Ruth Rouvier rrouvier@berkeley.edu

As a field, linguistics has long been involved in documentation of endangered languages. While this research may have originally been intended solely to inform and advance the burgeoning discipline of linguistics, over time it increasingly has been understood to be a key resource for combating the alarming and accelerating trend of language loss. There are many examples (e.g., Yurok, Myaamia, Esselen, Mutsun) of documentation providing critical linguistic resources to efforts supporting endangered language (re)learning in community and institutional contexts. Further, the act of documentation can impact language attitudes and heighten awareness of language endangerment within communities and in the broader society.

However, to date there has been very little research focused on exactly how, why, and to what extent documentation benefits these efforts. As a result, documentary linguists have little guidance on how to structure their research activities and products to ensure they will be of use to the communities with whom they work. There are also many questions among linguists, community members, and others regarding language learning and extra-linguistic benefits that may result from efforts to maintain or re-introduce an endangered language into the community using language documentation resources. Additionally, the benefits of documentation and revitalization efforts for young children, especially in the critical language learning window of birth to five years of age, are in need of further investigation. Research on language acquisition and learning languages by children in endangered language communities could provide crucial information on the nature of language development in these unique learning contexts.

In October 2016, with support from the National Science Foundation, I met with a diverse group of researchers and practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines and professions to address these critical questions and needs. In this workshop, discussions centered around existing research and practice, and recommended next steps, to support Indigenous communities’ actions to maintain, restore, and reclaim their languages, with a focus on the youngest children. Although language documentation and revitalization were a starting point for these discussions, they also drew on workshop members' expertise in psychology, education, child development, early childhood education, public health, and Indigenous studies, among other fields. This interdisciplinary meeting allowed us to coordinate diverse priorities and methodologies, and consider factors ranging from mental health to academic success and intergenerational communication, all of which are critical to addressing these questions.

In May 2017 the Child Language Research and Revitalization Working Group, comprised of all nineteen of the workshop participants, released a white paper entitled "Language Documentation, Revitalization and Reclamation: Supporting Young Learners and Their Communities," which synthesized the group's findings and recommendations regarding research, practice, and policy on this topic, in order to encourage research on how language documentation research affects society. Through this overview of existing knowledge, we aim to lay a foundation for future research in order to share and enhance the outcomes and benefits of language documentation as well as language revitalization and reclamation.

 

The Child Language Research and Revitalization Working Group is continuing and expanding on the work begun through this project in a number of ways. These include incorporating recommendations into members' own research priorities and practices; transforming the group into a permanent body of experts who are committed to fostering and promoting further work and advocacy on these topics; and developing an institutional home for the group within the Myaamia Center at Miami University. We are also creating a listserv to support ongoing collaboration and resource-sharing, which you can join by signing up here.

 

 


For additional and further discussion, visit Walt Wolfram's video vginette on the motivations and practical considerations for using documentaries for public education.