Things you can do with outputs from language documentation projects: 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.

Our first Melbourne LIP for the year at our regular venue got off to a rocky start when the function room was usurped by the local Touch Football team. Fortunately, we had such an excellent turn out – especially of local honours and PhD students – that we were able to make do in the general area by breaking up into smaller groups to discuss this month’s topic.

Most of the points discussed below are from either the discussion I participated in, and the general summary discussion we had at the end. This means ideas and discussion points may not be attributed to the correct people, but you’re welcome to add clarifying remarks in the comments below.

Our topic of discussion this week was to consider what kinds of outputs we can create from language documentation projects. We narrowed this down in the discussion to the kind of outputs we can create that are relevant for language speakers and communities we work with, and decided to leave discussion of other outputs for another time. It was apparent that across all the groups there was a genuine concern to make what we do relevant to the groups of speakers that we work with. There were two main methods for creating outputs for communities, the first was to build them into the project from the beginning, and the second was to create opportunistic outputs once a project was under way.

Of those outputs that can be created from an existing set of project resources, a dictionary was one of the most frequently mentioned. With the use of MDF (Multi-Dictionary Formatter) in Toolbox, FLeX or LexiquePro, the making of a dictionary can happen in a few clicks. Of course, to do this requires that the lexicon collected is well structured, and that you understand form early on what the process should look like, but if you set things up well at the start this has very effective flow-on in terms of the time saved. More specific lexical lists – such as those focusing on flora or fauna can also be made in a similar way from an existing lexicon, provided you’ve caught more information than “a plant” or “a type of fish” for most of the items of this type. Likewise, collections of stories can be made relatively efficiently from existing Toolbox or Elan transcripts, as can subtitles for video material recorded.

While these types of outputs can be made in a relatively time-efficient manner, there are also outputs that people have made that require more work. Some people discussed requests for educational materials to teach the language, which can involve a large amount of work (and even though it is wanted, may not be used). Others talked about being requested to film events like the local football game, or helping to publish stories or a history of the community. Some of this may involve skills beyond a person’s regular skill set, such as video editing, orthography creation or book formatting.

While everyone was optimistic about the kinds of outputs that could be created, there was also a lot of discussion about the feasibility of some of these aspirations. Everyone certainly thought they were an important component of a linguist’s work, but given how little credit they receive as part of an academic model of language documentation, it is not possible to do everything we hope to. Trying to find a balance was something that we kept returning to.

Part of this is about negotiating with the community. This involves being realistic about constraints (there may be no use building a website if there is no electricity or internet in a village). It may also involve asking them to contribute time to the project as well, which may in turn involve training people. Of course, this would mean that you may also end up negotiate doing work that you might not really wish to do (such as translating texts into the language).

Many people discussed how, even if it does not feel like it at the time, these community-focused outputs can have longer term benefits. Nick Thieberger mentioned that the language learning materials he created for one group have only really been used a couple of decades after they were made. Others talked about how recording videos of local events lead to rich discursive or narrative data – either form the video itself or people narrating back events afterwards. Likewise, standardising items for a dictionary, or narrative, can give everyone involved in the project a more focused chance to consider data that has already been collected. Working with speakers on a language outside of our regular area of linguistic focus can also introduce us to new areas we may never have explored, such as ethnobotany, musicology or education. Thus, while there may not be immediate academic output, we can branch into new academic areas of inquiry.

If you have any community-focused projects you’ve created as part of a documentation project, and would like to reflect on that experience, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Our next Melbourne LIP will be in April, with the date and topic to be announced soon. If you can’t make it to Melbourne, then there’s always the new and exciting Brisbane chapter of LIP:

The first discussion session will be held at 7pm on Wednesday 27 March at the German Club, which is at 416 Vulture St, Woolloongabba.

Felicity Meakins will be facilitating a discussion based on the paper Contact languages
as “endangered” languages: What is there to lose? 
by Paul Garrett.

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