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Professor works to preserve languages before extinction

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Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012 7:00 am

English professor Kristine Hildebrandt understands that only the community that speaks a language can save a language, but she won’t let that prevent her from investigating and documenting four tribal languages of Nepal before they disappear from the planet.

For 15 years, Hildebrandt’s research has centered on four endangered languages from the Manang District of Nepal. These languages, Manange, Gurung, Gyalsumdo and Nar-Phu, have become endangered because, as fewer and fewer young people speak their native tongue, the languages are not passed to the next generation.

Of the 6,000-7,000 distinct languages in the world today, it is believed by researchers that more than half of the languages will disappear in the next 100 years.

“It’s much like endangered rain forests or mammal species,” Hildebrandt said. “It’s not just Earth’s critters and creatures that can become endangered but also aspects of our human nature, culture and practices can become endangered. One of those human aspects is language, and language use.”

Language endangerment and the loss of languages is not just the result of modern day globalization, but has long been a part of human history.

“Many of the reasons behind language endangerment have to do with the changes that go on politically and economically within societies,” Hildebrandt said. “When you have large scale economic and political shifts that go on, you have marginalization of certain communities and cultures. One of the consequences of marginalization can be either a conscious or subconscious decision by that community to abandon its ancestral language, practices and culture, and instead, adopt the languages and culture of more dominant society.”

As a result of Hildebrandt’s work, SIUE has received its first Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation. The CAREER program offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards supporting outstanding research by junior faculty.

“No one gets CAREER grants,” Hildebrandt said. “They are very hard to get, and this is SIUE’s first. So, we’re all very happy about receiving it.”

The $400,000 grant has allowed Hildebrandt to continue her work and broaden the scope of her research. Hildebrandt’s project, The Manang Languages Documentation Project, is a collaboration involving several institutions including Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu and the University of Virginia, as well as faculty and students from SIUE.

The goal of the project is not just to document languages using traditional methods but also to incorporate state-of-the-art data visualization interfaces and tools.  Geography professor Shunfu Hu is developing an online atlas to graphically depict the language findings within the region.

“The atlas of the area will help us start to look at the regional distribution of different linguistic properties like vocabulary use,” Hildebrandt said. “Most language documentation projects don’t try to map their findings in a spatial way.  So, this is something different, something new.”

Hildebrandt and her team have recently returned from the first of three summer trips to Nepal. Through canvassing and interviewing local inhabitants, they hope to log data about certain subareas within the Manang District. This year, they did one subarea and over the next two summers they hope to repeat their research in two more.

“The Manang District is a county, much in the way that Madison County is a county in Illinois,” Hildebrandt said. “It’s a large area, and we could only cover a certain part of that area this year. The four languages we are researching are spoken in this county or district. My goal is to go into villages in the region and gather both attitude and usage data as well as more linguistic data for the analysis of the grammar of these languages.”

Curriculum and instruction professor Jessica Krim will assist Hildebrandt in the processing of the data collected and the integration of the data in active learning experiences for students in Hildebrandt’s undergraduate class.

“It’s important that people understand about ‘dying’ languages,” Krim said. “For most people, this concept is completely foreign.”

The project is an interdisciplinary effort. Hildebrandt has called upon faculty and students from several different fields to help with data collecting, processing and the creating of innovative multimedia platforms for exhibition.

Senior graphic design and English major Samantha Winkler was brought on last spring semester to add her skills to the project.

“[Hildebrandt] felt that my background in both English and design would be beneficial to the projects needs,” Winkler said. “I enjoy the interdisciplinary aspects of the project. The multimedia mapping and thorough cataloging of the people these languages belong to will offer vast learning opportunities for many disciplines including geography, history, linguistics and language studies, anthropology, engineering and graphic design — to name a few.”

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