Foundation for Endangered Languages

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7. Overheard on the Web

Yale World Fellows Program
Doug Whalen
President, Endangered Language Fund

There is an interesting program at Yale that brings "early mid career" leaders from around the world to Yale for four months as "World Fellows." The goal is to broaden the international community by providing contacts among people involved in decision-making at a high level. "It offers a group of emerging leaders from diverse countries and cultures the opportunity to broaden their knowledge, gain new perspectives, sharpen their skills, and build the networks of relationships needed to meet the demands of issues on the local, national, and global scales."

Previous fellows have mostly come from the worlds of government, policy and industry. It would be great if we could include language activists in the mix. If any of you know of a good possibility, I would be happy to help with the application process. The first requirement is that the applicant not be a US citizen; then, they must be established in their career but early in it, so it is usually people in their 30's or early 40's.

Please see their web site for some more details:

The current fellows are shown here:

Digital race to save languages: Comments from OLAC

Researchers are fighting against time to save decades of data on the world’s endangered languages from ending up on the digital scrap heap.

Computer scientist and linguist, Professor Steven Bird of Melbourne University -- who was one of the founders of of OLAC, the Open Language Archive Community -- says most computer files, documents and original digital recordings created more than 10 years ago are now virtually irretrievable. Linguists are worried because they have been enthusiastic digital pioneers. Attracted by ever smaller, lighter equipment and vastly improved storage capacity, field researchers have graduated from handwritten notes and wire recordings to laptops, mini-discs, DAT tape and MP3.



“The problem is we are unable to ensure that digital storage lasts for more than 5 to 10 years because of problems with new media formats. Magnetic storage simply degrades over time,” said Professor Bird.

The Open Language Archive Community (OLAC) is an attempt to create an international network of internet-based digital archives, using tailor-made software designed to be future-proof. “We’re devising ways of storing linguistic information using Extensible Markup Language, (XML) which is basically a language for representing data on the web,” said Prof. Bird. “XML is an open format that we can be sure will be accessible indefinitely into the future. The real challenge for us as archivists is to constantly upgrade the video, audio and image files that we have so that they can be integrated with these new XML documents,” he added.

There are problems, however, with using the internet as a storage medium. Many indigenous communities fear it could lead to unrestricted access to culturally sensitive material, such as sacred stories, which could be abused or exploited, perhaps for commercial gain. Professor Bird says linguists recognise it is not a good idea to put sensitive material onto the internet without any safeguards.

"We are [looking at] the technologies used in internet banking for secure transfer and control - right at the point this material is first captured." In theory, a field researcher would enter information about future restrictions as the material is recorded or written down and those safeguards would accompany the recording right through the data chain.

Steven Bird and Gary Simons, OLAC Coordinators, note:

A summary of the developments in the Open Language Archives Community (OLAC) since our last general news posting in September is available at