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Applying linguistics in the conservation of the social and cultural context of underdocumented languages

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Title: Applying linguistics in the conservation of the social and cultural context of underdocumented languages
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: To describe the grammar of a language is a difficult task. It requires specialized training in several formal subfields of linguistics. The type of resulting documents on specific languages are valuable for a number of reasons. For example, they are often used in language conservation to build teaching materials for a language, and can facilitate research into the social and cultural context of the language. Within the field of language documentation, the roles of producing language pedagogy materials and describing language in its social and cultural context have been recognized (Franchetto 2006, Hill 2006), but, the goal of fields like linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics, that is, to understand the internal dynamics of social organization, hence to some degree applied linguistics also, is missed by the bulk of grammatical description and language documentation due to the tacit and widespread assumption that language is componential. Indeed language can be seen as componential, but this view is inherently too limited to be reconciled with understanding language as culture. Therefore, the primary challenge is to integrate the available methods and techniques from the relevant fields to unveil and portray linguistic phenomena accurately in the practice of describing a language as a socioculturally embedded phenomenon and to make those materials relevant to teaching the language.

The research presented in the four sections of this talk compare the componential grammar model (e.g., Author 2014, Thieberger 200X) and the ethnography of communication/interactional model (Duranti 2009) and how they pair up with traditional language pedagogy (Kramsch 2002) and ethnologically informed modes of transmitting knowledge (Philips 1970, Wilson 2012), in an effort to identify specific ways to combine the best of the available models. Section 1 reviews the pros and cons of the traditional descriptive approach and the socio-culturally informed approach. Section 2 outlines the crucial role of social and cultural relevance in, not only, how languages are taught and maintained, but also what material constitutes the curriculum. Section 3 examines the nearly inevitable role of multi-lingualism in language conservation. Section 4 makes recommendations about how to expand the theoretical and analytic horizons of language documentation and applied linguistics to center on a view of language that is more than grammar and an interest in speakers as merely organisms that produce linguistic forms.


Author. 2014. A Grammar of X.

Duranti, Alessandro (ed.). 2009. Linguistic Anthropology: A Reader. Second edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Franchetto, Bruna. 2006. Ethnography in language documentation. In Jost Gippert, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, and Ulrike Mosel Essentials of Language Documentation, 113–128. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hill, Jane. 2006. The ethnography of language and language documentation. In Jost Gippert, Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, and Ulrike Mosel Essentials of Language Documentation, 183–212. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Kramsch, Claire (ed.). 2002. Language Acquisition and Language Socialization: Ecological Perspectives. New York: Continuum.

Philips, Susan U. 1970. Participant structures and Communicative Competence: Warm
Springs Children in Community and Classroom. In J. E. Alatis (ed.) Bilingualism and Language Contact: Anthropological, Linguistics, Psychological and Social Aspects _ Acquisition of Rules for Appropriate Speech Usage. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Thieberger, Nicholas. 2004. Topics in the grammar and documentation of South Efate, an Oceanic language of Central Vanuatu. PhD diss., Melbourne: Department of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, University of Melbourne.

Wilson, William H. 2012. Hawaiian language revitalization. In Language in Hawai‘i
and the Pacific. University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Linguistics 100 Course Reader, ed. by Hiroko Sato and Jake Terrell, 118–29. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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