Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Linguists depicts an around-the-world race to make audio recordings of dying languages, giving us a glimpse of how technology can promote language

from the article,

Harrison and Anderson, both linguists, run the Oregan-based Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a nonprofit that devotes much of its efforts to building searchable “talking” online dictionaries of rare and endangered languages. By studying these “real outliers,” as Harrison calls them, he says we get incrementally closer to understanding how language itself works.
The results of the research are not only on view in the documentary, which premiered at Sundance in 2008, but samples of the audio recordings of Kallawaya, taken during filming, also already appear on the Living Tongues Institute website. Moreover, Anderson has built online dictionaries with accompanying audio devoted to the Siberian language of Tuvan and the North American Indian language of Siletz Dee-ni, which is password-protected: Only members of the tribe can access it. Currently, the institute is building a new online library of the Indian Munda “Ho” language, a sister language to Sora, one of the languages featured in the film.

Harrison says his goal is to “assist small and underrepresented languages in crossing the digital divide.” Recording the languages and giving them a presence on the Internet helps maintain and grow the number of speakers, he says, and lends some “prestige” to speaking a minority language.
In a particularly powerful moment in the documentary, Harrison and Anderson use a laptop to show elderly Chulym speakers video footage of themselves speaking that they’ve edited together via iMovie software. While sitting around the computer as if it were a campfire, the Chulym speakers express a sense of delight at seeing and hearing their recorded voices for the first time. “To see themselves represented in a high-tech way,” says Anderson in the film, says to them that “maybe our language isn’t so backward; maybe I have a knowledge that really is special.”

For Harrison and Anderson, documenting languages doesn’t always involve Bolivian healing ceremonies with live chicken sacrifices, as the film might suggest. In fact, Harrison says, “it’s much more effective, rather than have an outsider linguist going in, to train local people” to do the documentation. With that in mind, the Living Tongues Institute has so far given two communities “language technology kits,” which include a laptop computer, a digital camera, a digital audio recorder, and a still camera. A University of Oregon graduate student went to the University of Ranchi in eastern India to work with speakers of Ho, recording thousands of words from elders that will feed into its corresponding online language dictionary. Another kit went to a team of researchers at Gauhati University in Assam, in northeastern India, to document students in their linguistic department, who speak dozens of indigenous languages.


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