Science & Technology

The transforming landscape of linguistic diversity

The Montreal Underdocumented Languages Linguistics Lab (MULL-Lab) houses linguists from McGill and the wider Montreal community who focus their research on languages that are considered to be at risk of extinction because so few people speak them. For example, MULL has ongoing research on Inuktitut and Tlingit, two Indigenous languages from Nunavut and Alaska, respectively. Underdocumented can also refer to languages with a stable number of speakers but a relatively small amount of academic material written about them. Languages in this category include Igala in Nigeria and a number of Mayan languages spoken throughout Central America. 

Regardless of the unique situation of a given language, MULL researchers approach each language with the goal of identifying patterns, understanding the inner workings of its grammar, and untangling nuances that have not been previously identified.

Elicitation is one of the primary ways linguists investigate how a language works. This method allows linguists to formulate hypotheses and questions about the grammar of a language and test them systematically by collecting direct feedback from native speakers. 

“It’s basically an interview. We ask [a native speaker], ‘How do you say this? How do you say that?’ and we write it out on the board in chalk. Using that, we trace out the outlines of the grammar,” explained Terrence Gatchalian, a PhD student in linguistics at McGill, in an interview with The McGill Tribune

But elicitation has its limits. “A speaker’s knowledge of their language is incredibly deep, it’s very far reaching, and at any given point, you’re only going to get a small corner of that linguistic knowledge,” Gatchalian said. 

One way to get a broader view of a language is to work with a corpus, which is a collection of speech and writing from native speakers.

“When you’re looking at corpora, you get a good distribution of what kinds of things that a speaker will say if they want to express [some] meaning,” Gatchalian said. “You get the benefit of having very naturalistic data—these are things that someone said.”

McGill’s Department of Linguistics is primarily focused on studying language data in support of theoretical work, but Jessica Coon, a professor in the department, points out that a linguist’s ethical obligations increase when they start working with endangered languages. 

“I think there’s an added responsibility when doing theoretical work with underdocumented languages to make sure that the outputs of that work––while they might contribute to linguistic theory and they might also go in journals that are really theoretically oriented––can also be communicated to community members in an accessible way,” Coon said in an interview with the Tribune.

Linguists have not always taken this responsibility seriously, engaging instead in extractive linguistics—the practice of going into a community, studying the language, leaving, and eventually publishing the results in a journal, typically in a manner that’s inaccessible to members of the community who are directly impacted by language extinction. 

Over the last few decades, however, linguists have shifted towards a more collaborative approach with communities of speakers. This means valuing the work done by native-speaker linguists, taking community goals into account when designing research projects, and ensuring that any gained linguistic insight is shared with the source community. 

“It’s really just like a completely new learning process every single time, because every community is going to have different challenges, every community’s going to have different goals,” Gatchalian said. “As someone who tries to do this work, I think it’s important to be really flexible and open minded.”

Prioritizing the goals and needs of speaker communities is especially important given that many of those communities are in the process of completely losing their language. Of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken globally, over 40 per cent, or more than 2,800, are endangered, and many of these endangered languages are spoken by Indigenous peoples around the world. In response to the crisis, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared the decade from 2022 to 2032 to be the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL). Through the IDIL and other initiatives, language documentation work around the world is trying to keep pace with the rate of language loss. 

“The time is really now to be doing this very important work, because for many languages around the world, they’re in a very critical state where the language is not being passed on to new generations of speakers in the home,” Coon said. 

At McGill, MULL is one place where this work is happening, but there is currently no specialized support for those interested in language revitalization. In 2021, $3 million of a larger donation from Gerald Rimer was allocated to establishing the Institute for Indigenous Research and Knowledges at McGill, which will include a lab specifically dedicated to the revitalization of Indigenous languages. 

This institute will bring some much-needed focus and structural support to the study of Indigenous languages spoken in and around Montreal, such as Kanien’kéha. 

“When you look at the universities that support programs related to Indigenous languages or revitalization or conservation efforts, there aren’t very many of them, even though there are communities whose languages are in need of that kind of support all over the place,” said Willie Myers, a graduate student in McGill’s linguistics department, in an interview with the Tribune

Language revitalization and conservation is a pressing issue globally, but especially so in Canada, where there are more than 70 languages across 12 language families. 

“In many respects, the Indigenous languages of Canada are as different from each other as they are from any other human languages. Because of this, it’s very difficult to generalize about Indigenous languages in this country,” James Crippen, who is Tlingit and a professor in McGill’s Department of Linguistics, wrote in an email to the Tribune. “But we can confidently say one general thing: All Indigenous languages in Canada are endangered or threatened.”

All of the language conservation work being done by native speakers, community members, and outsider linguists raises the question: Why is it important to preserve endangered and threatened languages? In other words, what is lost when a language disappears?

“There are […] fuzzy claims about how the loss of the language takes with it some mysterious connection to the world or to nebulous, often magical ideas that nobody wants to actually explain,” Crippen said. “Although this kind of discourse might be well intended, it’s honestly just as harmful as the rhetoric about how our languages are bizarre.”

Culturally and linguistically, there are compelling reasons to care about language loss. For example, as Crippen explained, fluency in a language is often the only way to appreciate the verbal artistry of a language’s stories or songs. On the linguistics side, documenting as wide a variety of languages as possible is fundamental to making accurate claims about language. One goal of linguistics is to make generalizations about the ways that all languages function and what the underlying patterns are. In order to do this work accurately, it’s imperative that linguists look at diverse languages. But at some point, these lines of reasoning must go beyond the academic.

“First and foremost people use their languages for everyday life,” Crippen wrote. “I tell learners of Indigenous languages that they should learn how to wipe their butt in the language, learn how to pick their nose in the language, learn how to fight in the language, and learn how to love in the language. It’s those ways of describing ordinary lived experience that are the most visceral and the most human.”

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