International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

by on March 17, 2015

Every two years, at the end of February, linguists, language workers, and speakers of some of the world’s most endangered languages gather in Honolulu, on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu for the International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC). Many from the northern hemisphere enjoy the opportunity to escape the long winter, while those of us travelling from Singapore enjoyed the evening chill and the lack of humidity.

The 4th iteration of the ICLDC was held in Honolulu with over 460 people in attendance. The event has outgrown its old home at the University of Hawai’i’s Mānoa campus and for the first time was held at the Ala Moāna conference centre. It has now become the biggest event on the calendar for those who are interested in the documentation, conservation, and revitalisation of the world’s linguistic diversity. Hawai’i is a great location for this conference, and not just because of the weather. The revitalisation of the Hawaiian language has been a successful programme that is emulated by other languages with small speaker populations around the world. In addition, the University of Hawai’i’s linguistics department is known for its description and conservation work, and is home to the journal of Language Documentation and Conservation. Perhaps the only disadvantage of the location is that work in Africa and Europe is somewhat under-represented, due to the difficulty that researchers and communities from these areas face in reaching Hawai’i.

This is the second time I’ve attended the ICLDC, and what I always enjoy is the variety of what I learn. I pick up some practical tips and ideas for what tools to use, at the talks—one such talk I attended was on eliciting evidentiality. Evidentiality is the part of the grammar of a language that indicates the source of the information you have. For example, in Yolmo—a language spoken in the Lamjung district in Nepal—there are word forms that indicate this, such as:

– used when you know something because you see or sense it

yè – used when you know something from habitual experience

Thus, if used in a sentence, “áma òŋderaŋ ” and “áma òŋderaŋ would both mean ‘mother is coming’, but the first can only be used when you can see (or hear) that your mum is approaching, while the second one can be used if you know your mum always comes home at 5pm, for example. (If you’re keen on learning more about evidentiality, see this.)

So while English has things like tense to distinguish past from present, many other languages of the world also have a category for distinguishing things you know by inferring based on evidence. So at the talk, it was suggested that using a modified version of the Mastermind board game was a good way to get interesting instances of language use. The game is a classic 1980s board game where players have to guess the sequence of moves decided by their opponent. So in the modified version, by getting people to work in pairs to guess the code, a lot of evidential forms are produced as players move from making inferences to gaining more information.

The conferences were also an opportunity to think critically about the theoretical practice of documenting and revitalising language, which is why I presented a paper with some colleagues on the importance of writing a clear methodology when presenting data from documentation.

Another reason I love ICLDC conferences is that many of the talks are built around the specific experiences of the author(s). I love finding out about the linguistic landscape of countries I have never been to, and realising that every community offers its own unique language situation and cultural context. For example, in Tony Woodbury’s plenary talk I learnt that in Yup’ik—a language spoken by indigenous peoples in parts of Alaska and the Russian Far East—the word for “insurance” translates into English as something like ‘means for preventing a tendency to be distressed.’

At this conference it becomes clear that for every language we document there is so much work to be done. Not only should we document as many different genres as possible, but also archive this work and make it accessible to the community. We should be thinking about how people are using this language, whether they have a writing system, how the things we document can be used to make language teaching materials, games, and records for the community.

One thing that becomes more and more clear to me is that the documentation of any given language cannot be the work of an individual, but must be the work of a team (including members of the language community) with a variety of skill-sets. A linguist may know what to document, but a videographer can ensure it’s done well, an archivist can ensure those materials are properly maintained, and other researchers can provide specialist knowledge, whether it’s an ethnobotanist looking at plant words, musicologists looking at song traditions, or a language-teaching specialist to help the community design an after-school language programme. This isn’t always easy—people may not always be available, and funding bodies often encourage more focused projects—but I think more people are beginning to see that a linguist isn’t the only role in the successful documentation of a language.

Language documentation requires such a diverse range of skills—technical, academic, and social. Every two years, ICLDC provides a more nuanced understanding of the communities that participate in language documentation, conservation, and revitalisation efforts. I’m already looking forward to the 5th ICLDC in 2017.


If you missed out on this year’s conference, you can find recordings of all the talks available online here.

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