Language-Learning May Aid the Language Documentation Process

Written by Dyami Millarson

When one learns an endangered language, one may acquire the ability to explain peculiar features of that language. For instance, I have certainly noticed that when we learned Sagelterland Frisian, we acquired the ability to explain its pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Being able to read, write and speak an endangered language is usually linked with the ability to explain, describe or even teach a language. It is an obvious truth that any parent is able to teach their child how to speak their language, and any fluent speaker is able to teach others his language. If this were not the case, no human speech community could have survived and no child would have easily learned its parents’ language. Humans are perfectly equipped to learn and teach languages. My point with this is that any language learner can turn into a language teacher, and while this is the case, any language learner can contribute to the documentation of a language for future generations.

In fact, I do not believe that language documentation should merely be seen as writing things on a piece of paper or in a document on the computer. Before the age of writing, languages were transmitted orally for eons and we should remember that this is the essence of languages, and therefore it is also important for endangered languages to continue to be spoken. More importantly, we should understand that every fluent speaker of an endangered language has basically fully documented the endangered language in his mind or brain. When one learns to speak a language fluently, one becomes a representative of that language; human beings are one with the languages that they speak, and that is why we may derive an identity from a language. This means that when one successfully acquires a minority language, one has documented a language in one’s brain; as it were, all the information about that language’s pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar has been written or coded into one’s brain. The brain of every fluent speaker of a minority language basically stores a copy of the template of the language. Just as one may store information about an endangered language in a book, the brain is humanity’s most ancient tool to document languages.

Before we had books, we had to rely on our brains to document languages. Based on the view that learning a language is the most traditional way to document said language, it is vital to stimulate people to learn endangered languages and to use their brains to store information about those languages. Since brains are biological, languages are subject to various influences from those biological brains, and an accumulation of those influences results in languages changing over time. However, when languages are documented in books, they may remain in an unaltered state. While the information may survive intact for much longer, even this information may theoretically be lost in time, although that would practically be a rare occurrence in the modern world. In contrast to books, brains have a biological lifespan that is linked to their biological human host, and this means that when a human being who is a fluent speaker of a minority language dies, this may mean a loss from the perspective of language documentation. After all, we may view the brain as the traditional tool of language documentation, while books are fairly modern tools for this purpose.

When one learns an endangered language to fluency, one does not only help to document that language, but one is also saving that language. So it is imperative that endangered languages be learned because fluent speakers are the representatives of a language and learners’ brains are the “ultimate” traditional tools of language documentation. It does definitely help when language learners seek to master both the spoken and written language, because when they can also write the endangered language, their writings can be read by future generations. There is nothing against writing and documenting languages in books, but the greatest emphasis ought to be on the most traditional methods (i.e., learning and actively using languages) because that is how languages have traditionally survived; languages ought to be learned, because when they are not learned and used by humans, they become dead. It is a human tradition to learn and transmit languages, and when one wishes to save and document endangered languages, one ought to keep this in mind.

Languages are dying simply as a result of there being no or not enough learners. This can best be remedied by pointing out the obvious fact that the language ought be learned. Someone needs to take the first step to learn the language again after an interlude where the language wasn’t learned. It is our goal at Operation X to help endangered language communities take the first steps in the right direction and it is our goal to document and save languages by simply studying them. We wish to make people aware that the way to document and save endangered languages is simply learning them, and that this is the most traditional, and perhaps the most natural, method one can employ. We at Operation X view language-learning and language-teaching (i.e., transmission) as human linguistic traditions that are absolutely essential to language revitalisation and documentation. We know that people are usually stuck in the view that language document ought to be done with written documents or that languages ought to be recorded in other technology-based ways, but we believe in documenting languages in the traditional biological way that all humans are capable of. In fact, our brains are fully capable of recording languages properly and it is our goal at Operation X to prove that human beings have the inborn ability to record endangered languages. Our views may garner criticism from the scientific community, but our methods are practical and efficient.

When it comes to saving languages that are on the brink of death, the most efficient and practical methods ought to be used, and in fact, those include simply learning the language and doing charity by lending one’s own brain to store information about the language. Indeed, when one learns an endangered language to fluency, one is actually doing charity with one’s brain, and that is exactly the kind of charity that we will keep doing at Operation X in order to support endangered language community, which are in dire need of enthusiastic language learners, who are willing to lend their brains for language documentation and language revitalisation. Due to traditional East Asian as well as ancient European philosophical influence in the charitable work of Operation X, we take a very human-centric view, which sees human beings, rather than books, as embodiments of language revitalisation and representatives of language documentation. The very survival of languages depends on humans rather than books, because only human beings are the proper carriers of languages. When we learn languages, we carry the knowledge of those languages within us, and this truth supports the notion that only humans can truly save and document languages. Books and other technologies are only aids; they may be useful, but they aren’t necessary components for the implementation of language documentation and language revitalisation, because human brains are ultimately the best candidates for documenting and saving languages. Linguistic decline is a problem for humanity that requires a human solution. The proper human response to noting that a language is dying is to learn the language and thus alter its fate. For as long as the human being lives who has learned the language, the language will live on, and so if the learner passes the language on to other learners, the language can live on indefinitely.


  1. Language recorded in written words or computers is only two forms of language. There are more forms of language than these two. Obviously, the language the brain remembers can have many functions. For example, the realisation of the function of information transformation, the function of description, the function of transmission, the abstract concept which can be embodied through brain language and so on. A language is also endangered because very few people learn it, not just because no one records it (in writing or on computers). Therefore, the transmission of language from generation to generation is very important for language protection.

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    • Linguists ostensibly believe that language documentation can only be fulfilled through non-biological means: drafting written documents or using mechanical devices to record the endangered language. They scoff at the notion that when a language is learned by a human being, the language is documented. However, the human brain naturally maps a language and it needs to know all of its structural items properly in order to be able to make the best use of the language. Therefore, a fluent speaker who has stored the language in his brain is a person who has recorded or documented the language properly. After all, when linguists wish to document a language, they also need to rely on fluent speakers and what they are doing is essentially transferring the knowledge of the fluent speakers into written documents or audio files.


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