAOKE.

    Produce a Karaoke tape/CD of 10 or 12 songs in the aboriginal language, with the words floating on the screen as the NEW speakers sing along and learn the language by SINGING! The new singers/learners would also be assisted with a little book that has the words/English translation and pronunciations in it.

    THINK outside the University box!


  8. very interesting point of view, has never been conceived of this

  9. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  10. hi. i have done a degree in sociolinguistics and i have been stuck cos i dunno what to do with it. i love the relationship of language and culture and i would really like to work in the preservartion of mother tongue language but dont know where to start. its really exciting to see others working for this

  11. Pingback: Endangered Languages and Cultures » Blog Archive » (W)rite of passage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s