Linguistics in the popular media: a LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last night’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

This month’s Linguistics in the Pub meet-up in Melbourne focused on a topic relevant not only to those involved in language documentation but to all linguists – How can we engage the general public in what we do. Although the discussion was ostensibly lead by Ruth Singer and myself, everyone was able to bring their experiences to the discussion and this summary includes the wisdom of all those who attended, and even someone who didn’t.

We started out by looking at communicating with the public using the blogosphere. Blogging has been a useful tool for academics looking to reach a broader audience due to the relatively small overhead compared to other forms of media and the general voraciousness of the internet-reading public. We started off by discussing the more general linguistics blogs out there. While those such as Language Log and Johnson have large readerships they do focus heavily on English, and largely on debates around English usage and pedantry. Fully (Sic) in Australia has a much broader and inclusive focus and should be used more by linguists who wish to share their work in a way that is inclusive, accessible but not ‘dumbed down.’

In language documentation more specifically there is a small but growing genre of ‘fieldwork blogs.’ Some good examples of these include Anggarrgoon, That Munanga Linguist, Consonant Aspirations, and Iltyem-Iltyem. I talked briefly about my fieldwork blog and how I found it a great way to engage with friends and family, and an unintended wider audience, while away for extended periods. Instead of just disappearing I can share, in a very non-academic way, the trials, tribulations and triumphs of my field adventures (internet access permitting). Unfortunately however, fieldwork blogs tend to suffer in that they tend to languish when the fieldworker is back at home. Another important blog for language documentation is this very blog. Nick Thieberger encouraged us all to use this blog more as an opportunity to let people know what language documentation work is being done. He also suggested that the University of Hawaii’s Linguistics Department is an excellent example of a department with a good web presence – those visiting the website can quickly and easily see what they’ve been up to recently.

The conversation then moved into a more general discussion about how to balance the need to connect with an audience and to remain faithful to your work. There was a general feeling that linguists tend to be too harsh on each other for how we present our work to the general public, although perhaps this is just a kind of academic tall poppy syndrome found only in Australia. There was also concern that linguists tend to be far too modest for their own good. While scientists will often have their modest findings dressed up with headlines claiming they’ve “solved X”  or “cured Y” linguists tend to avoid such hyperbole where possible.

We read Claire Bowern’s amusing but sadly true “formula” for writing a story on language death – from starting with the poignant anecdote about an elderly speaker to wrapping up with a trite cliche – and talked about how stories about endangered languages should be framed instead. Claire’s point from another post that these kind of stories tend to focus on the linguist, when it would be nicer for them to be about the speakers, framed much of this discussion. It was also suggested that writing more proactive and positive stories could counteract this stereotypical representation.

We then talked about other stereotypical features of popular press articles on language – how often the “expert” in such stories are voice coaches or “body language experts.” Linguists need to make a place for themselves in such stories. Just because our personal specialty is not on English expression doesn’t mean we don’t have the professional skills to bring our expertise to such an area.

Unlike print media and blogs, radio is a slightly less fertile area for linguists to expand into. Still, it’s good to seek out community and local stations and see if they have any programs that might be interested in a story about language. Podcasts were also suggested as a way of connecting to an audience – since most of us have some basic audio-editing skills there’s no reason why a podcast, like a blog, can’t be a DIY project. In this part of the conversation Nick Thieberger also mentioned the “Hypotheticals” game that he presented at an ALS conference some years back. He said it worked well because it was humorous as well as educational and he lamented that too much of what linguists try to do when speaking to a more generalist audience lacks humour. The Speculative Grammarian was brought up as an example of satirical linguistics but the punchlines require rather too much technical knowledge for a layperson.

Moving up the budgetary scale to television. We mainly discussed Stephen Fry’s “Planet Word” that is currently screening in the UK. Most of the blog responses from linguists have been to nick-pick at the show. No populist show is ever going to satisfy a professional, and instead we should be glad that there is an opportunity for people to engage with language and be prepared to help them do so.

Felicity from RNLD was our special guest for the evening. She told us all about RNLD’s excellent media repository, accessible through their website. She talked about the breadth of stories that find their way into the popular press.

For those of us who work at Universities and other research facilities we often have resources available to us to help is promote our work that we rarely use. There are often PR departments that can help write press releases and intra-institution publications are a great way to practice getting your message out. The Conversation is a good example of such a publication; set up by a group of Universities in Australia, it is an online publication trying to bridge the gap between quality journalistic reporting and academia.

In much the same way that The Time Team made archeology dynamic linguists need to find a way to sell themselves. Aidan Wilson pointed out that having accessible side-projects can be a good way of doing this. His mobile phone accessible Wagiman dictionary took relatively little time to create but it and the other dictionaries created as part of the Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries generated a lot of popular media attention and educated many about the status of indigenous languages in Australia.

As this point in the evening we heard from our first LIP correspondent contributor. Piers Kelly, who was instrumental in the setting up of Fully (sic) and who is a passionate advocate of the need to share our work with a wider audience than our colleagues, touched on many of the topics that we have discussed above. He pointed to a great article by John Armstrong in the Griffith Review that touches on the more general issue of the Humanities lacking the ability to reach the general public. Another thing that he pointed out was that universities need to accept non-peer reviewed publications as part of the overall contribution to research dissemination. Nick Thieberger argued that this was already occurring as part of the goals of “service” and “outreach.”

All of these sound like great ideas, but trying to implement them all when our time commitments are usually already strained can be a big ask. Getting into the habit of writing a press release when findings are published or you win a grant is a good start, as is writing an occasional contribution to a group blog (such as this one). With practice writing for a generalist audience these things get easier.

Feeling sufficiently enthusiastic after our discussion, we turned our thoughts to how we could implement what we’d discussed. As we were largely a University of Melbourne group we brainstormed ways to make people more aware of the work being done in our department, balancing up the need to share our work with a process that could be sustained without too much work for anyone. When we finalise the details we’ll let you know how it goes.

6 Comments

  1. James McElvenny says:

    Great post!

    I think that communicating outside our own professional circles and contributing to general public education is one of the most important things we can do. I agree that part of the problem is the amount of negativity among linguists – sectarian violence between paradigms and denunciations of popularisations.

    We really should address a public audience directly – which is very easy to do in this age of technological marvels like the steamship and the electric telegraph. As you mention, there are several existing multi-contributor blogs – including Fully (sic) and this one – and their editors would probably be overjoyed to receive more contributions. If you guys at Melbourne decide to start some sort of program, it might be best to see if some of the existing blogs would be suitable hosts – it’s probably better to have a few well-known places that people can go to to read about language than a thin scattering all over the internet.

  2. Wamut says:

    Great topic and great post.

    I think we can definitely be more active in getting our thoughts, ideas and research out to the general public in a palatable and hopefully entertaining way. There are lots who do it well – aside from what’s mentioned above, people like Roly Sussex and Kate Burridge deserve a mention. The ourlanguages.net.au website is a good place to get media on Australian languages. indigenoustweets.com is a great innovation promoting minority languages.

    For those of us in the university system, all of our unis have media offices who can provide media training or can help with doing up a press release if you want to try and get a story out there. I doubt that many linguists at all have ever utilised the media training available to us (me included).

    Dare I say it, but I do think Linguistics could do with having a sexier image. Where’s our PR machine? I better watch Gruen Planet tonight for some tips… Seriously though, I think it’d be great if a body like ALS started working with media and doing some PR.

    As for me, I’ve always been an attention-seeker, so I like putting myself out there and being a bit of a fame whore. I genuinely love what I do and naively think the rest of the world should think it’s as exciting as I do. This was my latest effort: http://www.abc.net.au/rural/nt/content/201110/s3337824.htm (it pays to live next door to your local ABC reporter!)

  3. The awareness of linguistics and what it has to offer amongst the wider public is very low. If the media had consulted sociolinguists rather than a ‘speech coach’, there’d be no story here:
    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/akshully-the-word-from-the-halls-of-guvment-is-a-mangled-mess-20111020-1mab3.html

  4. Piers Kelly says:

    I tend to think nit-picking ought to be resisted as much as possible, but there are ways of doing it that are fun and engaging (as opposed to defensive, self-righteous etc). At the moment I’m reading Robert Lane Greene’s You are what you speak, where he does an amusing but very forgiving exposé of Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry.

    To be published on the web doesn’t guarantee an audience by any means — it takes patience to build a readership and it’s a real advantage to have a patron. In the case of Fully (sic) we were given a huge helping hand by Crikey. So I endorse James’ comment above. While diversity of approaches is to be encouraged, to reach a wider audience it can be a wise strategy jump on an existing bandwagon.

    If any academic supervisors are reading this, please suggest to your students to have a go at pitching their research to a public audience. It’s a useful exercise in its own right and there are media venues—such as ABC local, Fully (sic) and others—that are very happy to publish.

    I want to emphasise the point I made in absentia at LIP that we should consider writing press releases for all books and articles as a matter of routine. This, of course, doesn’t guarantee a call-back or publication in the media but its a start. Newspapers receive over 100 press releases per day so it helps to have the letterhead of a university (or RNLD?) on there and to tailor the content to the masthead.

    @Wamut ‘Linguistics could do with having a sexier image. Where’s our PR machine?’ Maybe this is a role for RNLD to consider.

  5. Peter Austin says:

    Thanks for a nice post about your LIP discussion. I posted about related issues on this blog a little while ago — see http://www.paradisec.org.au/blog/2010/11/the-public-wavelength/.

    Another thing we do at SOAS is build this kind of activity into the curriculum — we have a course called “Applied Language Documentation” that includes discussion on “communicating about our work” that has been an assessable assignment topic at various times. We also encourage students to do podcasts on SOAS radio, and we are in discussions with the radio station about starting an endangered languages radio broadcast as a regular feature. We have also talked to them about introducing a new MA half-unit in language and media that would include training in programme production.

    Our students also participate in Endangered Languages Week and their London Language Landscape project attracted a lot of public attention, because visitors could contribute immediately to it. An interactive web version of the project is planned for launch in January 2012.

  6. RNLD says:

    There are some great suggestions here. As has already been said, linguistics does need to get itself out there more effectively. In regards to the suggestion that RNLD could be a branch of the PR machine, we are in the process of expanding our outreach and advocacy roles through different media, so this discussion is quite timely.

    Piers’ suggestion about routinely writing press releases is a great one. RNLD would be happy to receive press releases to consider releasing under our letterhead when the subject falls under RNLD’s mission, and comes from a RNLD member. RNLD’s website has a ‘How to write press releases’, and we are about to add some examples of effective press releases.

    In the last few days this media release http://www.minister.regional.gov.au/sc/releases/2011/october/sc126_2011.aspx from the Minister of the Arts got picked up quickly by UNPO and appeared as a story.

    A large range of articles about linguistics is reaching various media outlets. RNLD’s ‘Languages In The News’ section of its website has links to many articles about endangered languages and language documentation. With the current 24-hour news cycle journalists need more stories, and it can be beneficial to build relationships with reporters. This is being done effectively in regional areas (Greg Dickson is a good example of this), and great articles are being published as a result.

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