11.08.2004 -

UNESCO to Publish Handbook on Language Preservation and Documentation

Aimée Lahaussois, a Linguistic Expert in Nepalese languages, along with several leading international experts in linguistic and language revitalization, have been developing a Language Preservation Handbook. This project is one of the activities carried out by UNESCO's Initiative B@bel which seeks to promote multilingualism in cyberspace and preserve endangered languages.

Recently, Aimée was in Nepal carrying out independent research on endangered languages. She seized the opportunity to use the handbook and field test its effectiveness.


The handbook, entitled "Language Preservation and Documentation Handbook: South Asia version", provides a methodology for native speakers of endangered languages to record their languages for posterity. The project was inspired by requests from several members of ethnic minorities in Nepal who were interested in self documenting their languages. For many ethnic groups, assimilation and other processes have lead to the decline of indigenous culture as well as their languages and knowledge systems. UNESCO would like to see this rich human heritage preserved.


The handbook guides the reader through the process of collecting linguistic data on one's endangered language in the absence of a linguist, as well as stories which are an important part of the heritage of the community. The document begins with a questionnaire covering background information on the language community, followed by advice on creating a writing system, and lists of key words. It then guidelines them in recording and transcribing stories, and concludes with material on various aspects of the grammar of the language, through questionnaires and translation exercises. Oral recordings of the languages are also an important part of this exercise.


Here are some of the impressions of Aimée Lahaussois' first experience with the handbook:

"Working with a young speaker of an endangered language reinforced for me what documentation is all about, and why it is important to provide tools so native speakers can carry out their own documentation: after three weeks of excellent work with a very talented and enthusiastic speaker, I tried to pay him as compensation for the time and energy he put into our sessions, thinking this would be welcome, as life is particularly difficult for students in a developing country. I was moved when he refused the money, citing that it was I who deserved compensation as I was doing his community the enormous favour of making sure their language was recorded and preserved. Clearly there is a great need for efforts such as this."


It is hoped that the results will not only provide a record of the language, as spoken by native speakers, but will also stimulate renewed community-wide interest in the language, which may in turn reduce the rate at which languages are being lost.


Indeed, a great many minority languages are disappearing around the world and those which disappear without a trace represent a great loss of cultural heritage. One critical reason is that they are not being passed on to the younger generations. Some of the causes include pressure on children to use national languages, unavailability of education in the language spoken at home, migration away from the homeland amongst others. Often, only older speakers are left and when they disappear, so do these languages. In the case of languages with no written form which have not been documented, no trace remains of what was once a vibrant and unique language and culture.


A CD-ROM and print version of this handbook will be published by the end of September.

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