Foundation for Endangered Languages

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6. Reports on Meetings

Multimedia and Minority Languages, San Sebastian-Donostia, Spain, 8-9 Nov. 2000

Bojan Petek, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

The 2nd Multimedia and Minority Languages International Congress was held in San Sebastian-Donostia, Basque Country, Spain, on 8-9 Nov. 2000 ( It was organized by GAIA - the Association of Electronics and Information Technology Industries of the Basque Country, with the sponsorship of the European Commission. The two days programme included 18 lectures and a round table discussion on topics addressing the cross-section of multimedia and minority languages.

In the context of endangered languages several authors presented their experience in employing the information and communication technologies to preserve the language and/or culture. Tapani Salminen, Department of Finno-Ugrian Studies, University of Helsinki, presented an insightful talk entitled "The current status of European minority and regional languages". First, he stressed that cooperation among specialists in many different disciplines is a necessity for preservation of the linguistic and cultural diversity of the world. Second, he argued that the Europe is much wider than the European Union and third, that the number of regional and minority languages in all areas of Europe is larger than it is usually assumed (

Guido Mensching, Free University of Berlin, reported on a successful project supporting the Sardinian language on the Internet. The project's web site (
mensch/sardengl.html) has recently evolved into one of the largest information resources on the Sardinian. His talk positioned Sardinian as a European minority language, reported the aims of the project that applied the Internet as a rescue tool for the endangered language and discussed some very interesting experiences obtained during the project. The latter included remarks on novel opportunities brought by the interactive digital media, e.g., he presented an example of a Sardinian living in France who did not even speak the Sardinian before and now begins to write it. Another successful Internet project was reported by Sara Scardoni, Museo Etnografico dei Cimbri, Giazza, who spoke about activities initiated for the survival of the Cimbrian language and culture.

Donncha O'Croinin, the Linguistic Institute of Ireland, presented his insights into how the World Wide Web could be considered as the save-net for the endangered languages. Peter Wiens, Plautdiestsch-Freunde e.V. (a non-profit organization in Germany), presented a talk "Plautdietsch – Russian German Mennonites Around the World Join Efforts in the Web to Save their Mother Tongue". He discussed the web-site on the Plautdietsch,, that provides invaluable information to promote and cultivate this endangered language.

Several presentations did not address the endangered languages explicitly but could be considered as highly relevant in view of the research experience transfer to any language. Xabier Artola, IXA Research Group on Natural Language Processing, University of the Basque ( presented an overview of twelve years of research experience of the IXA group working on the Basque language. His talk also included recommendations on good practice in developing the human language technologies (

Alastair Macphail presented funding issues and the role of European Commission in support of the European regional and minority languages (RMLs). His talk outlined the past, present, and future EC activities, including an overview of the other sources of funding for the RMLs (

In summary, excellent organization skills of the organizers provided a forum where formal lecture presentations naturally blended with lively discussions and exchange of ideas between the congress participants.

International Conference on Endangered Languages, Kyoto, Nov 24-25, 2000

The Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim, with the support of the Japanese Ministry of Education, held a International Conference on Endangered Languages at the Kyoto International Kaikan from November 24-25. The goal of the conference was to twofold. First, it sought to bring together leading linguists and fieldworkers dealing with endangered languages to give an overall picture of current situation. Second, it sought to bring these people to Japan to help strengthen ties between Japanese researchers and students and people working in endangered languages.

The entire program was efficiently moderated by Akira Yamamoto (University of Kansas) who began the proceedings by emphasizing the sometimes tenuous linkage between linguist and native community with a poem entitled 'Ten Little Linguists'.

Professor Osahito Miyaoka (Osaka Gakuin University), main organizer of the conference, opened the proceedings by first noting that all of the presenters had been asked to make presentations aimed at both general audiences and scholars based in Japan. He noted that the Japanese budget for official overseas development assistance was more that $10 billion and Japan paid $13 billion in support of UN forces in the Gulf War and expressed his hope that the Japanese government's support of this research project, which not only provided funding for "Urgent Investigation and Research on the Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim", but also included designating this project as a Specific Research on Priority Areas, was the foundation for a future in which Japanese linguists hoped to contribute to the international community. However, Professor Miyaoka also noted wryly that Japanese linguists dealing with minority languages often have a reputation as 'lone wolves' and he expressed his hope that this project would work to erase that image.

Because of a delayed flight, Michael Krauss was unable to be there on the first day and so, the schedule was rearranged, with Stephen Wurm (Australian National University) giving his presentation on "Ways and Methods for Maintaining and Re-invigorating Endangered Languages", which first discussed the role of the linguist in the endangered language community and then gave a Baedeker's tour of the endangered language situations in various parts of the world. It was surprisingly effective and clearly demonstrated that the problem of language endangerment would not receive a unitary solution, but a wide range of solutions, each adapted to local conditions. His paper was followed by Oscar Aguilera (Universidad de Chile), who discussed in more detail the work he and others had done with endangered Fueguian languages, Kawesqar and Yaghan, and by Midori Osumi (Tokyo Women's Christian University) who gave an overview of some of the problems facing the communities trying to preserve their language.

Next, Barbara Grimes (Summer Institute of Linguistics) presented a talk filled with verbal 'snapshots' of different language endangerment situations, entitled "Global Language Viability". Barbara and her husband Joseph are the guiding force behind the Ethnologue ( which is the most wide ranging resource for data on the world's languages, but the discussion was not simply of numbers but also of human situations, which gave a context to the numbers. Her paper was followed by Darrell Tryon's (Australian National University) comments, noting that a higher profile for work with language preservation depends on accurate information and that this higher profile will necessarily entail more co-ordination among those working with endangered languages. His paper had a stunning quote from the Australian Financial Review, indicating the amount of work that had to be done in shifting public opinion.

“campaigners for linguistic diversity portray themselves as liberal defenders of minority rights, protecting the vulnerable against the forces of global capitalism. But their campaign has much more in common with reactionary, backward-looking visions. All seek to preserve the unpreservable, and all are possessed with an impossibly nostalgic view of what constitutes culture.”

The second discussant, Sueyoshi Toba (Serampore College, India) presented insights from his own experiences in Nepal.

Next was Willem Adelaar (Leiden University), whose talk, entitled "Descriptive Linguistics and the Standardization of Newly Described Languages" discussed the conflict that exists in describing the language and standardizing it. He gave a number of examples from South American language communities showing the varied forms this type of conflict could take. He was followed by Cecilia Odé (Leiden University), who discussed the often hidden dimension of prosody, a dimension often ignored when dealing with language documentation and preservation. Kazuto Matsumura (University of Tokyo) noted that field linguists are sometimes 'brainwashed' into thinking that the only linguistic work is descriptive and showed a number of examples from Estonian to show that the field linguist must be aware of a wide range of factors.

Matthias Brenzinger (University of Cologne) viewed endangered languages through the lens of Africa in his talk "Language Endangerment through Marginalization and Globalization". He pointed out that other situations in the world could not simply be applied in toto to Africa, in that globalization had bypassed Africa in many ways. This leads to cases where the endangered languages are actually 'safer' precisely because they are marginalized and neglected. This also makes applications of policies that appear to favor endangered languages actually work against them. For example, 'mother tongue education' is often held up as a way of protecting minority languages from the incursions of the majority languages. But in Africa, 'mother tongue education' often means an African language of wider communication such as Yoruba or Swahili, endangering smaller locally-based languages. George Broadwell (State University of New York, Albany) filled in a lacuna in the paper, which was an absence of a definition for globalization and offered the following: 'globalization is the process by which national political and economic systems are increasingly integrated into an international capitalist system'.



With that definition in place, he proposed that in order to understand language endangerment, it is necessary to examine the rewards and the punishments such a system places on speakers of endangered languages. This was followed by Shigeki Kaji (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies) gave more detail on the situation in Africa, drawn from his own experiences.

Victor Golla (Humboldt State University) was unable to attend and his paper, entitled "What does It Mean for a Language to Survive?: Some Thoughts on the (not-so-simple) Future of Languages" was read by Kumiko Ichihashi (Montclair State University, New Jersey). This paper is the continuation and an amplification of his editorial in the SSILA newsletter concerning the future of endangered languages, which assumes that many of the languages that are now endangered will not survive as vernacular vehicles of communication and more importantly, that nothing can be done. This extremely depressing thought is counterbalanced by the notion that as we move into the 21st century, we will see the rise of secondary speech communities. he identifies three main types which he terms revitalizers (those often characterized as 'new speakers' who are relearning the language), avocational communities (who represent people drawn to particular language for purposes of "enrichment") and finally, scholarly communities, in which linguists seek to train students. He notes that these communities have the potential to flourish with the rise of the Internet and of market based incentives. Colette Grinevald noted that what he is presenting is an unpalatable truth, but one that we must become accustomed to. She also noted that the typology that is set up should take its place along with the other typologies used in discussing endangered languages, those of language vitality/death, language communities and of individual speakers. While a bit pessimistic on the idea of high tech supporting these efforts, she argued that this paper represents an important call to the field. The final discussant was Honoré Watanabe, who first noted that within Salish languages, the private nature of the language limits possibilities for Golla's avocational communities. He further notes that 'emblematic' uses of the language may result in languages that differ dramatically from the 'pure' form of the language, yet still retain important features to allow them to be used by revitalizers. He also discussed some of the difficulties that can arise when we talk about making endangered languages more widely available to these secondary language communities. Finally, he noted that, in regards to the scholarly community, linguists who had not passed on their notes, materials, and archives to their students were, in a very real sense, 'endangered' themselves.

To wrap up the day's presentations, Nicholas Ostler (Foundation for Endangered Languages) spoke on a number of general points. He noted that interest in the subject had increased by leaps and bounds in recent years, and one of the problems that we now face is that we have a realization of the problem. Yet when asked by young people what they can do, he is at a loss to give them concrete suggestions. This absence of a channel for energy and effort is vexing and one he felt that should be most definitely tackled in the future. At any rate, young people would be crucial, in three ways: in learning or not learning their own ancestral languages; as linguistics students in taking up language documentation; and as concerned members of the public forming the essential background of public concern.

On the second day, Yukio Uemura presented "Endangered Languages in Japan", discussing the situation of Ryukyuan in-depth, and also discussing work with Ainu. He gave a historical summary of the history of the Ryukyu Islands and argued persuasively for its importance in cultural, historical and linguistics research. He also presented a short summary of the situation with Ainu. Michael Krauss noted the significance that this work had to discussing the relationship of Japanese to other languages in the region while Zendo Ueno (University of Tokyo) spoke of the necessity to record and preserve mainland Japanese dialects.

Next, David Bradley (La Trobe University) underlined a key point in his talk, entitled "Language Attitudes: The Key Factor in Language Maintenance." Drawing on his extensive work linguistic communities in Thailand and China, he spoke on how linguistic survival hinges on the groups attitude towards the language, making the linguist's first question 'how do we change speakers' attitudes?' He noted that a related question is whether we should strive to change attitudes, or whether this is best left up to the community and illustrated this with examples from his own research. He showed how appearances can be decieving, and that the way languages are passed down, sometimes with demotic texts or where multiple oral literary traditions are fused into a written standard, can give the appearance of a language that is robust, but is not taken to heart by the community. Toshihide Nakayama discussed this paper and emphasized the notion that negative attitudes represent a severe threat to any program of language revitalization and many language revitalization programs, installed into Western schooling, are easily manipulated and are often quite distant from the actual sources of attitudes towards the language. Restoration of the language, often the final goal of the linguist, does not go far enough. Takumi Ikeda (Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University) spoke from his own experiences with Tibetan languages and language communities

Finally, Michael Krauss, who was scheduled for the opening talk, closed with his talk entitled "Mass Language Extinction, and Documentation: The Race against Time" which highlighted both the progress that had been made and the work that still needed to be done. While many of the examples and figures are now very familiar to those discussing language endangerment, the discussion has been filled out and elaborated to show that seeming exceptions that have been raised to his figures do not alter the general statement that of the world's languages, 90% may not see the end of the next century. Matthias Brenzinger (University of Cologne) chose to highlight three portions of Krauss' discussion, which were to argue for making the case, continue to document and continue to support maintenance. He reiterated some of the examples he had made in the case of Africa and urged that we continue to work to chart as accurately as possible, the extent of language endangerment around the globe. Megumi Kurebito (Toyama University) discussed her own personal journey, where contact with Koryak made her shift her research focus and noted that preservation and support are inextricably linked.

Bernard Comrie (Max Planck Institute) summarized the two days of presentations by first noting that there is a set of problems that arise when dealing with language endangerment and language preservation. Often, the false dichotomy of preservation vs. documentation is raised. He noted the case of Welsh, which has made a comeback in recent years. Yet he notes that Welsh is becoming simplified, with grammatical gender and consonant mutation disappearing, in large part because children of non-native speakers are learning the language and as they use it, these simplifications and innovations are picked up by the children of native speakers. So too, the process of standardization functions to reduce dialect variation. The linguist who only documents, without working toward preservation, is really only getting part of the story.

He also articulated the troubling question that hangs over these sorts of meetings and that is 'why waste time talking about these problems when we should be out doing something?' He answered this by noting that these problems do not exist as isolated entities and it becomes necessary to see the full picture.

Osamu Sakiyama (National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka) closed the meeting by announcing that a domestic conference on endangered languages would be held later this year and an international conference would be held at this same time next year.

An Observer's overview

A number of very important points were articulated in this conference. There are two which I believe will become assume more importantance within the field in the coming years. The first is Matthias Brenzinger's discussion of the current state of African languages. The situation is, because of number of reasons, not as gloomy as it might be if we were to extrapolate from other areas of the world. This is because of the interplay between languages of wider communication and languages assumed to be endangered, the lack of participation of Africa within the global economy, and the lack of more accurate surveys of languages and language speakers. He also pointed out that simply transferring the concepts and terms that we use with endangered languages will result in a distorted impression of the true situation.

The second point was Victor Golla's assertion that there is little to be done to restore most endangered languages to their previous state, and therefore, communities of 'secondary' language speakers will assume more importance and he went on to present a typology of such speakers. As Collette Grinevald noted, this typology represents, in Fishman's terms, the 'intellectualization' of the field. By expanding the audiences that we address in terms of endangered languages, we offer ourselves more options and opportunities to work with these languages. While keeping a realistic image of what actually may be accomplished, these groups of secondary speakers may offer a way of bridging the gap between the communities and the academy.

Joseph Tomei
Kumamoto Gakuen Daigaku, Dept Foreign Langs,
Oe 2 chome, 5-1, Kumamoto 862-0911 JAPAN
(81) (0)96-364-5161 x1410
fax (81) (0)96-372-0702