Report on EL Week 2009

Endangered Languages Week 2009 has come and (just) gone, ending on Saturday with the second day of the workshop on Ideology and Beliefs on endangered languages. It was a fun, if exhausting week (made even more exhausting by having to teach our regular classes this year as it took place during term time), marked by having lots of visitors from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, the USA and Canada, as well as more local visitors from throughout Europe and the UK. The nice thing was that quite a number of people came to London for the whole week to participate in the various events.

Meet an Endangered Language proved to be popular again this year, with over 120 people attending the four sessions on Gamilaraay, Guernesiais, Khanty and Eleme — Oliver Bond’s presentation on Eleme (southern Nigeria) was standing room only with over 30 people squeezed into the ELAR archive to hear and see details of the linguistic and cultural life of this group. Monday evening’s Languages versus species debate was a lot of fun, with two teams debating the proposition “this house believes that priority should be given to resourcing the study and conservation of endangered languages above that of endangered species” (you can download Tom Castle’s brilliant poster here [.pdf]). The audience of around 50 people was entertained by a range of serious and not so serious arguments for and against the proposition, with the “pro-languages” team consisting of MA students Charles Pigott, Abi Simson and Jenny Marshall, and the “pro-species” team being David Nathan (ELAR Director), Stuart McGill (PhD student) and Ming-Ming (a lightly disguised Ed Garrett, ELAR software developer, wearing a panda head mask). The Chair, Oliver Bond, called for a vote after the debate and audience questions with the “pro-species” team gaining a narrow win (no doubt influenced by the sight of a panda drinking Red Bull through a straw in the hope that it would give him wings, perhaps).
Bernard Spolsky gave a very well attended Departmental seminar on Tuesday afternoon about the recent history of the Navajo language (not much good news there unfortunately — you can read a written-up version of Bernard’s talk in Language Documentation and Description Volume 6 which will be published this month). This was preceded by a series of eight international films on endangered languages that attracted an audience of about 100 people over the course of the sessions (some people stayed for the full five hours and watched all the films). The popularity of film as a medium for communicating with a general audience was clearly evident.
Wednesday saw a hive of activity in room G3 at SOAS for our annual Open Day, with displays of various types, ranging from funders like the Foundation for Endangered Languages, Endangered Archives Project, ELDP, Volkswagen Foundation and Fondation Chirac, to sign language research at DCAL (the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre), CILT (the National Centre for Languages), and PhD students and staff from ELAP and ELAR with poster displays and interactive computer systems. Around 50 people attended the Open Day and took advantage of the opportunity to collect information on endangered languages and to talk with researchers and students.
On Thursday afternoon there was a meeting of representatives of international endangered languages and endangered archives projects attended by Volkswagen Foundation, National Science Foundation, the British Library, Fondation Chirac and ELDP. A number of areas of common interest and concern were addressed, including the relationship between archiving and language revitalisation research, potentials for collaboration, the outcomes of research projects, and developments in training. Thursday evening was marked by Bernard Spolsky’s talk on 40 years of Maori language revitalisation in our Annual Public Lecture series (previous speakers have included David Crystal, Peter Ladefoged, Colette Grinevald and Dietrich Schueller). An audience of over 60 people learnt about the ups and downs of the history of language revitalisation in New Zealand, and Bernard’s assessment that the developments had been very positive but that it was too early to judge whether they could be called “a success”. The lecture was recorded and filmed by ELAR staff, and we hope to publish a multi-media version of it on CD-ROM in the near future.
Friday and Saturday were taken up with a workshop on Beliefs and Ideology on Endangered Languages, partially supported by a grant from the British Academy. Eighteen excellent papers were presented over the two days to an audience of 70 registered attendees, with lively and stimulating discussion sessions at the end of each day. Julia Sallabank and I plan to edit and publish the papers from the workshop next year. One of the topics that attracted a lot of interest and discussion on the second day was the recently published Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, with Anahit Minasyan from Unesco (who gave a paper at the workshop) and Chris Moseley, the Atlas general editor, receiving a deal of criticism and feedback from the audience.
Our main goal for EL Week 2009, like last year, was showing what we and others are doing in the theory and practice of Endangered Languages documentation and research at SOAS. We feel that we achieved this again, and highlighted to a broad and international audience of over 500 people both the threats to language diversity and the opportunities to do something about it.

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