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The hitchhiker's guide to documentation: Communicative practices, cultural competence and proficiency guidelines

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Title: The hitchhiker's guide to documentation: Communicative practices, cultural competence and proficiency guidelines
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Over the last few years I have been working intensely with Arctic indigenous leaders– including linguists, educators and policy makers–to promote indigenous language usage (see Here as in other indigenous regions, the rhetoric of language endangerment and shift has changed to focus on language vitality, sustainability, and resilience. The people I work with share a vision of promoting language vitality through combining best practices in linguistics and pedagogy.

I have been a hitchhiker in the Arctic indigenous language project: I have been working closely with the parties involved, and yet at the same time I am not, and will never be, a community member. In this talk I present a view of linguistic work conducted by linguists who are not permanent members of communities but rather visitors, hitchhikers along for the ride. Although this is not the case for all documentary linguists, it is for a great many of us, those of us who have primary jobs and homes outside of the communities we work with. In this view, as hitchhikers we need to learn the cultural and linguistic practices of speech communities to participate fully in them in order to document them, and we need to create a guide to do it. This is the foundation of community-defined documentation, the hitchhiker’s guide.

How can a hitchhiker linguist help support language vitality? Our work to date in assessing the state of Arctic indigenous languages has indicated a real need for better teacher training and for better pedagogical materials and seek best practices in language teaching. Language documentation can be fruitfully informed and even reoriented by guidelines created to teach communicative competence and proficiency in majority languages. Communicative competence includes cultural knowledge and knowledge of social conventions (such as turn-taking mechanisms, appropriateness of nonverbal behavior, and so on). Documentation of communicative practices aimed at teaching such competence results in a rich documentation of language as culturally-situated and culturally-mediated, an ethnography of communication. This ethnography is in turn the fundamental guide that the hitchhiker needs in order to be oriented in the community and to be a fully functional partner.

This view of language as a culturally anchored communicative practice is not novel (Halliday 1978 puts forth a similar view), and has done much to shape current pedagogical methods in the teaching of majority languages for second-language learners. But in our quest to document the exotic in endangered languages, we often lose sight of the everyday goals of communicative competence. Although SLA methodology is generally aimed at teaching majority languages to speakers of other majority languages (e.g. Spanish for English speakers, English for French speakers), there is much to be learned in terms of best practices. The eight basic principles of Communicative Language Teaching (or CLT; see Berns 1990; Savignon 2002) assert that language teaching be based on a conceptualization of language as communication and recognize the importance of variation and diversity, recognize culture as instrumental in shaping communicative competence, and view language use as serving different purposes. Proficiency guidelines (such as ACTFL) provide relatively detailed information about the kinds of communicative competence required at each level in terms of speaking, reading, writing and listening skills; such information can fruitfully be adapted to shape both language revitalization and documentation projects alike.

In the present talk I map out the viability of best practices gleaned from such pedagogical practices as CLT and ACTFL proficiency guidelines and illustrate their usage in the creation of materials for guiding communicative competence in several Arctic indigenous languages.
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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