What Can We Contribute to Language Documentation?

Written by Dyami Millarson

When we study endangered languages, they may already have been documented to some extent. So what is the value of our work? When we study endangered languages, we do not expect them to be fully documented and might be in desperate need of having gaps of knowledge identified. We can identify whatever is lacking by learning the endangered languages ourselves. We immerse ourselves in the languages and therefore we can experience ourselves what is missing. Language study is, therefore, a (final) test of the documentation efforts (i.e., a quality control). Our goal is to spot gaps and to quickly fill them up preventing that the last fluent speakers’ proficient knowledge of the language is lost forever.

Even if there is already some documentation, it has proven worthwile to go over all the materials again and see whether one can express oneself proficiently in all areas that one would use the language for. If grammatical forms, structures, idioms and words are missing, these need to be supplied fast and accurately. By simply learning endangered languages, I come across all sorts of technical and practical problems that would otherwise have been harder to identify. Language study truly provides the much needed close and thorough examination of all documented materials. We are not easily satisfied with the existing materials and we will do whatever it takes to find new information that deserves documenting.

Learning to speak (and write) endangered languages is, in conclusion, definitely not redundant work. In fact, it is the work that has to be done for a quality control. Many documentation efforts have not been sufficiently controlled, and even if they were controlled by some learners, it would not hurt to go over the materials again to look for possible errors and gaps. I find it highly satisfying whenever I manage to identify a gap, because knowing that I can contribute to our knowledge of world’s endangered languages is encouraging. All small contributions matter in this field, because the more we have, the better the chances that the languages in question can be fully revitalised at any future date.

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