Update: (thanks Peter!) Barista has a long post discussing Harrison’s work in the light of Anggarrgoon‘s post.
Huge media attention has been garnered by K. David Harrison’s National Geographic funded fly-in-fly-out trips to document endangered languages in settings mostly remote and picturesque. See for example the Independent, and the Australian (the article also features Brownie Doolan, perhaps the last speaker of Lower Arrernte, and Gavan Breen, a linguist who has been working with him for years on a dictionary).
I was rung up in a supermarket by Jenny Green who was rung up on the road by a journalist who.. wanted to know more about endangered languages. So much for all our online information.. This started me thinking about two questions:
•How can we build on this media interest to do good things for endangered languages and their speakers?
•How could fly-in-fly-out trips be made useful for endangered languages and their speakers? (For some problems with Harrison’s recent FiFo trip to Australia, see Anggarrgoon today).
Suggestions welcome, my present suggestions below..
How can we build on this media interest?
Harrison’s Living tongues website is silent on options other than funding projects by him and his colleagues.
But we can alert journos and any potential benefactors to the fact that fly-in-fly-out trips should be seen as a last resort, NOT as the best approach. We can show them that:
•Languages are such complex systems that it takes a long time to carry out proper documentation and analysis.
•We need to work with speakers to maintain their languages, and we need documentation to be done in collaboration with the communities and to be accessible.
•We need to support Indigenous language centres which work in communities with community members to maintain and document languages – as Jenny said to me, the Australian Government cutting the CDEP program means that the Indigenous staff in many language centres will lose their jobs. If language centres have to close down, it will be hard to build them up again – and very hard to regain the trust and momentum and memory of what works. See Wamut’s post on the abolition of CDEP at Ngukurr.
•We need to provide information on successful ways of maintaining and documenting languages.
•We need to support preservation and distribution of language material – through public archives of language material, e.g. the DELAMAN network of digital archives of endangered language and cultural material. In Australia these include digital text archives such as ASEDA at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, as well as audio-visual – at AIATSIS, and (of course!) PARADISEC .
•And we need to support good quality publishers of endangered language material – both material for speakers and about languages e.g. (again of course!) Pacific Linguistics.
•The enlightened rich can be invited to support the major private foundations for supporting language documentation and maintenance, (do a Warren Buffett – why reinvent the administrative wheel?). Such as the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project (which funded some of Harrison’s early work) and the Volkswagen Stiftung DOBES (Documentation of Endangered Languages), the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Endangered Languages Fund.
How could you make fly-in-fly-out trips worthwhile?
FiFo trips clearly have a place in garnering media attention, and I suspect that Harrison is using them as a way to introduce himself to the speakers and to spark people into giving him donations to fund further work. They may also be the only possibility in some rare instances – some speakers may well prefer not to put up with linguists for years and years, but might derive amusement and interest from a linguist dropping in from the sky for a couple of weeks. Some places may be dangerous or otherwise difficult for outsider linguists to stay long periods.
But for the documentation to be useful, the FiFo linguist would need to do a lot of pre- and post-trip work. Before the trip – getting acquainted with existing materials and linguists familiar with the area and the people, (why reinvent the linguistic wheel – Yet Another Wordlist of Bodyparts…). Ditto for making the documentation accessible to speakers – no need to invent Yet Another Spelling System. After the trip, copies of the material need to be returned to speakers, and for long-term safety, kept at local archives.
Memo to Living Tongues: the site says good things about some of these points, but doesn’t actually lead the enlightened benefactor to other sources of information on them. No link for example to the archives where Living Tongues members have archived their field material – you have to dig deep into the project information to find that Munda material “will be housed in, ELAR, at the School of Oriental and African Studies”. ELAR is the Endangered Languages Archive of the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project.
I suppose the problem is that Living Tongues is competing for funds along with all the other foundations and organisations. Sigh.