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Language on the Brink

By Nathan Welton

Some linguists believe that by the end of this century, 90 percent of the world’s seven thousand languages will have vanished. Some will disappear without a trace, and many more will barely be remembered. “If we only have a handful of languages left in one hundred years, linguistic theory will be hobbled,” says Catherine O’Connor, director of the Program in Applied Linguistics. Documenting dying languages leads us to a better understanding of our capacity for them, she says, and this can advance science in many ways. Deeper understanding of humans’ linguistic capacity might someday help us understand the process of language acquisition or disorders like dyslexia or aphasia. Nobody knows the full potential, but with only a few decades left on the clock, the race is on to learn as much as we can.

One language disappears every few weeks, and universities can’t train new linguists fast enough to document them. However, with support from a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Linguistics Program, O’Connor has developed an approach that puts talented young researchers into the field sooner than ever.

The method centers around O’Connor’s Linguistic Field Methods class, which teaches undergraduate and graduate students to properly document a language—how to describe its grammar, build a dictionary, and compile texts of its legends and myths. With support from the grant, her hands-on course sends a few students into the field for a summer of intensive data collection. By studying the same language for several years—in this case, a threatened Cameroonian tongue called Medumba—each new group of students builds upon the work of previous classes. Several undergraduates have received support from BU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) to add to the documentation effort. The combined efforts of four years of students have created a large body of knowledge in a remarkably short time. 

The class employs a language consultant: a native speaker with whom the students practice their fieldwork skills. In 2009, while searching for a consultant for her upcoming academic year, O’Connor met Ariane Ngabeu, an African graduate student working toward a PhD in French, whose native tongue even Google had barely heard of.

“I typed it in and nothing came up,” O’Connor recalls. “No grammar, no dictionaries—just a very short Bible translation.” As O’Connor and her co-principal investigator, Associate Professor Jonathan Barnes, learned more about early fieldwork on Medumba from the 1970s, they realized that the tonal system was extremely complex, and that the project’s success would largely depend on the knowledge and dedication of their Medumba consultant. Ngabeu, already an experienced French instructor, welcomed the opportunity to travel back to her home each summer to act as a guide during the fieldwork seasons.

At first glance, Medumba doesn’t seem in peril; nearly a quarter of a million people speak it. But like many languages, it’s threatened by a unique set of circumstances. Cameroon’s population is similar in size to Florida’s, but 250 completely different languages are spoken in the small West African nation. Most people speak their own native tongue as well as French or English, or sometimes all three. Colonial languages become more dominant every year, and in just a few generations they may displace languages that have been spoken for thousands of years.

Medumba speakers are proud of their language, O’Connor says, and have made tremendous strides to preserve it. A local Non-Governmental Organization, the Committee for the Study and Production of Works in Medumba (CEPOM), collaborates with the students each summer. Villagers welcome the young linguists into their homes and spend countless hours helping them document the tongue. The students’ work is rewarding, but requires the careful navigation of countless cultural norms and mores.

For example, during a 2010 field season dinner held in honor of the students, then-graduate student Nick Danis was presented with a delicacy reserved only for the most esteemed guests: the head of a barbecued goat. Danis, a self-described picky eater, was wary of offending anyone. He’d already mistakenly greeted his host, a local chief and respected elder, with a saying that essentially translates to “What’s up?” But, he says, “I did what any field-worker would do: said ‘thank you’ in our hosts’ native tongue, and chowed down.”

Integrating into daily life is essential for the students to properly understand how Cameroonians use Medumba to communicate. Every aspect of a day—from dining to dancing to learning about the culturally rich political system—helps them better document the language.

Collaboration between the villagers and students is the key to driving the project forward. “Four kids in Africa for the first time would have every reason to feel isolated, lost, and confused,” explains Anna Belew, a former graduate student in the program who now works on the Endangered Languages Catalogue at LinguistList, an online portal for linguists. “Throughout the trip, though, we met person after person whose kindness and generosity helped us feel right at home.”

Best of all, Belew says, her host family gave her a name identifying her gender, generation, and family: “I'll proudly be Ncanko Anna for the rest of my life.”

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