Learning the human side of language revitalization

My name is Elita and I am an early-career linguist. Essentially, this means that I am interested in the structure and inner workings of world languages. I explore how different languages make meaning, the relationship between language and culture and how languages exist in society.  I also study how different groups of people use language and how languages change over time.

Though I am interested in all kinds of language-related issues, I am particularly passionate about language revitalization. Many readers of this blog will already know that this is the art of bringing endangered and 'sleeping' languages back into everyday use. In 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages, I wrote my Honours thesis on language revitalization in Australia. Rather than analysing a specific language, I focused on a challenge that has affected revitalization projects for quite some time - miscommunication between linguists and community language workers.

Especially in the early stages of revitalization work, communities will call on linguists to assist with tasks such as language reconstruction (piecing the language back together from historical sources) and program planning (creating physical language resources and designing community classes). To provide valuable help, the linguist must be able to explain aspects of their technical knowledge in a non-technical way. This is not an easy undertaking. Even when they consciously attempt to use simple terms, linguists still find that their discourse is inaccessible to non-specialists — that they are unable to distance themselves from their academic way of thinking and speaking. My goal was to find a 'common language' for linguists and community members, a way of talking about language that both groups can equally understand and relate to.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my thesis-writing experience and learnt a lot along the way. Despite this, I finished with one regret: I didn't get the chance to do any hands-on fieldwork. A year is an incredibly short time to plan and properly execute a research project. Though I had all these wonderful ideas about how linguists and community members could work together, time constraints meant I never really got the chance to engage in any practical revitalization work. In this way, my learning felt somewhat incomplete. Earlier this year, I was presented with an opportunity to rectify this: a short-term contract with the State Library of Queensland's Indigenous Languages team.

My role with State Library mainly involved preparation for the 2020 Indigenous Languages Research Discovery Workshop. I had been involved in this event once before as a participant and was excited to go behind the scenes. In the weeks leading up to the workshop, I was able to exercise my linguistic knowledge and research skills in various ways. In particular, I enjoyed the challenge of locating and collating materials to meet the participants' various interests and needs. This enabled me to build a more intimate knowledge of the Library's Indigenous collections. Exploring the heritage items in the Margaret Lawrie and Tindale collections, as well as the contemporary projects featured in the Spoken and Jarjum Stories exhibitions were two highlights. The language 'tags' on One Search and the interactive Queensland Languages Map allowed me to delve deeper in my research-- to discover hidden connections and view familiar resources in a new light. Finally, Des Crump (Indigenous Languages Coordinator), Rose Warsow (Indigenous Languages Project Support Officer), Anne Reddacliff and Amanda Ladds (State Library Specialist Librarians) offered a level of insight that brought the collections to life.

Above all, however, I valued the opportunity to meet and collaborate with the workshop participants. It was this experience which taught me the human side of language revitalization. In my preparation for the workshop, my linguist background meant that I viewed this event purely as a chance to engage with language. Working with the participants show me that it-- and language revitalization in general-- is about so much more. Witnessing the discovery of family connections within the collection-- of photographs and records of grandparents and great grandparents-- taught me the importance of revitalization work as a conduit for connecting with heritage, culture and identity. Participating in group discussions and activities (e.g. Robert Ah Wing's language building activity) showed me how revitalization can forge relationships and a sense of group belonging. Conversely, it also taught me how revitalization depends on relationships-- on networking and exchanging ideas and strategies with like-minded others. Though I was able to answer some grammar-related questions throughout the week, the chance to connect with the participants, hear their stories and (hopefully) help them on their language journeys was much more rewarding.

I am incredibly grateful to the State Library for allowing me to play a central role in this year's Languages Workshop. Ultimately, I believe it has made be a better linguist—it has taught me aspects of revitalization that academic research could not. I look forward to applying this newfound knowledge in upcoming projects and hope for more opportunities to work with the State Library's Indigenous Languages team in the future.

Elita Machin [Guest Blogger]

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