Researchers work to save languages from extinction

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The University of Newcastle has been awarded three grants from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP), UK, to assist in the documentation of endangered Pacific languages.

ELDP Grants

University of London, UK, early career researcher, Michael Franjieh, has been awarded £140,605 ($261,973 AUD) to embark on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship with UON's Endangered Languages Documentation, Theory and Application (ELDTA) research programme. His work will document the severely endangered Orkon/Fanbak language in Vanuatu.

By involving the 30 remaining speakers of the language in the research, this project will raise awareness of the impending loss of the Orkon/Fanbak language. Michael hopes this will have a positive impact on the use of the language and improve the prospect of language maintenance.

"Not much is known about the language of Orkon/Fanbak. It's a purely oral language with no written tradition," said Michael. "As part of this project, a tri-lingual Orkon/Fanbak, English and Bislama dictionary will also be created. This will be given to members of the community for use in language maintenance and also be made available for cross-linguistic research."

Two smaller grants will fund field work on four endangered languages of the Solomon Islands' very remote Temotu Province. ELDTA PhD student Aslak Vaag Olesen has received a £10,000 ($18,630 AUD) grant from ELDP for his project on three languages on the island of Utupua. All are highly endangered and almost completely undocumented. None of them has more than a few hundred speakers, and all are under great pressure from the expanding use of Pijin.

Aslak's work will benefit from the supervision of ELDTA member Dr Åshild Næss, who has also been awarded a £10,000 ($18,630 AUD) grant by the ELDP to expand the documentation of the Äiwoo language – also from Temotu Province.

In addition to linguistic pressures, the Äiwoo-speaking communities are experiencing a genuine threat from rising sea levels, which is encroaching on the already limited land resources of the low coral islands where the majority of speakers live.

Dr Næss believes this development is likely to lead to more people leaving the islands and migrating to more central areas of the Solomons, a context known to lead to language loss as new generations grow up in an environment where Pijin is the main language of everyday interaction. It is therefore essential to carry out documentation of Äiwoo while it is still in use in a wide range of domains.

UON is quickly becoming the foremost centre for Oceanic linguistics in the world, due to the work of our ELDTA research program.

"Experts predict that between 50 and 90 per cent of all the approximately 7,000 languages spoken today will become extinct in the next 100 years," says ELDTA program leader Dr Bill Palmer, "and most of them have not yet been documented. If they are allowed to disappear without being recorded, each will take with it unique insights into history, culture, the natural environment and the human mind. ELDTA's work is essential in documenting endangered languages to preserve them for future generations, and help stimulate language maintenance."

  • Katie Vullo, Media and Public Relations
  • Phone: 02 4921 5577

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.