Dying to be counted: commodification of endangered languages in documentary linguistics

[Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS, reporting on a joint poster presentation with Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia) and David Nathan (SOAS) at the 2008 LSA annual meeting]
They came. They saw. They chuckled. Some snickered, and a few laughed out loud. A couple even went “what the…?”
Such was the range of reactions to the poster which Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia), David Nathan (SOAS) and I presented at last week’s Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in Chicago dealing with the topic of commodification of endangered languages, ie. their reduction to things to be counted and standardised, and their treatment as if they were a tradeable commodity.
At David’s suggestion we decided to adopt a satirical approach using the metaphor of a newspaper front page to deal with what is, of course, a very serious topic. It was the only (deliberately) funny poster at the LSA this year, and probably ever. Ten points to avid readers who get all the allusions and jokes. View thumbnail of image or full size poster here.

We had a stream of poster viewers during the 9am-10:30am session when it was up on display and we talked to around 50 people about the issues we wanted to highlight. Reactions were generally positive to our somewhat challenging message.
So what are we trying to say? Basically, we argue that the emotive and moralistic slogans floating round the endangered languages world like: “a language dies every two weeks – what are we going to do about it?” (Dalby 2002) and “without linguistic diversity it would be impossible for us to perform the central task of linguistic science, ie. developing a realistic theory of language competence” (Hale 1998) have been remarkably effective in establishing a new disciplinary take on linguistics. The result is an approach where attention is paid to the preservation of linguistic knowledge being lost, and where the need to engage the wider world in confronting this loss is recognized (see also my post last year). Large research funders have emerged (e.g. NSF, Volkswagen, Rausing), and student interest has been raised. But the responses from the academic linguistics community have in that very process reduced languages to indices, bounded objects, technical encodings, and exchangeable goods.
We argue that this comes from the forces of standardization and audit that shape the management of information in contemporary Western culture, especially academic culture with its focus on outputs and counting (e.g. publication counts like the UK RAE and Australian RQF, citation indices, research impact statements etc). It also results from a theoretical and methodological vacuum that has been filled not by linguists but by preservationists, archives and technologists.

  1. Languages as indices – language vitality indicators (e.g. UNESCO’s 9 criteria with 6 scoring levels) objectify languages and turn them into numbers: the vitality of an individual language can be quantified, and languages ranked according to degree of endangerment. UNESCO presents a deterministic relationship between its 9 factors and the vitality and function of languages: “taken together, these nine factors can determine the viability of a language, its function in society and the type of measures required for its maintenance or revitalization”
  2. Languages as bounded objects – selections of phenomena are crystallised into a singular ‘language’, which is placed within boundaries, on maps etc.
  3. Languages as technical encodings (what David Nathan has elsewhere called ‘archivism’) – quantifiable properties (recording hours, data volume, file parameters) and technical desiderata (‘archival quality’, ‘portability’, standard ontologies) serve as reference points in assessing the aims and goals of documentation. One of the results of this we have seen is a tendency towards formulaic grant applications, e.g. “my project will result in 100 hours of 16 bit 44.1MHz audio, 25 hours MPEG-2 video, 10% ELAN .eaf files”. These eclipse discussion of documentation methods. As a further example, in grant applications and our training courses at SOAS, we see researchers saying they will do video recording, however they include this in their projects apparently because “you gotta do video”, without properly discussing the goals, methodology or hypotheses that the video is supposed to be the means to addressing. As another example, audio compression (eg. from wav to mp3) is often deprecated in the absence of understanding how to make good recordings, including the much more important issue of microphone selection and use. Also, few EL researchers have well worked out corpus structure plans.
  4. Languages as exchangeable goods – in things like the mission statement and publicity produced by the Open Language Archives Community the stated research goal is for languages to be ‘preserved’ as ‘resources‘ that ‘consumers’ (linguists and others) discover and access via ‘service providers’. We also see linguist’s professional obligations to speaker communities getting formulated in grant applications and elsewhere in terms of transacted objects (eg. language primers, CDs, or books that the linguist ‘gives back’ to the speaker community in ‘exchange‘ or ‘payback’ for their ‘work’ with the linguist) rather than in terms of knowledge sharing, joint engagement in language maintenance activities, or other interactionally-defined achievements. As another example, some granting agencies require an applicant’s bona fides to be distilled into a ‘letter of support’ from ‘an appropriate representative of the language community’ thus turning a complex of social and political dynamics into an object that is used to legitimise the research. We see this even for ‘pilot project’ grant applications which are intended to be exploratory where the linguist might not even have established connections with the community yet.

So, what’s the bottom line? We feel that the moral and emotional power of the endangerment discourse has not been matched by conceptual guidance on how linguistics and linguists can respond. Publications about effective and appropriate documentary methodologies for linguists have been slow to develop. Many unanswered questions remain, e.g. (1) are the goals of documentary linguistics social or formal? (2) are its data symbolic, or digital recordings of events? (see here for some discussion of ‘data’ versus ‘research’) (3) what role(s) should archives play? (4) how could we decide between competing interests? We lack a framework for assessing quality, value, effectiveness and progress of our work – so documentary linguists fall back on quantifiable indices, using the audit tools that their academic culture brings to hand, and technical standards that archivists and technologists have been only too happy to develop (Peter blogged about a proposal for an ‘accounting function of analysis’ to measure how complete a documentation was that was put forward at last year’s LSA – thankfully the paper proposing this has disappeared from the landscape).
We believe that linguists and other researchers should confront this issue and recognise that commodification derives from bureaucratic and technological forces in Euro-American culture that we should not take for granted in our response to language endangerment. We need to develop a new approach to language documentation that implements the moral and ethical vision that has attracted new participants and funders. This will include replacing the rhetoric that documentation is a separate discipline from descriptive linguistics (as in Himmelmann 1998, for example) with a better understanding of their respective goals, methodologies and evaluative criteria. In the process, it will be crucial to properly locate documentation within a wide range of interdisciplinary approaches to human language.
A handout with the poster and summary of our main ideas can be found here [.pdf], and there is a draft paper on the topic here [.pdf].

9 thoughts on “Dying to be counted: commodification of endangered languages in documentary linguistics”

  1. Treating languages as valuable objects is also seen in the fact that the Smithsonian has recently advertised for “a curator to develop and lead an endangered language program that will engage in research, documentation and preservation. Community engagement will be a major component of this position. In addition to conducting research, both in the field and drawing upon archival collections, the curator will develop strong interactions with communities faced with language loss while also addressing major research themes within linguistics and anthropology.”

  2. Very interesting post; thanks for sharing the contents of the poster with those of us who were unable to make the session.
    In regard to the question of where the commodification and audit culture you dicuss, you write:

    We argue that this comes from the forces of standardization and audit that shape the management of information in contemporary Western culture, especially academic culture with its focus on outputs and counting.

    While I basically agree, I also think that these forces play out in very concrete situations, in the context of very specific institutions. Consider, for example, the following comment in the post:

    One of the results of this we have seen is a tendency towards formulaic grant applications, e.g. “my project will result in 100 hours of 16 bit 44.1MHz audio, 25 hours MPEG-2 video, 10% ELAN .eaf files”

    I have the very strong sense that the emergence of this type of “buzzword compliant” prose is at least in part due to messages from funding entities to applicants regarding what makes a project fundable, as exemplified, for example, by ‘sample proposals’ available online. I think applicants worry that unless they display the kind of familiarity with technical issues related to data formats implied by the kind of formulaic prose, they will be judged insufficiently methodologically informed. Are they/we wrong? Could applicants pass over these issues in silence and still be taken seriously?
    My sense is that interactions with funding institutions are a crucial locus for the transmission and reproduction of the ideologies of commodification and audit culture that you lament in your post. As someone who is familiar with the working of at least one very important such insitution from the inside, what is your take on this observation?

  3. Thanks, Lev, for your valuable comments – I can’t speak for my co-authors, but I agree totally with you that “funding institutions are a crucial locus for the transmission and reproduction of the ideologies of commodification and audit culture”. That’s exactly a corollary of the issues we are trying to highlight, and hence our arguments that documentation projects must be made individual and relevant to the context in which the language(s) is/are spoken with clarification of goals, methods and outcomes for each project in its own terms. I have argued on a number of occasions in grant committee meetings that making “good examples” of grant applications publicly available can lead to “cookie cutter” application outcomes. I would hope that granting bodies are prompted to reflect on their practice and see that they are agents of commodification in the way you suggest.
    As for knowledge of good practices in data collection, management and processing, and demonstration of relevant skills in carrying them out, we are not saying that documentation research teams should not pay attention to good practices (I personally abjure the term “best practice”). Rather we argue that these “buzz words” are not a substitute for proper research design. They also cannot serve as proxy metrics for evaluation of quality, relevance and progress in our research, or our other work with endangered languages communities. Just as we would expect researcher teams to be well skilled in linguistic theory and practice (or anthropology, or ethnobotany, or pedagogy, or whatever the particular project design requires) so we can expect them to be well skilled in documentation theory and practice if they wish to be taken seriously.

  4. This is an issue that has been consuming me since I first started working as a field linguist in a language centre and I wholeheartedly agree with all that has been written here. My own musings on the subject have led me to see another reason why, despite all of our research efforts, the languages we interact with are continuing to decline. I actually think this is less a question of methodology (which seems to me adequately developing to document and describe languages), than a more fundamental question of what kinds of research questions we are trying to answer.
    it’s my observation that the linguists that are typically in contact with endangered language communities are those adventurous, descriptive-types that will go to great and life-threatening lengths to document rare and enigmatic linguistic structures. (It should not be surprising then that the kit bags of ‘exchangable items’ of these field linguists typically include text-based community language materials because this is an extension of their primary, and primarily text-based work. Nor is this at all a problem – unless this exchange is called ‘saving languages’)
    When the alarm bells were first raised about the rapid decline of the world’s smaller languages, they were heard most clearly by these linguists, who were already baring witness to the changes. And the research agenda for these linguists did change as a result. But it stayed largely within the structural-descriptive domain. I am not arguing that it is a problem that linguists naturally consumed by such empirical questions work with endangered languages. The problem is that studies of endangered languages have been consumed by these research questions.
    In order to ‘save dying languages’, the essential task is to change language behaviour. The role for linguists in achieving this is to provide expert support for communities to create such profound changes. Of course the professional skills necessary to do this are definitely not taught in any field methods class! But the theoretical questions at the heart of this (what motivates language choice? how do we learn second languages? how to multilinguals use their languages? are a few that come to mind) have been the concern of other sub-fields of linguistics.
    I think the disjunct is that, in general, linguists of these sub-fields have been mainly concerned with how their research might apply to their own, mainly majority language-speaking communities, and have fairly little contact with endangered language communities. Those of us naturally interested in these questions need to develop this research to encompass declining languages.
    We need to understand why community-initiated activites such as the Maori Te Kohanga Reo (Language Nests), or programs like the Californian Master-Apprentice teams work and how they can be applied in other contexts. This is the theory that endangered languages need. We then need to directly apply our research on the ground. This is the kind of field linguist who has been the essential, missing component in many a project aimed at ‘saving’ an endangered language. Australianist sociolinguists – who’s with me?

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sally. The issues you raise are ones that we at SOAS have been thinking about for a little while. In fact, last year we restructured our MA degree into two strands: one with a field linguistics (descriptive/documentation) focus and one with a support and revitalisation focus. We have developed a number of new courses in sociolinguistics, language policy, language activism that are being run for the first time this year. Last year, we appointed a new staff member, Julia Sallabank, who did her PhD on an endangered European language (Guernais) and who will be helping build bridges to the “other sub-fields of linguistics” you mention. The issues of theory and practice for language support for revitalisation will be discussed at a workshop we are organising in London early next month (see here). We will have another workshop in May this year that will focus on “engagement” for linguists working on endangered languages. More details on our website soon.
    It would be great if this area of EL work could be developed and expanded in partnership with the documentation/description agendas. I believe we need to build upon the first-hand experiences of people like yourself, Wamut et al, and connect them to the sociolinguistics and applied linguistics that has tended so far to be engaged with other than indigenous and endangered languages issues.

  6. Peter, just to pick up one of the issues raised here.
    In my experience, what speakers want to communicate is knowledge, rather than language. Strangely enough, they expect to be able to hold intelligent conversations on topics which interest them, and to be able to use their language to negotiate the transactions of their lives. By setting up and co-ordinating projects focussing on the documentation of indigenous ecological knowledge, and the implementation of practices based on it, I find myself, as a linguist, working in the role of facilitator and documenter of a dialogue between the research community and indigenous holders of ecological knowledge. In this position I can gather high-quality data which can be used not only for linguistic research, but for other more practical ends.
    Working like this allows me to do the job of documentation, while at the same time engendering potentially on-going activities which are centred around the use of the language. Meanwhile, the speakers of the language are getting paid for their knowledge as encoded in that language, as well as for other supporting roles, such as transport. The process clearly demonstrates the value of maintaining the language to those involved on both sides, to other speakers who may potentially become involved, and to funding bodies in areas other than endangered language documentation.
    So, as a practical suggestion, I’m advocating partnerships between those funding endangered language documentation, and those funding other projects which can benefit from the input of indigenous knowledge. This I think could go a long way towards matching the type of rhetoric you quoted to appropriate action.

  7. Good points Bruce, and ones that funders like Volkswagen, ELDP, and NSF-NEH should be exposed to. I suspect however that proactivity on the collaboration and partnership dimensions along the lines you outline may be difficult to achieve given the current goals of the EL funders — it’s not that they would be against it, rather that they may not be actively interested in seeking it. Lenore Grenoble and I wrote about the problem of implementing interdisciplinarity in language documentation in an article published last year: ‘Current Trends in Language Documentation’, Language Documentation and Description, Vol 4, pp12-25. All this however is not to say we shouldn’t be trying to persuade the funders to see things in a different way.

  8. I think Peter makes excellent points, but–unless I’m misreading with archivist, technocrat humorlessness–the tone is too polarizing for me. The underlying equation seems to be “archiving and technology = bad” and (I assume) “linguistics-based documentation standards = good.” But does anyone really think that it’s bad to develop and promulgate technological and archiving standards that help us preserve documentation? Surely a better formulation is that technological, archiving, and documentation advice are all needed but currently we don’t have enough of the third.
    (If that’s what Peter actually means to say, then I will throw him an apologetic sheep on Facebook and wholeheartedly applaud this blog entry.)

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