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Why researching languages in the family is complicated and how it can be the most entertaining thing – MLIP blog April 2017

MLIP blog April 2017

Alan Ray recaps the April Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub (MLIP) a monthly discussion group. This month’s MLIP was held in conjunction with Language practices and language policies in multilingual contexts workshop, University of Melbourne 6-7 April 2017

Leading the discussion was Judith Purkarthofer, Multiling: Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan, University of Oslo

She summarised the discussion in the announcement on the RNLD blog as below:
This discussion will start with experiences in researching family languages, policies and practices in a Northern European context. National languages, minority languages and languages of migration are considered a public question, but they are also very much a private question for families and family members.

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You’ve got a skin name- so use it! Promoting language diversity in the field – MLIP blog March 2017

MLIP blog March 2017

Ruth Singer recaps the March Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub (MLIP) a monthly discussion group.

On 1st March 2017, Alex Marley (ANU/Wellsprings) led a discussion on promoting language diversity in the field. The announcement for the discussion session looked like this:

You’ve got a skin name- so use it! Promoting language diversity in the field

As linguists, we are occasionally called upon to provide professional advice and consultation to government or community organisations. However, how our advice is received, implemented or interpreted can be disappointing and frustrating.

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Social Media and Language Documentation – a MLIP recap

Jonathon Lum recaps the June Linguistics in the Pub (LIP), a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Despite the cold Melbourne weather, June’s LIP attracted a good number of linguists who came together to discuss the topic ‘Social media and language documentation’, led by Peter Schuelke of the University of Hawaii. Under discussion was the potential for social media to play a role in language documentation, maintenance and revitalization. While social media is a largely untapped resource in these fields, it also presents certain logistical and ethical issues, many of which were considered throughout the discussion.
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Guiding language consultants’ individual projects: Negotiating organizational issues in the field – a MLIP recap

Rosey Billington recaps the March Linguistics in the Pub (LIP), a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

In Melbourne, the first Linguistics in the Pub (LIP) of 2016 was held on the 23rd March at University Hotel. Our topic was “Guiding language consultants’ individual projects: Negotiating organizational issues in the field”, and the discussion was led by Elena Mihas (James Cook University/U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Linguists involved in language documentation work closely with users of a language to collect data during fieldwork, but there are additional possibilities for engaging in productive work with language consultants, both while the researcher is there, and in between visits. Building on previous LIP discussions of supporting community researchers and models of community engagement, we considered some of the ways scaled-up language documentation work might be implemented, with mutual benefit. Some background information, and links to suggested readings, can be found with the event details.

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MLIP recap July 2015: Language in education in multilingual contexts: beyond ‘mother tongue’ education

A recap of last night’s Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub, by Kellen Parker van Dam (La Trobe University).

The topic of MLIP was ‘Language in education in multilingual contexts: beyond ‘mother tongue’ education’ and the discussion was led by Felix Ameka (Leiden University).

Topic and description as posed by Felix Ameka in the original MLIP announcement:

Linguists promote the benefits of “mother-tongue” education, especially in the first years of primary education. Linguistic human rights advocates argue that if a child is not taught in their first language, then the child’s basic linguistic human rights are violated (e.g. Babaci-Wilhite 2014). However the notion of the ‘mother tongue’ is inappropriate in highly multilingual contexts (see e.g. Lüpke and Storch 2013). In these contexts, children can be disadvantaged by ‘mother tongue’ policies in education that favour the use of a single standardised language in education. I will discuss the case of Ewe-speaking children in Sokode, Ghana who use a colloquial Central Ewe variety at home and struggle with the standard Ewe used in the school. I advocate a multi-lectal, multilingual, multi-modal approach to language in education that eschews an opposition between so called exoglossic national languages and local indigenous languages.
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Issues in the documentation of newer language varieties

Jonathan Schlossberg recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Linguistics in the Pub on Wednesday 29th of October, 2014 centred around the theme: Issues in the documentation of newer varieties. Felicity Meakins (University of Queensland) led the discussion. The announcement and short background reading are here.

This session marked the 5th anniversary of Linguistics in the Pub. Organiser Ruth Singer would like to extend a thank you very much to all participants, including ‘retired’ co-organiser Lauren Gawne. Lauren’s gap has been partly filled by the Monash PhD students coalition: Harriet Shepard, Jonathon Lum, Alan Ray and Jonathan Schlossberg (University of Newcastle) will be co-organising when they are not in the field. Interstate/international visitors – don’t forget let me know when you’re coming to Melbourne so we can have you along too!
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Sharing the load? Problems with the ‘lone depositor’ model for the archiving of materials in endangered language archives

Ruth Singer recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Traditionally collections in endangered languages archives are identified with a single depositor. This depositor is typically a researcher, who is not a member of the community in which the recordings were made. This depositor decides on access restrictions to the materials, ideally in consultation with the community. There are a number of quite separate problems with this position, for those who manage archives and for those who find themselves in the position of lone depositor. In this era of collaborative fieldwork, we can also ask whether the lone depositor model is the best one for communities who speak endangered languages. One suggestion is to make collections open access so that the depositor does not need to be contacted. Another suggestion is to name a number of depositors for each collection, so that no single person has sole responsibility. In this LIP we will discuss potential solutions to the problems of the lone depositor model in the light of participants experiences as depositors and archivists.
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Open access and intimate fieldwork

A report on the Linguistics in the Pub discussion Tuesday 11th March, Prince Alfred Hotel, Grattan St, Melbourne.

This Linguistics in the Pub discussion brought together fieldworkers who do research in Indigenous Australia, Africa, South Asia, Papua New Guinea and Nepal, as well as a computational linguist who has developed software to automate language documentation. The linguists were not all Australian, in fact we were lucky to have four participants who identify as European who are living in Australia, temporarily or permanently. The linguists’ experience in language documentation ranged from between 6-30 years and between them had deposited in the digital archives: DoBeS, Paradisec and ELAR. The timeliness of this discussion is demonstrated by David Nathan’s very recent ELAC post on the same topic.
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Useful and interesting websites and apps about endangered languages: July LIP

Ruth Singer recaps some of the interesting points of this week’s Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub, an informal gathering of linguists and language activists that is held monthly in Melbourne

In this month’s LIP and last month’s participants shared in their latest discoveries in the world of apps and online resources. June’s meeting focused on software and apps that are useful to our work in doing language documentation. July’s meeting looked at websites and apps that are interesting because they give us some insight into what our co-workers are doing, providing inspiration for our own ideas. We basically surfed the internet together, with the help of a large tv on the pub wall and an iphone’s wifi hotspot.

The session began with a tour of three websites that each make available materials on a specific endangered language and are favourites of mine. These sites draw together resources produced over a period of time, showing how they relate to one another, as well as incorporating current blogs and forums. 

Murray Garde’s Bininj Gunwok site makes the language itself prominent as all the menu headings are in Bininj Gun-wok – you can swipe your mouse over them to see the English heading. This site has been used by a high school student I work with in northwest Arnhem Land, to teach herself how to read and write in her mother tongue. The usefulness of the site to a wide audience that includes native speakers, linguists and non-linguists has inspired me to plan for a similar site on the Mawng language. The Bininj Gunwok site has a download area where you can download a book on  the Kunwinjku dialect of Bininj Gun-wok by SIL linguists Steve and Narelle Etherington – a publication that was previously very hard to get. The blog area is regularly updated by Murray and provides much insight into the various interesting projects that he is working on, from ethnobiology to traditional fire management. No doubt the local communities Murray works with enjoy viewing the audiovisual files available on the blog. The blog has materials to support people who want to learn Bininj Gun-wok. Murray regularly uploads sound files, videos and transcriptions. These provide good transcription exercises. Learners of Bininj Gun-wok can also subscribe to regular instructional emails.
The Maori language site Te whanake shows what is possible for well-resourced endangered Indigenous languages. There is everything you could ever want here to support Maori language maintenance and Maori language revitalisation. There are videos, forums, online learning modules, online dictionary and pointers to the Maori dictionary app which looks wonderful, with sound files and images.

Beta mac version:

The sites above are a ones that linguist John Giacon has been involved with, providing a large range of resources for Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay languages of northern New South Wales, Australia. These resources can be accessed both online and through downloading. These two different access options have different advantages. Online resources can generally be accessed regardless of the operating system you use, although they are usually designed to work particularly well on one kind of device. Downloadable resources have the advantage that they can be used in communities which do not have reliable internet access. As long as they can be downloaded once, they can be accessed anytime without internet access.

We also chatted a bit about all the new mobile phone language learning apps around. There are so many that reviews are beginning to appear:

It’s no coincidence that the language learning apps profiled are all for Indigenous languages that are spoken in countries where Indigenous language initiatives receive substantial government funding: Australia, Canada, New Zealand. This highlights the need for cheap and good mobile apps which you can plug data from any language into. We have the free lexique pro software for creating online dictionaries but lexique pro sites do not view that well on a mobile internet browser. Free or cheap open-source apps are needed for the majority of endangered languages which are spoken in countries where little or no funding is available for these kinds of initiatives.

Lauren Gawne introduced us to her current fave site:

This blog, written mainly by Margaret Carew, is a prequel to the forthcoming online dictionary of central Australian Indigenous sign language. The blog tracks the progress of the Arandic sign languages project. Not a fieldwork blog, this blog discusses how the author works through various workflow and data management issues, in producing a dictionary of a visual language whose entries include videos of each sign. Lauren particularly appreciated the insight it provides into this process, which we all largely struggle along alone. Sharing how we work mundane but necessary things out could help reduce the hugely time-consuming nature of these tasks a bit by preventing us from reinventing the wheel. The site makes the collaborative nature of the project more apparent, featuring Indigenous linguist Liz Ellis’ explanations of the differences between signs and many photos of the project team hard at work. One other motivation for the site, apparently, is to help the participants come to grips with what it means to share information on the internet – in terms of your image and your knowledge and culture. Many participants live in communities without ready internet access. Negotiating the many ethical issues in putting such a dictionary online is much easier when participants and stakeholders a clearer idea of what it will mean for their images, voices, language and culture to be available online.

The discussion of the the Iltyem-Iltyem site led to some suggestions that linguists need a central site where we share such information such as a stack exchange or something like the physics arxiv: Certainly we have many sites where we swap information, such as the RNLD list, the Toolbox google group and other sites, so probably we’re doing ok as it is, we’re not a very unifed bunch.

Then we briefly browsed some central Australian  media sites – where youth arts, media education and language maintenance go hand-in hand through the activities of eight specialised media workshops in central Australia. is one of the oldest such projects, dating back to 2006 has some group outputs from media projects, such as the Jack and John film in the animating Yimi series. We watched it together and it was a hit.

These projects show how language maintenance activities can be combined with arts and education activities, and end up engaging many more people, particularly young people.

The next part of LIP took us to talking about the ‘big sites’: Wikipedia, Youtube and the Google endangered languages site.  We discussed how useful but often underutilised the Wikipedia pages on individual languages can be. It is a great place for a sketch grammar with links to the main references on a language. However, given there is little academic recognition of doing this, it comes down to whether an individual linguist gets inspired to work on the page.

The Wictionary and the Wikipedias in endangered languages were also discussed. The Tok Pisin site has over a thousand pages, but most of the more elaborate wikipedias in small languages are languages of Europe such as Rumansch. Next we talked about the Google endangered languages site. We speculated on whether there will be a snowball effect, with people starting to populate the Google endangered languages site with information more and more, or whether most language entries will remain shells.Lastly we talked about how Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are all providing data for our analyses these days, but there hasn’t been much discussion of how to go about this ethically.

Next month there will be a discussion of language revitalisation with participants Ghilad Zuckerman and Christina Eira. Sign up to the RNLD email list, facebook page or check the RNLD LIP webpage for more details.

Researching child language in the field: October LIP

Ruth Singer recaps some of the interesting points of the last week’sLinguistics in the Pub, an informal gathering of linguists and language activists that is held monthly in Melbourne

A number of linguists in Melbourne have recently begun documenting child language in the field. In the November 2011 LIP we discussed what you need to think about if you want to document child language and why you might document child language as part of a broader language documentation project (see blog at The most recent LIP, led by Lauren Gawne and Birgit Hellwig last week, revisited the topic of child language documentation. This allowed those who have recently returned from the field to discuss some of the problems they faced and how they dealt with them. In particular, we looked at the gap between what is possible in remote fieldsites and some of the assumptions in the field of child language acquisition about what type of data is needed to study child language development. The quantity and frequency of data that can be collected in remote fieldsites is quite different to what can be done in the developed world. The limitations can be quite simple. For example, not being able to get accurate information on children’s ages.

To kick off the discussion we looked at ethics, from a personal point of view. The previous LIP on child language was criticised for focussing too much on the requirements of institutional ethics boards at universities, schools etc. So we discussed what types of decisions researchers had made to satisfy their own ethical concerns. A number of researchers said that they had no plans to make their recordings public. This goes against the current trend to make recordings of endangered languages as open as possible, given community consent.

Just to give an example, I have decided to keep access to my recordings of child language closed, until the children are 18. If they are happy for me to open access to their recordings after they are 18, I will do so. However since I am currently recording children in groups at least 3 people, it is likely that in many cases I will not be able to contact all participants so the recording will remain closed. One of the issues we returned to a number of times in the evenings is that our recordings are often made in open environments, which means that many people wander through the field of view. This is in contrast to mainstream child language data, which is usually made in a room through which only a limited number of people pass by. It was mentioned that the CHILDES language database is a great example of an open access archive but it lacks much data from endangered languages. CHILDES contains data recorded from many different studies of child language acquisition. However to upload data to CHILDES you must have the consent of every person who appears, even if just walking past. This is not going to be possible for many recordings of endangered languages in remote areas. It is often difficult to find a room to record in and even if one is found, it is likely that many people will pass through it.

Some of the other assumptions about child language acquisition research that can prove difficult in remote settings:

  • that a mother and child pair form natural conversational partners (they may rarely engage in idle chit-chat)
  • that adults typically play with children (it may be the case that children typically play with other children, not adults

Since it is often difficult for a mother-child pair to engage in conversation in front of the camera, some suggested structured tasks, such as those used at Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Although others pointed out that this makes it difficult to study language socialization, because you are asking people to engage in a culturally foreign activity. Others suggested identifying local games that could be used in language acquisition research.

One big problem in applying the standards of child language acquisition research to remote contexts is the difficulty of obtaining recordings of the same child over regular intervals. Many of the linguists attending the LIP session work in Papua New Guinea and Australian Aboriginal communities. They pointed out that children and often their whole families move around much more than they had expected. The set of children living in a community may barely overlap from one fieldtrip to the next.  In addition, some child language researchers recommend making recordings every 2 months or so, and it is not possible to do this in remote settings. The limitations are partly financial and partly due to the time needed for the linguist to travel to the remote location from their home.

There was quite a bit of time devoted to the technology used to record children, who are rather more mobile than adults. One researcher recommended the use of teddy-bear shaped backpacks for children. These can carry the heavy transmitter of the radio microphone. Everyone agreed that noise is a big issue. Even if there is no wind, which small radio microphones don’t handle well, children’s motion invariably causes noise. One researcher only recorded in areas without many leaves as the noise of these being crushed beneath children’s running feet was too loud.

Birgit Hellwig discussed some of the data from her recent 2 month fieldtrip to Papua New Guinea which she did with child language acquisition specialist Evan Kidd (ANU). She said that by the end of the 2 months, the community they were visiting had more or less gotten used to the cameras and exactly what it meant to have child language researchers in the community. One thing that Birgit emphasised is that what participants need to do is not as obvious to them as we might think. Birgit gave a lovely example in the use of the frog story task. The frog story ‘Frog: where are you?’, is a short children’s picture book without any words. Children were asked to tell the story in their own words. It became apparent during the course of Birgit’s 2 month fieldtrip that changes in how children told the story from week to week were related to narrative practices in the community. The story was circulating in the community, just as any story does, and changing slightly over the course of time. Rather than each new child that particpated in the task telling the story afresh, ‘in their own words’, each told it as it was in its current form in the community. This resulted in remarkable convergence between tellings that were recorded around the same time.

It became clear from the discussion that we can’t expect to do research on child language in the same way as it is done in more controlled environments. We will not get comparable quantities of data for each child. However, whatever we do record is likely to be really interesting. We only have data on child language for a small number of languages, so anything will help.