The Race to Document Endangered Languages, Now That We Have the Technology

It was a balmy day in Taiwan in November 2019, and I was rummaging through the Family Mart adjoined to the Qishan Bus Station. It was my last chance for 9V batteries and spicy tuna rice balls before taking a taxi into the mountains, where many of the remaining Indigenous languages of the island are spoken, the rest having been replaced by Chinese—the language of settlers from the Asian mainland who slowly took over the arable plainsland over the last few hundred years, as well as of the current ROC regime.

The 16 Indigenous languages still spoken in Taiwan today—the Formosan group—are tragically endangered, with three Formosan languages down to a single-digit number of speakers and a fourth rapidly encroaching. The languages are very well documented in some areas of their grammar and very poorly in others. The available documentation is the result of efforts by community members who create resources for their language’s revitalization movement and from local and foreign scholars.

The goal of my PhD dissertation project is to investigate one of the most poorly documented aspects of language. And I’m going to use a secret weapon, which I bought at B&H. To record, I use a Sony PCM-M10 recorder and a Røde Videomic, which I bought in a $379 bundle marketed to aspiring YouTubers, which I am not. Thankfully, it’s a directional (or ‘shotgun’) microphone, which records whatever you point it at louder than sound coming from other directions. This has allowed me to record analyzable elusive data in a sawmill, during a military drill, and while surrounded by dogs. (Not at the same time, luckily!)

The gaping hole in documentary linguistics which requires such equipment is something called prosody, which is easy to feel but hard to hear.

Read more: Gizmodo

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