Communicating about our work

This week (23rd to 27th April) is Endangered Languages Week at SOAS and interestingly one of the themes that has surfaced repeatedly over the past days has been communication with the wider world about what we do as linguists, researchers and fieldworkers. Along with the stakeholders mentioned in Jane’s and my recent post, there is the general public. Many of them, from my experience, do show a keen interest in endangered languages and language documentation, especially in the ‘human side’ of the stories we have to tell. And there are various ways we can talk to them.


On Monday night the play ‘Living On’ [.pdf] by David Crystal offered through the medium of drama one view of what it is like to be a last speaker of a language; comments from members of the audience after the play reading demonstrated that many of them felt that drama was an unexpected but powerful way to highlight the situation facing endangered languages.
On Tuesday evening we showed two films by Danish directors Janus Billeskov Jansen and Signe Byrge Sørensen. The first, In Languages We Live: Voices of the World, is a wide-ranging and fairly conventional documentary about endangered languages and the responses by various communities around the world to the loss of their language and culture. The second, which was a rough-cut of a new work, is a more personal take about a group of Mlabri, Mon-Khmer speaking forest hunter-gatherers numbering around 300 who are being forced by habitat destruction to become agriculturalists and day labourers working for their Hmong neighbours for a pittance. We see the first group of their children going off to a Thai boarding school, and the challenge faced by two men in their 20’s to find Mlabri wives as the population of available women shrinks. The film doesn’t draw any conclusions but presents in a most affecting way the dilemmas faced by the Mlabri and the choices they are having to make.
Wednesday was Open Day [.pdf] when we threw open the doors to the ELAR archive and presented various aspects of the whole SOAS Endangered Languages Project, including talks, demonstrations, and show-and-tell sessions by ELAP, ELAR and ELDP staff and students. This included a progress report on the project to make an interactive digital facsimile of the William Dawes manuscripts of the Sydney language available on the web, reports by two PhD students on their experiences with solar panels during recent fieldwork in Nigeria, and a display of work by students in the MA in Language Documentation and Description. Each year we teach a course called Applied Documentation and Description in which the students are required to do an assignment called “Communicating About Your Work” in which they are expected:

In no more than 300 words, design a one-page poster, flyer or web page to communicate about an aspect of your work this year at SOAS for the MA in Language Documentation and Description.

Along with the product they are required to write an analysis in no more than 1,500 words in terms of:

  • their intended target audience
  • the message to be conveyed
  • the style, tone of voice, approach they have adopted
  • any problems they encountered in designing their product

The Open Day display included materials from 2006 and 2007 students and attracted a lot of interest from the steady stream of visitors who come through during the day (including the Director of SOAS, Paul Webley who specifically came to see the students’ work).
EL Week wrapped up today with Kim McKenzie’s film Fragments of the Owl’s Egg with dialogue in English, Kriol and varieties of Bininj Gunwok (including narration in that language by linguist Murray Garde, subtitled in English). It is a poignant story of people and country, and of loss and forgetting. The film has been billed, along with Ten Canoes, as a new approach to ethnographic film making in Australia. For me it evoked memories of fieldtrips 30 years ago with Luise Hercus and colleagues from the South Australian Museum, driving back and forth across the countryside east of Lake Eyre with the late Ben Murray and the late Jimmy Russell looking for Booltacaninna (pukawalthuninha in Diyari) and Ditchieminka (diji mingka ‘sun hole’, the place where the sun goes at night), caught in the cracks between “it gotta be here” and a landscape irreparably changed from the memories of last visits a generation before. McKenzie’s film communicates this powerfully.

4 thoughts on “Communicating about our work”

  1. I keep coming back to the issue of how we communicate about our work and the values and principles that underpin it. How to overcome the general ignorance of lingustics, and especially in Australia (english speaking world altogether?), the value of other languages, seems to be the major hurdle.
    I saw a great show the other night at the Melbourne International Comedy Show called Little Mathletics. It was funny, rigorous in its application of mathematics to popular culture and heavy on audience participation. And heavily attended.
    It occurred to me that a similar show could easily be written for linguistics and language. But one significant difference makes the success of a comedic approach to maths more likely: a ready audience. Near everyone has had exposure to maths at school, and even if not everyone liked it, there’s still enough of a self-selecting audience to get bums on seats.
    Even if we were to try to use comedy to turn the world on to linguistics – they don’t yet know enough about it to get the jokes!!! *Sigh*

  2. I agree that once people know what it is that linguists do (or can do!) they are often interested to hear more. Unusual fieldwork stories always go down well. But lately, visiting Arizona and New Mexico, I found a new audience interested in what linguists are trained to do and how they do it- and that is speakers and teachers of indigenous languages- whose Old People are askingfor help and support with revitalising a language.
    I gave a short informal talk outlining some of the things that linguists do both academically but also in language centres, land claims, archiving etc. Since then a few people I talked to have contacted others, which has eventually led to requests from me to find linguists to work in/ with some Native American communities.
    All these well trained graduate students here (and everywhere)… all these languages and communities… how do we reach each other! It seems crucial that we find a way to tell people whose languages are disappearing, what linguists do.

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