Learning an Endangered Language (Part 5: Recap)

If I’ve been quiet lately it is because most of my free time has been devoted to trying to learn Amis (also known as Pangcah) one of the Austronesian languages still spoken in Taiwan. I’ve been reluctant to write about it because I’m at that initial stage where I am completely tongue tied and unable to speak a word if anyone actually tries to engage me in a conversation. I’m a little embarrassed to be writing about this again, because I started writing about it in 2009 and haven’t made much progress since then.

Anyway, I’m hard at work on this again, so here’s a roundup of the previous posts on the topic: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, as well as a more general post on my decision to teach in Taiwan.

Looking back at my previous posts, I realize there is much I never wrote about. So in a series of future posts I hope to write more about (1) my thoughts about language learning in general, (2) specific thoughts on strategies for learning an endangered language, (3) iOS tools for language study and (4) some of the themes of my research relating to the role that language preservation efforts play in the construction of indigenous identity in Taiwan. I hope that this time I get a little further than I did in 2009. In the meantime, leave a comment if you have any thoughts of your own, or specific questions you’d like me to address in future posts.

8 thoughts on “Learning an Endangered Language (Part 5: Recap)

  1. Hi Kerim

    Your progress towards conversational competence in Amis deeply interests me. If it is not too forward of myself to ask of you, please share with us further details about your engagement with Amis: Are you having trouble producing or discerning the sound system? What is your current perception of the semantics and pragmatics of conversational Amis?

  2. T’arhe,

    I will be addressing this in a future post!

    Amis phonology is not that hard to produce for a native English speaker. There are some sounds I’m still working on, but because of the tremendous focus my teachers have placed on pronunciation, it is the one area I am feeling good about my progress. There is one sound, however, I have given up on ever being able to properly produce: The Epiglotto-pharyngeal consonant. I have even written to several speech therapists and throat specialists asking for advice on producing this sound, but nobody was able to help. My task now is to be able to approximate it in a way that doesn’t hurt my throat.

    With regard to discerning sounds, I still have a ways to go before I can accurately transcribe naturally occurring speech, but I practice regularly as part of my learning method, about which I will write more later. I don’t wish to comment on pragmatics or semantics yet, as my conversational skills are still so minimal.

    But please don’t worry about being “too forward” – I think anthropologists need to be more open about the limitations of their own linguistic abilities, which is part of the motivation for this series. I am tired of anthropologists making it seem like they learned an entire undocumented language in a matter of months… I also think that understanding the difficulties involved will help head off pressures for anthropologists to produce articles at the same pace as researchers in other sciences: http://bit.ly/ztnGQv

  3. Thanks for this Kerim, I have been studying Mongolian, mostly through living in Mongolia and without too much study on my own or in a classroom, for the past 5 years or so. The language(s) is(are) hardly undocumented, but still… at least there are big problems with the standardization, documentation, and the few teaching/learning materials that are available. I look forward to going back through the older posts and seeing newer posts.

    Besides people pretending to learn obscure languages in “a few months,” I see especially in my own generation (late graduate school) that people are shying away from working in places and with issues that would involve such languages. For example, it seems that many, many people are working in Buryatia, a Mongolian autonomous republic of Russia, partly to avoid having to deal with learning Mongolian. Buryat Mongolian is used to some degree in Buryatia, but virtually everything is done now in Russian. Fellow students in my own department show their fear of and anxiety about language learning by not infrequently remarking that I must have some kind of “language gift,” which I definitely do not, especially in the classroom… I studied Russian for 4 years and couldn’t speak at all until living in Moscow!

  4. Thanks Marissa. I think there is increasing pressure to finish graduate school quickly, which doesn’t leave much time for language study. Forget endangered or minority languages, for an English speaker to learn Chinese well requires a significant amount of time in a Chinese speaking country in addition to classroom study, but few people writing dissertations on China or Taiwan are able to spend that kind of time… It is one reason I think more programs should require a separate MA thesis as well as a Ph.D. dissertation: as a way of bypassing time limits on finishing a Ph.D…

    Question: Do your Mongolian study materials use English as the language of instruction?

  5. Hi Kerim, yes there are some study materials available in English, published in Ulaanbaatar as well as a few things done through Indiana University (I believe Indiana University and Western Washington are the only two schools in the US teaching Mongolian; Indiana has a summer program but only for the first year level). I actually started in Moscow using the professor’s (a former translator from the Soviet embassy in Ulaanbaatar and academic Mongolist) textbook and attending her classes in Russian. I would say that that was about the best beginning Mongolian textbook I’ve seen. I also took a summer course with the American Center for Mongolian Studies (part of the government funded Overseas Research Centers network) that had its own textbook with instruction in Mongolian, and the teacher didn’t speak English. Short answer might be that I have found knowing Russian also to be a major boon in doing fieldwork in Mongolia and learning Mongolian (though I am also in a city dominated by a Russian-Mongolian mining combine). There is even quite a bit of “unconscious” code-switching going on of the sort that was being discussed in a former post.

  6. Marissa,

    Thanks. This is something that is a major issue for anthropologists learning endangered languages – it often first requires literacy in a non-English regional language as well. Or if “requires” is too strong a word, one might say having such skills make it much easier to study the language – as well as to code-switch when talking to native speakers and using terms which don’t exist in the endangered language.

  7. sa’icelen, ci-kerim safa! in my experience the difficulties include:

    1. there is no single standard ‘amis usage, so what seems idiomatic in a’tolan will not work even in malan, not to mention fataan or makota’ay. i believe that this problem is one that you covered in an article you presented a few years back

    2. the verb system in ‘amis. i’m still trying to figure out when i should use the ma- form of a mi- verb versus mi- -an. i’d give the technical terms for these, but unfortunately, i can only talk about ‘amis grammar in mandarin (one of the ironies you mention above)

    3. an education system that is aimed at testing competence rather than creating more ‘amis language media

    again, sa’icelen! manamnamay sato, mafana’ kiso hao

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