Tag Archives: learning an endangered language

Kotahi Mano Kaika, Kotahi Mano Wawata (Learning an Endangered Language Part 9)

In part six eight of this series1 I complained about how Taiwanese indigenous languages are being taught more like dead languages than living ones.

This point was really hit home to me when I was discussing with another student that I would like to have better communicative competence. It took a long time for me to explain what I meant, and it slowly dawned on me that other students really had no expectation of being able to use the language in such a way.

So I was very happy that the Hualien Tribal College and the College of Indigenous Studies at NDHU were able to arrange for two Maori language activists, Hana O’Regan [PDF] and Megan Grace, both affiliated with the center for Māori and Pasifika studies at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, to come to Hualien and share their thoughts and experiences. Hana and Megan have a very different approach to language revitalization – one which emphasizes building a living language. For this reason the focus of their work is in homes, not (just) in the classroom.

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Amis Hebrew School (Learning an Endangered Language Part 8)

[This is the 6th 8th1 installment in an ongoing series.]

I'm officially a student again.

Above is a picture of my student ID from the “Hualien Tribal College.” Actually the official English name on their web page is “Hualien Indigenous Community College” which sounds better to my anthropological ears. Indigenous Community Colleges in Taiwan are not degree granting institutions. Courses tend to be short-term classes focused on indigenous culture, although they offer subjects like documentary filmmaking to help students learn to document their own culture. I’ve enrolled in an eight week course in the Amis language. (At the same time I’m continuing to audit indigenous language classes at my own university.)

While these classes have been great for my research, I still don’t feel I’ve made much progress with my language skills. Unlike DJ, who recently spent half a year living in a village with a large number of old people who still are able to speak Amis, I spend most of my time with young students who have very little competence. But more than that, I’ve come to realize that my research focus on official language revitalization efforts is actually something of a handicap when it comes to language learning. This is what I wanted to write about today.

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FiRe2 Field Recorder (Learning an Endangered Language Part 7)

[This is the 6th installment in an ongoing series on learning an endangered language. This post also fits in our “Tools We Use” series.]

As described in my last post, listening to lots of audio in the target language is a key part of my approach to language learning. For that reason I needed a good field recorder app for my iPhone. I spent a lot of time and (because you can’t demo most apps without buying them) money searching for a workflow which would let me record, edit, and listen to audio within the same application. I wanted it all in one application because I find that I sometimes want to go back and re-edit a file. It is also currently difficult to send files to iTunes without going through the desktop. In the end, I found a wonderful app that did exactly what I wanted: FiRe2 Field Recorder.

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How to Learn a Language (Learning an Endangered Language Part 6)

[This is the 5th installment in an ongoing series.]

I am not this guy:

Or this guy:

Then he dived into Russian, Italian, Persian, Swahili, Indonesian, Hindi, Ojibwe, Pashto, Turkish, Hausa, Kurdish, Yiddish, Dutch, Croatian and German, teaching himself mostly from grammar books and flash card applications on his iPhone. This in addition to a more formal study of French, Latin and Mandarin at the Dalton School, where he is a sophomore.

I suspect some people are wired differently, like this RadioLab episode about a ragtime musician who can play four concerts in his head at the same time and keep track of what any instrument in each of the four orchestras is playing at any given time.

This is a post about language learning for the rest of us. But first, a little throat clearing. While I have read a few books summarizing contemporary research on language learning, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject. That means I make some scientific claims without backing them up. Caveat emptor. Continue reading

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.

Learning an Endangered Language (Part 4)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Our Spring semester just started here in Taiwan, so I’ll keep this entry short. I just wanted to link two recent studies:

  1. One uses phylogenetic methods to determine that “the origin of the entire Austronesian language family can be dated back to Taiwan around 5,200 years ago, and moved through Island South-East Asia, along New Guinea and into Polynesia.” (More over at Language Log.) I’m not qualified to judge their methodology, but it looks like an important contribution to a long-standing debate over the dispersal of Austronesian languages.

  2. The second link is to the New edition of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which brings some good news amidst the bad, stating that “there has been an increase in the number of speakers of several indigenous languages.” (Specifically “Central Aymara and Quechua in Peru, Maori in New Zealand, Guarani in Paraguay and several languages in Canada, the United States and Mexico.”)  Since it is a UNESCO map, it follows UN policy of not recognizing Taiwan as a country, but it does document the dangers faced by Taiwan’s indigenous languages. News of the report led to renewed demands from Aboriginal lawmakers for the preservation of indigenous languages.

UPDATE: Right after posting this I saw a Twitter post [can’t quite bring myself to say “tweet” – but saying “Twitter post” feels like saying “web log” before “blog” gained widespread usage] about a test Wikipedia in the Pazih language. Pazih is a severely endangered language. Its last fluent speaker is Mrs. Pan Jin-yu who was born in 1914.

Learning an Endangered Language (Part 3)

Part 1 | Part 2

In this installment I want to discuss more about what it means for a language to be called “endangered.” In doing so I will draw on David Crystal’s book Language Death. The picture below is from National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project:

Enduring Voices Project, Endangered Languages, Map, Facts, Photos, Videos -- National Geographic

There are some reasons for anthropologists to be skeptical about the various discourses surrounding language endangerment (for a good discussion of those see Joseph Errington’s excellent article, “Getting Language Rights: The Rhetorics of Language Endangerment and Loss” as well as my AN editorial, “The metaphor of ‘endangered languages'” [PDF]), but I’ll be putting that aside for this post, focusing instead on some of the issues involved in trying to determine “threat levels” for endangered languages.

When is a language a dead language? When the language can no longer be used for daily conversation. By this definition, having one living speaker is not enough, because she will have no one to speak to. There are some complicating factors, such as languages which have literate or religious traditions, but its good enough for our purposes.

Where things get difficult is determining the other end of the equation. How many speakers does a language need to be “safe”? Continue reading

Learning an Endangered Language (Part 2)

In this post I’d like to elaborate on two issues raised in Part 1 and in the interesting discussion which followed.

The first issue is the tremendous variety of linguistic situations anthropologists find themselves in. By “situation” I also mean to include the language repertoire of the anthropologists themselves. Living and working in East Asia I have many colleagues who conducted fieldwork here in Taiwan. For many of these colleagues it was academic English with which they struggled, having studied abroad for their Ph.D. Americans pursuing advanced graduate degrees here in Taiwan have an easier time, since many of the texts are in English and they can submit their term papers in English. My Taiwanese colleagues were not so lucky and I’m tremendously impressed by their ability to write a Ph.D. dissertation in a foreign language, especially since some of them really struggled with written English.  Yet while some of them claim Hoklo, Hakka, or even an Aborigine language as a “mother tongue,” in many cases their ability to communicate in these languages is sometimes quite limited. This is directly connected to the theme of these posts – the fact that these are endangered languages. I will speak more on that next time, but the reality is that there are very few monolingual speakers of these languages in Taiwan, and one can almost always get by with Taiwanese Mandarin. A lot depends on the context in which one finds oneself, although I imagine that linguistic competence also affects which contexts one ends up in. I might hang out more with 80 year old Amis grandmas if I understood their (often naughty) jokes, but as it is I’m more likely to talk to their grand kids who can’t understand the jokes either.

Zora’s comment on the last post illustrates the nature of this diversity. Zora “did fieldwork in Tonga, in the South Pacific—where, luckily for [her], a history of British colonialism ensured that the intelligentsia spoke English.” She “went to an island in the Ha’apai archipelago” where many young people spoke English, but where (if I understand correctly) much of the older community was monolingual in Tongan, which she learned after a year and a half in the field (plus some tutoring before she had left). Compare that to Taiwan, where the dominant language is not English, but Mandarin Chinese. Although one could conceivably work entirely in the local language spoken at the field site, inability to speak or read Chinese would severely hinder one’s ability to do good quality academic research here. For instance, the textbooks I’ve used for studying both Hoklo and Amis are written in Mandarin. Also, one needs to be able to access scholarship published in Mandarin. (Or at least I should be doing that – I can barely keep up with my English reading list these days…) So while Zora could spend a year and a half learning Tongan, most American or European  scholars who come to Taiwan to do research spend a decade or more learning Chinese, and are at very different levels of progress when they get to the field. (Several colleagues I’ve spoken to who’ve worked in Taiwan or China have confessed to me that they just gave up on literacy and focused on conversational fluency instead.) From what I know about research in Arabic speaking countries the situation is somewhat similar: researchers first learn Classical Arabic, then the local vernacular, and if they have time also try to study a minority language as well, but don’t usually get very far.

This brings me to the second issue, which is that of working in a country with strong diglossia.

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Learning an Endangered Language (Part 1)

In Maxwell Owusu’s classic article, “Ethnography of Africa: The Usefulness of the Useless” he criticizes anthropologists for ignoring the importance of local languages. A situation which forced many of the most respected anthropologists to rely on interpreter-informants. He argues that this reliance on interpreters has been a source of error and confusion in the field (he then blames the excesses of structuralism on such inattention to details). As I wrote in my dissertation, “language skills are something that Anthropologists rarely discuss in their ethnographies.” One exception is Stevan Harrell who wrote the following in the introduction Ploughshare Village:

For the first six weeks, I employed an interpreter to translate my Mandarin Chinese into the villagers’ Hokkien [Hoklo] and back again, but when he left to go to college, I interviewed and interacted almost exclusively in the Hokkien language, I started out missing things, but learned fast, out of necessity.

Needless to say, I am not the language learner that Stevan Harrell is. I certainly would not have been able to interact exclusively in Hokkien (a.k.a. Hoklo, Southern Min, Taiwanese…, I prefer using Hoklo) after a short six weeks. But then again, I didn’t have to. A generation separates when Harrell was in the field and when I arrived, and during that time families increasingly chose to speak to their children in Mandarin to better improve their chances in school. The result is that most people my age and younger speak Mandarin better than they do Hoklo. This meant that when I was studying Hoklo, my social network in Taipei was of little use to me, but even when I found older man from Southern Taiwan to act as my tutor, my interest flagged. I was having enough trouble with Mandarin and there just wasn’t a strong enough incentive to struggle with learning another language at the same time.

When I did leave Taipei to go to the field, I found myself in a rural community with speakers of three different local languages: Hoklo, Hakka, and Amis so, of course, Mandarin was the lingua franca. My biggest challenge there was not learning the local languages so much learning the local variety of Mandarin, one which was far different from the bookish standard we had learned in my language program. I was reminded of this recently when I spoke to one of my former teachers. She had arranged for me to give a talk back at my old language school, and was admonishing me not to sound so “local” when talking to their students. After three years struggling to teach in Taiwanese Mandarin, I told her I wasn’t sure I could still speak with the Beijing accent they taught me at school. Code switching between different varieties of Mandarin is just not in my repertoire. (And considering how much I had to unlearn what they taught me at that school, I’m not sure I support their goals, even if I do understand them.)

Athough my Mandarin is still far from perfect, I’ve decided to attempt once again to learn a local language. Not Hoklo this time, but Amis, one of Taiwan’s indigenous languages. In fact, a desire to learn at least one Formosan language was one of the major motivating factors in my decision to come to Taiwan to work. This past semester I finally managed to put aside some time to devote myself to this task, and in the weeks ahead I hope to write more about the difficulties of learning an endangered language.