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7. Overheard on the Web

"All" Languages or Any Language? Mark P Line

Lucas Hüsgen said: It may be interesting to know that free office suite project Open is warmly interested in developing this open source product for all (that is: all) languages.

Well, they mean "all" languages in the special sense of at most 676 languages which either have a 2-letter ISO code or can be informally given an unassigned one.

Even if you're not an ethnologue-style splitter, that's not a very significant proportion of the world's languages, much less "all" of them.

No question, of course, that it would be quite an accomplishment if they *did* get their software localized in that many languages, but I guess it's the case that they're interested in localizing in _any_ language, not literally in _all_ languages.

So that would mean that there is an opportunity here for some endangered and other minority languages to gain visibility and utility by plugging into this project. I reckon it'll be a first-come, first-serve affair, hough, so I expect to be seeing Saami, Tok Pisin, Scots and Plattdeutsch before we see Wutung, Yupik or Arapaho.

Of course, they might also be thinking that they'll eventually try to switch to 3-letter ISO codes if they really do start to saturate the 2-letter space -- in which case just forget everything I said here

Dahaalik: bid to save 'lost' language off the coast of Eritrea

May 10, 2005,,2-11-1447_1702495,00.html

Nearly a decade after accidentally discovering a previously unknown language on an Indian Ocean archipelago off the Eritrean coast, a French linguist is fighting to save the unwritten, untaught tongue.

"Dahaalik is part of humanity's heritage and must be preserved," said Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle, who with colleague Martine Vanhove, found Dahlak island fishermen conversing in the unusual vernacular nine years ago.

Puzzled by words and usage that did not correspond to the two main languages of the region - Afar and Arabic - the pair at first thought it was a dialect of Tigray, but later ascertained it was a distinct entity, she said.

Although close to Arabic and Tigre, Dahaalik was determined to be a language in itself due to its markedly different phonetics, morphology and syntax, but had languished in obscurity on the isles off the port of Massawa.

"Before 1996, no one had heard of Dahaalik," said Simeone-Senelle, an Afro-Asiatic language specialist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

"We have to find out how it appeared," she said. "For the moment, we don't know when it emerged."

Now spoken by only about 3 000 people on the three islands and not currently taught in schools, Dahaalik, whose origins remain a mystery, is in danger of dying out, she said.

"The understanding of this language, which has an oral but no written tradition, will provide us with a better knowledge of Eritrean history and its human components," said Simeone-Senelle who recently returned from another research trip to the islands to study the language.

In her bid to preserve Dahaalik with the help of Eritrean authorities, Simeone-Senelle has been collecting "tales, poems, riddles, stories of traditions and vocabulary concerning daily life, animals, boats and fishing techniques."

With these snippets, she has begun to compile a Dahaalik dictionary and grammar book, creating a written version of the language in the Roman alphabet by mimicking its sounds.

"It's a long job," Simeone-Senelle said. "I have already listed 1 500 words, but in all it will take several years."

The nascent dictionary is currently limited to Dahaalik into French, but she hopes the as-yet unfinished lexicon will become more multilingual, from Dahaalik into English, Arabic and Tigre.

Because it was not discovered until 1996, after Eritrea outlined its policy of linguistic pluralism, Dahaalik is not now taught in Dahlak schools, but Eritrean officials say they intend to introduce it into the curriculum, adding it to Arabic.

"The plan is that one day Dahaalik will also be taught in schools," said Zemehret Yohannes, head of Research and Documentation at Eritrea's sole political party, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice.

Scarce Resources Hobble Dené Native Language Efforts

May 18, 2005 Rudy Troike, University of Arizona

What Mia is doing sounds fascinating. Since you are using Lakoff & Nunez's embodied perspective, I imagine you know about the big ethnoscience project of Ozzie Werner some years ago on the atlas of Navajo terminology for the human body. That seems relevant to this approach.

One caution in general about adapting or translating materials from English/Spanish/French etc. to native languages is that these Eurocentric materials assume a universal categorization of the world that needs to be problematized and subjected to ethnographic examination for each case. A couple of examples are pertinent. Some years ago when Muriel Saville-Troike was working on a Navajo kindergarten curriculum, she found that although Navajo has a term for the hexagonal shape of the hogan 'house' (how many English speakers are readily familiar with 'hexagon'?), there was no term for Plato's supposed universal triangle, which available math and reading-readiness materials took for granted. In visiting schools on the reservation, she found that teachers had had to make up their own term for 'triangle' (after all, the code-talkers made up terms for tanks and airplanes), but each teacher had come up with a different expression. If off-the-shelf materials are to be used which presuppose the universality of certain categorizations, it should be checked and established first whether there are native categories and recognized labels which correspond to these, or whether these will have to be introduced as "foreign" categories/concepts, and labels invented and standardized for them.

One cannot always be sure that just because native speakers are developing or consulting on materials development, their intuition will securely flag problems such as this. The difficulty here is that most native consultants or developers have themselves been educated largely through the dominant language, and have unconsciously internalized the categories of the dominant language/culture and have accepted the (unrecognized) ethnocentric assumption that these categories are 'natural' and universal. Thus an ethnographically oriented examination of the native lexicon may be necessary/desirable to raise consciousness as to the differences between native conceptualizations and Eurocentric ones. (Even fluent bilinguals are rarely conscious of comparative differences between their own language and the second language, and most speakers of most languages are largely unaware of the structure and categories of their own language. Someone -- perhaps on this list – recently remarked on the surprise of a German speaker when it was pointed out to him that the German word for 'glove', Handschuh, was literally "hand-shoe", i.e. shoe for the hand.)

A few years ago when I was consulting on a project to develop materials for Mayan languages in Guatemala, I found that native speakers were taking the standard Spanish-language materials and, without changing illustrations, supplying Mayan (Mam, Quiche, Kekchi, etc.) labels for them. In one lesson devoted to practicing recognizing groups and giving appropriate numbers for them (three trees, two houses, etc.), I found that the categories presumed by the Spanish texts were not being questioned by the developers, who were themselves all elementary school teachers who had been teaching the materials in Spanish. After some discussion, it emerged that the distinction between 'arbol' (tree) and 'arbusto' (bush) did not fit the native categorizations of types of plants, and that to apply the native labels in teaching sets (without distorting the application of these labels by mapping them onto the Spanish ones), it would be necessary to come up with different pictures.

Especially labels for parts of the human body, which might seem self-evident, need to be questioned. The 'foot', for which we have a lexicalized distinction in English, is often not separated terminologically from the 'ankle' or 'lower leg'; even English 'ear' does not distinguish by itself the outer ear and the inner ear, lexicalized separately in Spanish as 'oreja' and 'oido'. Thus whereas "My ear hurts" is ambiguous in English, in Spanish it would not be. Since most traditional math educators are predisposed to accept without question the universality of mathematical concepts, they need to be sensitized to the cultural embeddedness of instructional media, and the need to examine ethnographically the appropriateness of categories usually taken for granted in instruction.

Additional Comments from Susan Penfield

I'd like to add offer a similar reminder concerning the construction of dialogue-based language lessons. The temptation and all-to-common approach is to take English conversational patterns and plug in native language lexical items. This ignores what might be important cullturally-determined rules for conversation -- for instance, something as simple as 'How's the weather?" (introducing a conversation with a question) would not be the norm among many of the elders I have worked with.

Report on Indigenous Languages in South African Higher Education

Press Release Issued by Tommy Makhode, Ministerial Spokesperson, Dept Education, Republic of South Africa

The Minister of Education, Mrs Naledi Pandor, has received the framework report on the development of indigenous African languages in higher education. This report was put together by a team of specialists in the area and led by Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

The other members of the Ministerial Committee were, Professor R Finlayson (University of South Africa), Professor R Madadzhe (University of the North), Professor S E Ngubane (University of KwaZulu-Natal), Dr M Nyamende (University of Cape Town), Ms N Tsheole, (former Member of Parliament) Ms T. January-McLean (Deputy Director-General: Department of Arts and Culture) and Dr C. Lubisi (Department of Education).

The Language Policy for Higher Education, promulgated in November 2002 commits to the long-term development of indigenous African languages for use as languages of teaching and learning in higher education. In line with this policy, the Ministerial Committee to advise on the development of indigenous African languages as mediums of instruction in higher education was established in September 2003.

The Committee conducted research to investigate amongst others, the South African historical and legislative contexts and conditions that nurture language growth. The Report expresses a view that “a crisis is looming in the country regarding the preservation, maintenance and associated identity of our indigenous African languages”. The anticipated crisis is attributed to the preference for English instead of African languages in formal communication in the private and public sectors as well as in general social practice. The Report also points to the declining numbers of students who wish to study African languages, which has resulted in the closing down of African language Departments in a number of higher education institutions.

In order to prevent further decline, the Report recommends that there should be a well-coordinated, long-range national plan to provide adequate resources and support for indigenous African languages. Similarly, the existing language development infrastructure such as the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), the National Language Services (NLS) of the Department of Arts and Culture and African Language Associations should be supported, maintained and monitored.

Additionally, the Report makes a point that the objective to develop official indigenous languages as mediums of instruction in higher education requires systemic undergirding by the entire schooling system and the enhanced public and social use of these languages in the daily lives of South Africans. It also recommends that each higher education institution should be required to identify an indigenous African language of choice for initial development as a medium of instruction. Higher education institutions could adopt a regional approach by taking collective decisions on areas of speciality to be targeted for teaching and learning in a specific indigenous African language. The Ministry is studying the Report and will, in due course, indicate the key areas to be pursued. The Report will shortly be distributed to the institutions and made available on the Department’s website. (

Endangered Languages Documentary Josep Cru notes that some friends in Barcelona (Milana Bonita) produced a nice documentary (48') on three endangered languages of Mexico (Lacandon, Mayo and Popoluca) entitled 'Última palabra-Last Word'. More info at:

The video tape can be purchased at:

CSUSM Professor Helps Preserve Guatemalan Language By David Garrick, Staff Writer North County Times

SAN MARCOS ---- A group of women who lost their husbands and fathers two decades ago in Guatemala's violent civil war are one step closer to telling the world their stories thanks to help from a cultural linguistics professor at Cal State San Marcos.

The language skills of the women have atrophied over the years because they spend virtually all of their time providing sustenance for themselves in a remote village in the hills of Guatemala, but Cal State assistant professor Jule Gomez de Garcia helped secure a $160,000 grant this summer that will help change that.

Gomez de Garcia helped persuade the National Science Foundation to provide enough funds to allow the women to spend nine hours per week honing their speaking, reading and writing skills in Ixil, an endangered Mayan language. The aim is to preserve the language and to allow the women to tell the world what happened to them and what their lives are like today.

"These women know that people have heard about the genocide and atrocities, and they know that some don't believe," said Gomez de Garcia, who has visited the northern Guatemala village several times. "They really want to tell their stories."

A component of the grant project will be a Web site featuring voice and video files of narratives that will be provided by 30 women in the village. The multimedia database is part of the Documenting Endangered Languages project, a new multi-year effort to digitally archive 70 at-risk languages before they become extinct.

Pat Worden, Cal State's interim vice president for student affairs, said this is exactly the type of project that the university encourages professors to tackle.

"One of our very important goals is having faculty involved in cutting-edge research," said Worden, who helped with the grant in her previous job as assistant vice president for research and international programs. "This project is a great example of the kind of research model we want here at Cal State."

Gomez de Garcia said the grant is already paying dividends, because the women have begun to study their language from 3 to 6 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This work comes after the women spend most of the day creating and selling traditional weavings and raising vegetables to sell at the local market.

"The women had been spending all their time on sustenance," said Gomez de Garcia, who joined the Cal State faculty in 2001. "They were refugees in the mountains who should have been learning to write, and because they didn't keep up the language, it has become endangered."

They have also realized that the world is bigger than they thought, and that the Internet will allow them to tell their stories to millions of people without leaving their small village, she said.

Gomez de Garcia, 54, said that it is crucial for native speakers of a language to preserve it themselves, without interference from others who might alter the language.

"Revitalization of a language can't come from outside," she said. "So we had to figure out the best way for them to do it themselves."

The grant will cover compensation for the audiovisual specialist who is creating the Web site and travel expenses for Gomez de Garcia and her two collaborators: Melissa Axelrod, a linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico, and Gomez de Garcia's daughter, Maria Luz Garcia, a graduate student at the University of Texas who has lived with the Guatemalan women on and off since 2001.

There are expected to be many thousands of dollars left over, and the women plan to buy something that will help sustain the group long-term, such as land or a business, Gomez de Garcia said.

Some people might not think it is a big deal to preserve endangered languages, Gomez de Garcia said, but languages help us understand how people live and how they think.

"Language is the window we have into how the mind works," she said.

Frontier Language Institute working to save script-less languages in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province

By Ghafar Ali 15 Sep 2005

PESHAWAR: Languages do not merely serve the purpose of communication. They carry and transmit the culture and history of their native speakers. The language a person speaks essentially determines the worldview of a person. Languages therefore are a primary source of identity. A huge diversity in the regional languages of a country may pose many challenges.

More than two-dozen languages of Indian-Aryan, Iranian, Tibetan and Nuristani origins are spoken in the NWFP and the Northern Areas, most of which do not have a script. Henrik Lijegran, a research consultant at the Frontier Language Institute (FLI) told Daily Times about his institute's efforts to preserve and promote the mother tongues of various language communities of northern Pakistan. He said one of the main objectives of the organisation is to document languages and cultures and to promote the educational use of these languages.

"The FLI facilitates local researchers by educating them in linguistics, literacy, anthropology, lexicography, translation, language planning, phonology and research methodology" he said. He said the training would allow individuals to preserve oral traditions, poetry, proverbs, folk tales and other aspects of their cultural heritage. This would also aid the development of bilingual or trilingual dictionaries and glossaries. The efforts aim to improve reading and writing skills to produce literature in the national, regional and vernacular languages of the region. He said the institute has facilitated the development of scripts of 20 regional languages.

"We want to offer a local language network that allows cultural exchange," the researcher said. He said the FLI would support a local project for the development of three languages - Gawri, Torwali, Palula - spoken in Chitral. Each of these languages has 10,000 to 100,000 speakers.

Indo-Aryan languages:
Bateri Indus Kohistan: >20,000
Chilisso Indus Kohistan: >2,000
Dameli Damel valley (Chitral): >2,000
Domaaki Hunza (Gilgit): >200
Gawar-Bati Arandu (Chitral): >200
Gawri Swat, Dir Kohistan: >20,000
Gowro Indus Kohistan: >200
Gojri Throughout the region: >200,000
Hindko Azad Kashmir, Kohat, Peshawar: >2,000,000
Indus Kohistani Indus Kohistan: >200,000
Kalasha Chitral: >2,000
Kalkoti Dir Kohistan: >2,000
Kashmiri Azad Kashmir: >20,000
Khowar (Chitrali) Chitral, Gilgit: >200,000
Kundal Shahi Azad Kashmir: >200
Pahari-Potwari Murree hills, Azad Kashmir: >2,000,000
Palula Chitral: >2,000
Shina Gilgit, Kohistan: >200,000
Torwali Behrain (Swat): >20,000
Ushojo Madyan (Swat): >200
Iranian languages:
Ormuri South Waziristan: >2,000
Pashto Throughout the region: >2,000,000
Wakhi Gilgit, Chitral: >2,000
Yidgha Lutkoh valley (Chitral): >2,000
Tibetan language:
Balti Baltistan: >200,000
Isolated language:
Burushaski Hunza, Nagar, Yasin: >20,000
Nuristani language:
Kam-Kataviri Chitral: >2,000