Ensuring that Languages Live On

Penfield works with several endangered languages, including Chemehuevi, a southern Paiute language spoken in Arizona by just three known individuals, and Mojave, a Yuman language still spoken along the lower Colorado River by about 20 people.
November 16, 2012

While the future of such languages may seem grim, the Endangered Languages Project, seeded by Google.org, is helping researchers world-wide to preserve such near-extinct languages – and a University of Arizona researcher is among those advising the initiative.

Susan D. Penfield, PhD, research coordinator for the UA's Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry and the Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language and Literacy (CERCLL) serves as a member of Google's invitation-only Alliance Advisory Committee.

The committee – comprised of only 20 expert linguists, anthropologists, program managers and others across the U.S. and abroad – advised the development of the projects site, a centralized hub for people around the globe working to document and preserve more than 3,000 languages. 

Preserving Linguistic Diversity with Technology

"There hasn't been a comprehensive place to go that would have information about languages, how to work with them and how to work with communities," Penfield said. "So, this is part of a response to get up-to-date information on the status of world languages."

The site enables people to upload and store data; to share knowledge and research, stories and advice; and also to organize collaborative projects.

"It's a big world, and you have people working in different pockets. Someone may be developing some new way, through technology or practice, of working with a language, and they need to share that information," Penfield says.  

Penfield works with several endangered languages, including Chemehuevi, a southern Paiute language spoken in Arizona by just three known individuals, and Mojave, a Yuman language still spoken along the lower Colorado River by about 20 people. 

Emphasizing that preserving languages is critically important, Penfield said whole bodies of scientific and cultural knowledge and meaning are embedded in different languages.

Without preservation efforts, "we're losing knowledge, and we don't know for sure what we're losing," she says. "We will not understand the human capacity for organizing knowledge if we lose the understanding of language form, function and content."

One such threatened language is Koro, spoken by fewer than 4,000 people in the northeast region of India. 

Another is Aragonese, spoken by fewer than 10,000 people in a region between France and Spain.

Also on the list is the Navajo or Diné language, spoken by an estimated 120,000 worldwide.

Backed by the newly established Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, the site will now be managed by the First Peoples' Cultural Council and The Institute for Language Information and Technology, or The LINGUIST List, at Eastern Michigan University.

Under the project, research on endangered languages is being shared by the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, or ELCat, led by teams at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and Eastern Michigan University. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the team will share research online.

The advisory committee for the Endangered Languages Project will continue to inform the site's development. Penfield brings expansive knowledge and experience to the team.

A Career Built on Language Preservation

For more than 40 years, Penfield has researched, documented and preserved indigenous languages. She also has studied and published on the emergent use of technology for language preservation. 

Penfield's initial contact with Google, which led to her invitation to join the project, came while serving as the program officer for the Documenting Endangered Languages, a multi-agency initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. She held the post from 2008 to 2011, arriving at the UA last year. 

In May, she received a three-year appointment to serve as a research associate for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. 

In addition to her work at CERCLL and Confluencenter, Penfield teaches courses offered by the American Indian Language Development Institute and is affiliated with the UA's Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, or SLAT.

In her future work with the Endangered Languages Project, Penfield will join others in establishing protocols for the site and continue to inform how the site is organized and managed. 

"One of the big issues for endangered languages is how and where information about them is being archived," said Penfield, a three-time UA alumna who has earned degrees in anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology.

"Electronic archiving is really what drove this new discipline documenting endangered languages, a new field of study," she said. "With electronic archiving, we have new potential. There is so much more data that dictionaries are just the tip of the iceberg."

Learn more about UA efforts to preserve Native American languages at the American Indian Language Development Institute.

Go deeper and check out the UA Master of Arts program in Native American Languages and Linguistics led by Associate Professor Mary Willie and Regents’ Professor Ofelia Zepeda.