Students document disappearing languages

October 11th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Features, Multimedia, Oct. 2010  |  2 Comments

Western researcher visiting with Negrito tribespeople

Laura Robinson learns Dupaningan Agta from Negrito hunter-gatherers in the Philippines

Linguists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa are working on an extinction problem that, for many people, may mean the loss of their spoken words.

Linguistics Associate Professor Kenneth Rehg says that 94 percent of the world’s population uses a mere 6 percent of its 6,900 ancestral languages. Many of the rest are on the verge of disappearing as globalization and modernization push minority and under-documented languages aside for the more dominant languages. The National Science Foundation estimates that by the end of the century, half of the languages will disappear; other estimates are even more bleak.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa linguistics graduate student Apay Tang introduces and sings a song in the endangered Taiwanese language Truku.

Apay Tang introduces Truku language

“It is likely that linguists of the future will remember this century as a time when a major extinction event took place, as an era when thousands of languages were abandoned by their speakers in favor of languages of wider communication,” writes Rehg in the department’s Language Documentation and Conservation Journal, an open-access journal sponsored by the National Foreign Language Resources Center.

Rehg is an authority on the languages of Micronesia, where he has conducted extensive fieldwork over the past four decades. He has documented the Ponapean language, which is spoken on Pohnpei in the Caroline Islands of the Federated States of Micronesia, and published the Ponapean-English Dictionary and the Ponapean Reference Grammar.

“What is considerably less certain,” he continues, “is how linguists of the future will remember us. Will we be admired for having conscientiously responded to this crisis, or will we be ridiculed for having thoughtlessly ignored our evident duty?”

“Of approximately 7,000 languages in the world, we know virtually nothing about half of them. In this day and age, that’s an amazing gap in scientific knowledge,” says Laura Robinson, who earned her PhD in linguistics through UH Mānoa’s Language Documentation and Conservation program.

The UH Mānoa Department of Linguistics will host Strategies for Moving Forward, the 2nd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation Feb. 11–13, 2011. Pre-conference technical workshops and a post-conference field study in Hilo are planned.

The program provides much needed training to young linguists to undertake the essential task of documenting the many under-documented and endangered languages of Asia and the Pacific. With close to half the world’s languages spoken in Asia and the Pacific, the program’s emphasis on fieldwork and the only graduate program in language conservation and documentation in the United States, UH Mānoa is attracting some of the brightest.

In some programs, people study languages as though they are disembodied things not spoken by real people, Robinson observes. At Mānoa, she combined her interests in language and culture, doing extensive fieldwork. “Fieldwork on an undocumented language seemed quite appealing,” she says.

Robinson says there’s no one right way to document a language and no agreement on when a language is finally “documented,” but minimally, a language should have a dictionary, an extensive collection of texts with translations and a book on the grammar.

She did her doctoral fieldwork in northeastern Luzon in the Philippines documenting Dupaningan Agta, which is spoken by approximately 1,500 semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers belonging to the Negrito ethnic minority. Dupaningan Agta is one of the 24 languages spoken by Negrito groups, and none had ever been described in a book-length grammar.

Robinson has since traveled to a mountain village in Eastern Indonesia to study the Teiwa language as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“Fieldwork is always an adventure,” says Robinson, who spent time living in Negrito huts without walls. (The hunter-gathers have simple shelters since they are likely to move with the season.)

“Everyone has been very receptive to me, but reactions to the project are more mixed. In the Philippines, I found that the presence of an outside researcher was very prestigious for a group that is generally marginalized from Filipino society. But they were too busy worrying about their day-to-day subsistence to be concerned about language. I tried to show them that their language had some of the early warning signs of endangerment, but people found it hard to believe that their language could ever go extinct,” she explains.

“In Indonesia, I’ve been working with a somewhat more educated population. People seem to realize that even though the languages are still being spoken today, they may not be in the future. They are very keen to see dictionaries and collections of texts.”

researcher interviewing a native speaker of Mortlockese

Emerson Odango, left, works with Liperto Linge, a native speaker of Mortlockese in the Pakin Atoll

UH Mānoa PhD student Emerson Odango says that linguists don’t just “collect” pieces of a language as a means to an end. “Some people may think that language documentation is just about putting a language in print, taking pictures, making sounds recordings, backing up the data in a computer or something to that effect. In our program here at Mānoa, we’re trained how to be good analysts as well as good collectors. That is, we need to know how to look at the data and, based on our linguistic analysis, figure out what else needs to be investigated and recorded.”

In order to be good analysts, scholars are trained in all aspects of linguistic theory, including phonology (the way sounds are put together), morphology (the way words are put together) and syntax (the way sentences are put together), Odango says. They also need to know all of the best standards in preserving information, such as how to encode written information in an open-source format, how to record audio using the correct settings and how to upload data into archives.

While serving in the Peace Corps in the Federated States of Micronesia, Odango learned to speak Mortlockese, a Micronesian language primarily spoken in the Mortlock Islands by approximately 9,000 people. When he arrived in the Mortlock Islands, he discovered that all lesson books and educational materials were in Chuukese, which is the official language of Chuuk State and has more than 60,000 speakers.

“I am passionate about the development of educational materials in Mortlockese and other minority languages in Micronesia,” Odango says. “My students were so bright. I had to come up with creative ways to teach English grammar to them by making connections to their Mortlockese language skills. There are no learning materials available for them in Mortlockese. It was like sending a message to these students and teachers that their native language is not important, not worthy of being written down or taught in a classroom.”

Doing fieldwork in a familiar place proved to be an asset. “One of my consultants is the eldest man on Pakin Atoll, arguably one of the best storytellers. When I came back to Pakin and told him that I wanted to record stories from him, I thought that he would pick a few good ones and tell them to me in one sitting. Well, he came by for at least five different recording sessions, each night with one or two different stories to tell,” Odango says. “When you build a relationship like that with someone over time—he had been telling me stories ever since I first arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer—it’s not so much a matter of fieldwork as it is spending time with a friend. That’s the best part about fieldwork: being able to build personal relationships because of a common interest in language.”

Odango comes from a linguistically diverse heritage—he speaks Tagalog at home, but his mother speaks Ilocano and his father, Cebuano. He’d like one day to work with minority languages in Mindoro, the island in the Philippines where his parents grew up and went to school.

Students also do work at the Language Documentation Training Center on campus. Run by linguistic graduate students, the center introduces basic concepts in language documentation so speakers of under-documented languages will be able to document their own language.

Each participant is paired with a graduate student mentor, and the projects are added to the center’s website. Since 2004 the center has gathered information on more than 60 languages.

woman Apay Tang standing at blackboard


Center Director and PhD candidate Apay Tang is documenting a language close to her heart—her own language of Truku, which is spoken in Hualien, Taiwan. Tang sees the urgency of fieldwork first hand. “There aren’t many people under 30 who speak our language. Most people speak Mandarin Chinese,” she says.

In addition to a Truku word list and grammar guide, Tang has recorded songs and stories, which are posted on the center’s website. “The more I study my language scientifically, the more I appreciate it and see how beautiful it is,” she says. Inspired by the language immersion schools in Hawaiʻi, she would one day like to have a youth center where children can speak Truku.

Tang was inspired by her grandfather, Yudaw Pisaw, who told her how important their language was in retaining their cultural identity. The 83-year-old pastor is passionate about keeping his language alive. He serves on Tang’s dictionary committee and teaches the language to anyone who is interested. “He says we have to care. We have to do it,” says Tang.

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  1. Dr. Jan Teagle Kapetas says:

    October 17th, 2010at 3:36 pm(#)

    Good Morning!
    I read with interest, this article on the documentation of and activities being instituted towards the maintenance of at risk Indigenous languages. Here in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, the language most spoken by Indigenous Australians is Yindjibarndi.

    The Juluwarlu Group Aboriginal Corporation is a not-for-profit Yindjibarndi cultural organization dedicated to maintaining our culture and language – but although we can find funding for many other aspects of our cultural maintenance and community development work – we struggle desperately to do our language maintenance work because we cannot afford to house and pay a full-time linguist. (Currently we ‘borrow’ a linguist part-time from another organization) – but we would love to have someone on-board full-time as we publish books/ film documentaries and other language resources for our people.

    Anyone out there with a passion – and Indigenous research & language maintenance interests is invited to contact us – see our website!

  2. laura ierago says:

    October 29th, 2010at 7:25 pm(#)

    Good day! I a person from Sonsorol Island, an outer island of Palau. There are about 500 of us Sonsorolese in the entire world. Our language is different from the majority Palauan language. It is related to the outer islands of Yap and the some of the eastern Carolines (Chuuk, Pohnpei).

    A group of us have begun compiling words of our language. We have been doing this on and off for over a year. We are looking for a linguist who can help us document our language in a useable manner.

    We fear loss of our language. It is apparent that we are losing it and really fast. This is because most of us have moved to Koror, Palau away from our island, so we have learned Palauan and English to be understood and to understand. Many of our children nowadays first learn English.

    If there is any way you can help us please contact me at my email.

    Sincerely, laura