What's different about language documentation with endangered languages?

Linguists and language maintenance practitioners working with endangered languages have discovered many levels of complexity about this task — some of them linguistic, and some of them socio-cultural and political. There is a list of useful publications on this site which can provide you with more insights into the issues we raise here.

Fieldwork with endangered languages involves a certain urgency to optimise documentation as this might be the only opportunity to document a particular language and associated cultural practices. While all language documentation ideally is as rich as possible, there is a special onus on the recording of endangered languages to include information in different genres, spoken by men and women of different ages, and including traditional knowledge specific to the local culture and environment. The different genres should include monologic storytelling, the most usual type of discourse recorded by linguists, but also other kinds of interactions using the language. These could include village or community meetings, performances, conversations, songs, religious events and so on.

Fieldworkers may confront the enormity of the task of trying to record the wide range of socio-cultural knowledge encoded in an endangered language (e.g. kinship systems, indigenous medical knowledge, the structure of song and dance styles, etc.). Drawing on the expertise of others by undertaking collaborative research can be a way of meeting this challenge (for example, with anthropologists, ethnobiologists, ethnomusicologists, etc.). However collaborative research also brings its own challenges - of finding the experts, learning to work in an interdisciplinary mode, and the expense of a large scale documentation project.

Linguists documenting endangered languages also need to understand local conceptions of knowledge which determine for each community who is a speaker (knowledge) and who has the right to speak (ownership). These issues may (de)limit the linguist's access to speakers. Linguists are beginning to discuss the issues of finding and working with consultants, identifying so-called 'last speakers' and working with linguistic resources which may be less than perfect from a linguistic perspective.

Language endangerment frequently occurs in an environment of conflict, transition and transformation. Fieldworkers may find themselves confronted by a wide variety of challenges, such as becoming involved in advocacy and community development, and needing to reassess a more conventional relationship between linguist and consultant and community in order to work within an 'empowering' framework. We also may realise that we need specialised training to teach us how to do the applied work that communities may ask us to do.