Literacy in the field: how do the communities we work with use vernacular literacy?: LIP discussion

Harriet Sheppard recaps the May Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

The May LIP brought together linguists from La Trobe, Monash and the University of Melbourne to discuss vernacular literacy in the communities we work with. The place of vernacular literacy in language documentation programs is a recurring topic that many of us who work with traditionally oral languages come across and must consider as a matter of course throughout our work. As developing an orthography for a language entails a level of standardisation that may not have existed previously for a language, some linguists, such as Ameka (2011), have suggested that we could bypass literacy, replacing written documentation with audiovisual documentation products. However, the reality is that most linguists need to develop our own literacy in the target language in order to conduct research. Frequently communities expect us to produce language resources such as dictionaries and storybooks for the community. In this month’s LIP gathering we discussed how the communities we work with participate in literacy activities in vernacular languages and how outputs of language documentation projects can potentially be better designed for the community.

Many communities we work with already have existing orthographies and conventions before we begin our documentation projects, often   orthographies have been developed for the purpose of Bible translations. However, as one researcher highlighted, this doesn’t necessarily have a flow-on effect of higher vernacular literacy in the general population. For many of the researchers in attendance, literacy in the vernacular language is regarded by the communities as a specialised skill held by specific community members, often those trained in translation.

With that in mind, we started the evening by discussing a topic raised at the recent lexicography workshop run at the University of Melbourne. While many of us spend a considerable amount of time and effort compiling and producing dictionaries, there has been only one study (Corris et al. 2004), at least to our knowledge, looking at if and how the language communities use the dictionaries produced. Using a dictionaries can be hard and requires specialised skills, as Corris et al highlight.  Simply looking up a word involves a certain amount of presumed knowledge, a dictionary user needs to know the order of the letters if the language uses an alphabet. The process becomes even more complicated for languages that use non-alphabetic writing systems. Furthermore, we often create dictionaries with multiple audiences in mind, where the needs of the language community are not necessarily given precedence over other considerations such as our academic audience. In some cases, dictionaries are regarded by the language community as a valuable artefact, rather than a useful tool.

We then considered how new technologies and ways of presenting dictionaries can overcome some of the traditional barriers associated with using them. New apps and websites dedicated to aiding language maintenance and revitalisation have been discussed at past LIP gatherings. There is potential for some resources to bypass the need for any literacy in both the contact/majority language and the vernacular language. One such example is the Yawaru dictionary app, entries in the app include not only written forms in Yawaru and the English translation, but also playable audio by multiple speakers and photos of each item, meaning that no literacy whatsoever is necessary to be able to use the dictionary.

Digital lexicons can also support multiple versions of a head word and provide multiple spellings for an entry, potentially mitigating the standardising effects of creating an orthography and simultaneously allowing for dialectal variation. This is already standard practice for many Chinese language digital dictionaries, where users can search for an entry with the regional form using the Roman alphabet. One researcher present had already participated in creating a dictionary last year which included multiple entries per headword. Unfortunately including such variation in dictionaries involves a lot more work on the part of the creator and is beyond the scope of many projects. Digital dictionaries are also not feasible for some communities which don’t have access to regular power sources and lace devices on which they can read them.

Thanks to increasing access to computers and mobile phones and the popularity of social networking sites, anecdotal evidence points to an increase in vernacular literacy levels in some of the communities we work with. For example, one researcher present noted that many speakers he worked with had switched from writing on facebook in a major national language to predominantly in their vernacular language in recent times. This has been documented by Kral (2015) to be the case in some Indigenous Australian communities, where youth centres and media centres, rather than schools are where children and youth are acquiring vernacular literacy competence.

While technology may help improve literacy rates in vernacular language(s) in some communities, literacy based activities can also alienate speakers. One researcher discussed a case presented at the recent ICLDC conference by Conor Quinn, where a language revitalisation program on Algonquian languages in Maine had community support, but highly literate activities nevertheless alienated learners. Another linguist present recounted his difficulties recruiting language participants in a recent fieldtrip in the USA, eventually a member of the community told him that people were reluctant to participate as they didn’t want to disclose the level of education they had obtained, a common piece of metadata collected while working with language consultants.

We finished off the evening by considering how necessary literacy is for smaller languages communities and larger language communities as well. As academics we come from highly literate backgrounds, however, there are many ways to produce engaging and useful resources that do not rely on literacy abilities in the vernacular language or any other language. When creating dictionaries we can also incorporate more user-friendly formatting, whether it be through multimedia and/or including multiple headwords.

The next Linguistics in the Pub will be on Tuesday June 9th, where we will discuss issues surrounding translation in language documentation, description and revitalisation.


Ameka, F. 2013. Literacy as a Double Edged Sword. Linguistic Diversity in a Globablised World, La Trobe University:

Corris, M., Manning, C., Poetsch, S. & Simpson, J. 2004. How useful and reusable are dictionaries for speakers of Australian indigenous languages. International Journal of Lexicography 17(1): 33 – 68.

Kral, I. 2015. Pedagogy or practice? Indigenous youth and language maintenance in out of school settings. ICLDC 2015, Hawai’I, online proceedings: (audio file)

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