11th Conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages
Thread poster: Fabio Descalzi

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Oct 15, 2007

The Eleventh Conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Working Together for Endangered Languages: Research Challenges and Social Impacts

University of Malaya
Kuala Lumpur

Dates: 26-28 October 2007

Call for Abstracts: FEL XI

Globalisation has an impact on societies on various levels. One of its implications is the further endangerment of languages, especially those of minority communities. The looming threat of language loss and death is due to the hegemony of more dominant languages in sociopolitical and economic domains. Linguists therefore have an important role in documenting, projecting, and providing information on, languages which face extinction.

Linguists undertaking such research must tread carefully in any community which faces language endangerment. The researcher by his or her very presence can disturb the established social relations, the socio-economic organisation, and the power relations within a community, bringing in more globalisation, and more awareness of and exchange with the outside world. Researchers must be made aware of the impact of their presence.

Communities facing language endangerment may not be cooperative towards outsiders and may view them with suspicion. In some communities breaking such barriers requires tact, effort, and strategic planning. Members of the community facing endangerment should be perceived and treated by the researchers as experts in their heritage language. Such a view inevitably reduces the power inequality between researchers and members of the endangered language and eases collaboration. Cooperation and collaboration may be impeded if the linguist sees him/herself or is seen as someone who is more authoritative and linguistically more ‘correct’ than members of the community facing endangerment. Such a perception may result in the infamous observer’s paradox where subjects become less natural in the presence of the researcher.

When researchers do not take members of the studied communities seriously, collaborative work is impeded as the input provided may be distorted due to the researchers’ belief that they are the language experts. Linguists must be objective and this can be a challenge as prior knowledge may interfere in their objectivity. Lack of trust and collaboration may result in information not being provided. One way of combating the failure to share information is to ensure that researchers are aware that different members of the community facing language shift are responsible for different kinds of information.

If communities are informed of the dangers of losing their languages, they may be inclined to collaborate with the linguists to provide information of the language they speak as on them is entrusted the onus of transmitting their heritage to family members. Promoting the popularity of an endangered language in domains such as the workplace, at home and at school may prove to be difficult, as endangered languages face many obstacles namely from the economic functionalities of more dominant languages and the attitudes of younger speakers. At worst, linguists could be seen as counter-productive by the very community whose language they want to save, because the shift away from an endangered language is at times motivated by upward economic and social mobility.

The task of the linguist in this is by no means simple. To penetrate and immerse oneself in an ethnolinguistic speech community whose language may be on the verge of death provides the linguist many challenges on the social and relationship levels. While the linguist is required to collect data as a researcher, s/he must also form a relationship with the members of the community so as to collaborate with them in efforts to promote and preserve the language, in ensuring its revival, in establishing devices and procedures to stop endangerment etc. Given that the endangerment of languages can be handled sensitively through collaboration between researchers and members of a community facing language extinction, this Conference will address the research challenges and social impacts of such collaborations. Amongst the questions raised in this Conference are:

What can researchers do to ensure collaboration with members of the language community? What should the researcher do to find a way into the community through proper and accepted channels? What benefits can a language community expect from such collaboration?

What are the boundaries that the researcher should not cross in order to protect the rights and privacy of the subjects and to safeguard collaborative ties between community and researcher? What are the limits of researchers’ duties to the language community, and vice versa?

What is ‘best practice’ for researchers in order to be accepted and trusted as in-group members of the community? Does this require the linguist to reduce his/her role as an expert, in order to build trust and collaboration with the community? Can cultural immersion act as a collaborative means in data collection, creating the notion that the researcher is part of the community’s in-group? Are there any advantages in maintaining distance between researcher and community?

What options do researchers have if they encounter non-collaborative behaviour from their target subjects?

Can support for maintenance of an endangered language actually be socially counter-productive, when the shift away from an endangered language is seen as progress in economic and social mobility? In such conditions, can the community be made aware of the importance of language maintenance? How can the researcher convince the community of the negative impact of language loss on their culture and history and, conversely, of the benefits of recovery, preservation, promotion?

How can language documentation work, and its fruits, be integrated into community activities and community development? In what other ways can linguistic research benefit language maintenance and revitalization?

How can the researcher guard against personally causing damage to existing social and political structures? In particular, how can the researcher avoid disturbing established social relations and organization by seemingly conferring favours on specific members of the community?

How can the researcher ensure that s/he is not unwittingly the agent of globalisation within the community and thereby the cause of further socio-economic and cultural disruption?

Abstracts should make reference to actual language situations , and ideally should draw on personal experience. The aim of the conference is to pool experience, to discuss and to learn from it, not to theorize in the abstract about inter-cultural relations.

For more information: http://www.ogmios.org/conference07/information

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11th Conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages

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