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[INTERN] Unpaid Internship Opportunity or Volunteers Needed / Endangered Language Alliance

It has been estimated that up to 90% of the world’s languages will not survive past this century due to increasing displacement by national languages.

Established in early 2010, the Endangered Language Alliance is working to document some of these languages through collaboration with local communities of speakers here in NYC as well as abroad. In these efforts we have collected hundreds of hours of recordings which we would now like to use as a basis for educational outreach.

We are looking for help in visualizing our data, enhancing the functionality and usability of our database, and generally improving our WordPress site to allow for great access.

Work can be done remotely and, although it is unpaid, we can offer an incredible learning opportunity and connection to world class scholars and artists working on these important issues.  It will be an adventure!

Details follow below — interested parties can contact:
Daniel Kaufman

The following represent some of the challenges we now face in bringing this data to life visually and interactively. The crux of each problem is framed as one or two questions. We welcome all takers and would be most happy to further discuss the details with you!

1. Tying world languages to neighborhoods

When discussing NYC’s multilingualism we often hear about languages like Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and other major world languages. However, within the Mexican enclave of Corona and the East European enclave around Brighton Beach, to take just two examples, we find a multitude of endangered minority language speakers nestled within larger linguistic communities speaking “world languages”.

– How can we visualize the links between these languages in NYC and their places of origin around the world?

– How can we visualize the small place of these minority languages within their larger national communities here in NYC?

2. Visualizing the spread of families

The death of individual languages often goes hand in hand with the spread of entire language families at the expense of smaller ones. The expansion and contraction of language families is thus an important part of understanding language endangerment and death.

– How can we best visualize the spreading and shrinking of languages and language families?

Several attempts have been made to map out endangered languages on a global scale. Two examples can be found on the following sites:
The UNESCO map is the result of a scientific study on the numbers of speakers of as many languages as there exists substantial data for. The National Geographic map is a less refined map which tries to convey in more general terms which geographic areas contain the most small endangered languages (endangerment “hotspots”).

3. Case studies in language transmission

Although always informed by national policies and the society at large, the life or death of a language is ultimately dependent on a multitude of small choices made on the family level. Language choice within the household is thus a crucial ingredient in understanding language endangerment. Because the situation of endangered indigenous languages is to some extent mirrored by the situation of larger immigrant languages in places like NYC, we can find many relevant examples locally.

– Focusing on one or more families here in NYC, how can we use audio-visual media to explain their language choices and some of the factors behind those choices?

4. Vocabulary learning in endangered languages

Part of our mission involves creating teaching materials for some of the languages that we work with. One particular challenge comes from our extensive collection of audio phrases (~1,600) from the Circassian language which we would make available on-line. We’ve begun making podcasts with this material but we are also looking to do something more sophisticated with it.

– How can this collection be made easily searchable and interactive? How can it be made more fun?

5. Language contact and etymologies

All languages reveal the social history of its speakers through loan words. The impact of Roman culture on the English is still highly visible via Latin in the modern language. Compare the first, colloquially written, passage below with the second one, from a technical textbook on linguistics. The words in blue have Germanic origins while the words in red have ultimate origins in Latin (with green indicating other):

If I were to put you in front of a dock and I pulled up a skid in front of you with fifty hundred-pound sacks of potatoes and there are fifty more skids just like it, and this what you’re going to do all day, what would you think about – potatoes? Unless a guy’s a nut, he never thinks about work or talks about it.

– Studs Terkel “Working”

The articulation of consonants is generally characterized by the constriction and partitioning of the oral-pharyngeal vocal tract, with the addition, in the case of nasal or nasalized consonants, of coupling of the nasal cavity system.

– Clark et al “An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology”

Note that in the technical passage only the function words like “the”, “of” and “in” were originally native to English. All the nouns and verbs are derived from Latin. Although the above passages are taken from work that was written in the last several decades, we would be correct in concluding that the development of science in the English speaking world ultimately emerged from Roman roots. With the vast majority of the world’s languages, this type of linguistic archeology has only just begun. We would like to apply similar analyses to some of the languages we are working with.

– What kind of visual template could be used to explore etymology and borrowing?

– How is the spread of words best mapped out?
One example of this can be found in the World Atlas of Linguistic Structure where there exists a page dedicated to words for “tea”. Evidence for the routes by which tea spread from China are found in its pronunciation. While 109 languages take their word from Sinitic cha, 81 languages refer to tea with a word derived from Min Nan tee. The distribution of these two words show the routes by which tea spread.