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Developing a tool to assess language vitality

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Title:Developing a tool to assess language vitality
Authors:Ewing, Michael
Florey, Margaret
Rassool, Romola
Contributors:Ewing, Michael (speaker)
Florey, Margaret (speaker)
Rassool, Romola (speaker)
Date Issued:01 Mar 2013
Description:Intergenerational transmission is the key determinant in language maintenance, while many other considerations associated with language vitality, such as speaker numbers, political circumstances and speaker attitudes play important roles in supporting or discouraging transmission, contributing to an overall endangerment scenario (Himmelmann 2010). To gauge intergenerational transmission, evaluations of language vitality have often relied on surveys, self-reporting or observations as indirect means to estimate proficiency. In order to obtain more empirical evidence of proficiency and thus contribute to more accurate assessments of language vitality, we have developed a standardised testing protocol that allows us to learn how linguistic ability varies within and between communities.

In this presentation we report on the development of this testing protocol and its use in two different locations. The test evaluates receptive, productive and creative ability in the target language through the use of picture recognition, translation and open-ended discourse. It is designed to be easily administered and to reduce any stress felt by participants. By testing community members from primary school through to the oldest members of the community, a clear picture of intergenerational transmission can be developed. We have used the test in two locations: among four language groups in Central Maluku, eastern Indonesia, and among Sri Lanka Malay speakers in four parts of Sri Lanka. We report on the process of administering the tests, challenges in assessing outcomes, and the final results, in order to demonstrate what the tool can show us about language vitality. Findings are particularly robust for indicating differing trends in the appearance of ‘tip’ (Dorian 1981: 51) or abrupt transmission failure, across different communities. These tests have been conducted in cooperation with local community members and their results provide graphic evidence of trends in vitality which is not only useful to linguistics, but can also provide information which communities can use in the decision-making process around language maintenance.
Rights:Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections: 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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