Rebels for language: Attending CoLang 2016

by on July 25, 2016

Native Miyako speaker Hiroyuki Nakama working with Clarissa Forbes in the 2016 CoLang Miyako practicum, July 7, 2016. Photo by Yoko Kugo.

Our languages are falling asleep. What can we do to wake them up?

CoLang, or the Institute for Collaborative Language Research, brings together language activists, learners, linguists, speakers, students, teachers, elders, wiki bloggers, archivists, and publishers every two years to talk about how we can work together to learn about, document, and protect the many languages of our world. Of particular concern for the Institute are the world’s many endangered languages, many of whom are down to their last living speakers, and the Institute always plays host to a large number of representatives from these endangered language communities, who courageously come forward to share their stories with collaborators and friends.

2016 CoLangers Marc Robinson, Bonnie McLean, John Huisman, and Daniel Brodkin on a day trip to Anchorage from Fairbanks, July 3, 2016. Photo by Bonnie McLean.

I came to CoLang for my work on my heritage language Kristang, and the Institute was an amazing and tremendously fulfilling experience. It was a rare opportunity to work alongside friends, mentors, and pioneers in the fields of language documentation and conservation, and alongside other people working to save and reawaken their languages. I learned an enormous amount about how to do these things, and acquired a wealth of knowledge about a whole number of other cultures, peoples, and perspectives I seldom, if ever, get to even read about back home in Singapore.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks main campus on Troth Yeddha’ Hill, June 23, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

The 5th edition of CoLang was held on Troth Yeddha’ Hill and the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) from June 19 to July 26. In attendance were more than 125 participants from around the world, representing languages and communities such as:

Ahtna, spoken in the Atna Nenn’ region of Alaska in the United States;

Arbanasi, spoken in Zadar in Croatia;

Blackfoot/Blackfeet, spoken in the Siksika Nation, the Kainai Nation and the Pikanii Nation in Alberta, Canada, and the Blackfeet Nation in Montana in the United States;

Catalan, spoken in Catalonia;

Chickasaw, spoken in the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma in the United States;

Creek, spoken in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma in the United States;

Denaakk’e, spoken along the Koyukuk and Yukon River in Alaska in the United States;

Dene, spoken in the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada;

Ekegusii, spoken in Kisii county in Kenya;

Gamilaraay, spoken in northern New South Wales in Australia;

Gwich’in, spoken in Alaska in the United States and the Yukon Territory in Canada;

Haida, spoken in the Haida Gwaii in British Columbia in Canada and Prince Edward Island in Alaska in the United States;

Hän Athabascan, spoken in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory in Canada and Eagle in Alaska in the United States;

Karuk, spoken along the Klamath River in California in the United States;

Kirchröadsj, spoken in Kerkrade in the south of Limburg in the Netherlands;

Kristang, spoken in Malacca in Malaysia, and Singapore;

Miyako/Ryukyuan, spoken in the Miyako Islands in Japan;

Mohawk, spoken in the Mohawk nation in western and northern New York in the United States and southern Ontario and Quebec in Canada;

Navajo/Dineì, spoken in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico in the United States;

Nigerian Sign Language, spoken in Nigeria;

Potawatomi, spoken in Indiana, Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin in the United States, and southern Ontario in Canada;

Seminole, spoken in the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma and the Seminole Tribe in Florida in the United States;

Tlingit, spoken across southeast Alaska in the United States and northwest British Columbia in Canada;

The Tunica/Biloxi community in the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Reservation in central Louisiana in the United States;

Tututni, spoken in Oregon in the United States;

Unangam Tunuu, spoken in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska in the United States;

and Wendat, spoken in the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma in the United States and the Wendat Community of Quebec in Canada.

Tlingit singers at the CoLang 2016 Opening Ceremony, June 19, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

The majority of us attended the core CoLang event consisting of two weeks of 38 workshops, with each of us able to attend up to eight of these workshops. About 40 of us then continued on for three weeks of hands-on practica sessions with the speakers of three endangered languages, with all of us choosing one of these languages to work with. Also interspersed throughout the Institute were Public Plenary Sessions featuring speakers from a variety of backgrounds and communities; Sharing Nights, where we presented their own ongoing projects and initiatives; and Film Nights, held at the nearby University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North and featuring films by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling.

CoLang 2016 June 22 Sharing Night. Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

The workshops

I attended eight workshops over the first two weeks of CoLang, from June 19 to July 1. I talk about seven of these below; the last was a pre-practicum introduction to Unangam Tunuu, the language that I chose to study for the subsequent practicum.

Oral Annotation Methods

Led by the very affable and approachable Christopher Cox and Olivia Sammons (with occasional visits by one of the official CoLang 2016 babies, Charlotte Louise Cox!), we learnt how to do oral annotation—that is, taking notes using audio recordings, as opposed to written notes—and the benefits and limitations it offers both language researchers and collaborators. I got to understand these firsthand when Chris and Olivia invited me to read a story from Joan Marbeck’s Linggu Mai in Kristang, and then had me annotate myself! Oral annotation is not as time consuming as written annotation, and is surprisingly easy on your wallet, but because it’s a relatively new method, there’s still lots to be figured out about best practices and methods, and some ethical issues as well.

Christopher Cox, Olivia Sammons and participants during Oral Annotation Methods with a recording of Kevin Martens Wong onscreen, June 20, 2016. Photo by Yoko Kugo.

Language Activism

Kennedy Momanyi Bosire and Jenny Davis made a fearsome team, and this was very much in evidence in their Language Activism workshop, which had us sharing about our own experiences advocating on behalf of our languages, and then working with case studies to understand how we can better develop our own advocacy efforts. Together, the class provided the preliminary skeleton for the official CoLang 2016 press release. Two of my biggest takeaways here were that I was not alone in the constant struggle to increase awareness about little-known Kristang, which was both comforting and worrying; but also that although this struggle is often a lifetime’s long, grueling work, it sometimes does pay off richly for the language in question.

Kennedy Momanyi Bosire during Language Activism, June 22, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

Cultural Impact in Community Linguistics

Hali Dardar took us through an interesting and thought-provoking introduction into the world of endophysics: how one’s own observations about language and culture are always subjective, and influenced and prejudiced by one’s position as observer. Based on these key ideas, we explored and redefined our own ideas about memory, culture, archives and artifacts, and learnt how to more critically analyse our own past and present experiences working in our own communities using this framework. Although Kristang has not experienced anything on the same order of magnitude as some of the other communities represented at the workshop, it was still an excellent exercise that helped me understand why many Kristang speakers feel the way they do not just about the language, but about the culture and traditions that accompany it.

Hali Dardar and participants during Cultural Impact in Community Linguistics, June 23, 2016.
Photo by Yoko Kugo.

Project Planning

Project Planning was probably one of the sessions that I found most immediately relevant to my work on Kristang, because module facilitator Margaret Florey, who runs the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity, and assistant facilitators Barbara Kelly and Jorge Emilio Rosés Labrada made sure that I thought long and hard about each project objective and task, and made them all work well together as a coherent whole. The result was a much improved version of the original plan I had developed for our Kristang adult classes, and the genesis of the very important Kristang Revitalisation and Curriculum Plans that I produced in the latter half of CoLang (see below). Indeed, I enjoyed and appreciated this workshop so much that I recommended that it should be obligatory for all future iterations of CoLang—I took an immense amount of material and motivation away from it, and I will always be grateful to Margaret, Barbara, and Jorge for providing a much needed boost to the Kristang revitalisation effort.

Margaret Florey during Project Planning, June 20, 2016.
Photo by Yoko Kugo.

Documentation of Orature

Orature generally refers to any sort of use of spoken language, although we often tend to think of more performative types of spoken language use when we talk about orature, such as stories, songs, poems, and plays. Imelda Udoh introduced us to some of the principles and ideas involved in documenting orature with minority language communities, discussed ethical, and sociocultural concerns that often arise in such work, and how we can best preserve the context and situation surrounding each act of orature through the use of metadata. For this particular workshop, I developed a new project proposal for Kristang involving the documentation of some of the proverbs and idiomatic expressions reported by Joan Marbeck in the Kristang Phrasebook.

CoLang participants and Tlingit speakers Heather Powell and Bess Cooley during Documentation of Orature, June 29, 2016. Photo by Yoko Kugo.


Michael Cahill and Keren Rice are two of the foremost experts in language documentation and revitalisation worldwide, and they delivered a very accessible and engaging introduction to the very difficult and complex problem of orthography—the writing system for a language. Many languages (like Kristang!) do not have a standardised orthography, or a standardised way of spelling things, and we dealt with problems and case studies involving various issues that come up in such standardisation. Indeed, one of the biggest questions in orthography sometimes is, should we even standardise at all? Thanks to this workshop, I now understand that Kristang, as a contact language with a range of dialects and variations, would benefit more from non-standardisation; the revitalisation initiative instead aims to promote a wider understanding of variation in the language, and greater acceptance of its inherent presence in a contact language like Kristang.

Keren Rice and Michael Cahill during Orthography, June 27, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

Teaching an Indigenous Language

Hishinlai’ Peter has decades of experience revitalising her language, Gwich’in, which she started teaching with literally no resources and almost no support. Together with her protégé Sam Alexander, Hishinlai’ shared her experiences teaching Gwich’in to successive new generations of learners, and walked us through her syllabus for UAF students learning Gwich’in at university level. With more than two dozen different language communities and teachers represented in the room, we also took turns sharing best practices and games—in one of the most exciting experiences of my life thus far, I got to play a round of Tlingit Crazy Questions (which, if we had continued, I would have totally lost). This workshop also had an immense impact on my efforts to revitalize Kristang: thanks to Hishinlai’’s guidance, the first draft of the Kristang Revitalisation and Curriculum Plans emerged from this workshop, and now guide the Kristang revitalisation initiative in Singapore.

Hishinlai’ Peter and Sam Alexander in Teaching an Indigenous Language, June 29, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

The practicum: working with Unangam Tunuu

The workshop section of CoLang concluded with a lovely riverboat dinner and reception along the Chena River, winding through the beautiful city of Fairbanks. We said our goodbyes to the music of a Tlingit farewell song, and then it was time for the practica sessions.

View of the Chena River from the Riverboat Discovery II, July 1, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

Each iteration of CoLang has offered these short but extremely intensive three-week practica sessions, which are designed to introduce participants to fieldwork with endangered languages and endangered language communities, and equip them to work with the skills and technical know-how to be able to initiate and improve their own fieldwork projects after the conclusion of the Institute.

Miyako practicum participants, July 13, 2016. From left: Yoshi Ono, Hiroyuki Nakama, Bonnic McLean, John Huisman, Yoko Ono, Toshihide Nakayama, Christianne Ono, Clarissa Forbes, Douglas Callender, and Anna Sudo. Photo by Kraig Smyth.

At CoLang 2016, three languages were offered. Miyako is spoken in the Ryukyuan Islands in Japan, and was offered by Hiroyuki Nakama, Toshihide Nakayama and Yoshi Ono. Hän Athabascan is spoken in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory in Canada and Eagle in Alaska in the United States, and was offered by Ruth Ridley and Willem de Reuse. Unangam Tunuu is spoken in the Aleutian Islands, and was offered by Moses Dirks and Anna Berge.

Willem de Reuse during the Hän Athabascan practicum, July 14, 2016.
Photo by Yoko Kugo.

I decided to study Unangam Tunuu, spoken by less than 500 speakers in the Aleutian Islands, because of my prior experience with Russian, the Aleutian Islands having been colonized from 1741 to 1867 by Russia; I figured that this would be an excellent asset in working with some of the earlier material in Unangam Tunuu, which turned out to be correct. Unangam Tunuu possesses a significant number of loans from Russian: sabaakax̂, for example, is ‘dog’ (сабака in Russian), braatax̂ and sistrax̂ retain their meanings of ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ (брат and сестра), and the days of the week are also the same in both languages (chitviirkax̂ or четверг is ‘Thursday’). (For more on the beautiful language that is Unangam Tunuu, look out for my forthcoming Unangam Tunuu language profile in Unravel issue 9!)

 Moses Dirks and Anna Berge teaching basic introductions in the Atkan dialect of Unangam Tunuu, July 14, 2016. Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

However, the Unangam Tunuu practicum was markedly different from any of its previous practicum counterparts in that the focus of the practicum was on working with archives, rather than with speakers. Although a native speaker of Unangam Tunuu, Moses Dirks, was present, Anna and Moses designed the practicum to make full and focused use of the Alaska Native Language Archive (ANLA), also hosted on Troth Yeddha’ Hill and the UAF campus under the auspices of the Alaska Native Language Centre (ANLC). Brimming with earlier materials and research from pioneers in the study of Unangam Tunuu like linguists Knut Bergsland and Michael Krauss, as well as teaching materials and recordings from the community, the ANLA was a rich, fascinating repository of experiences, stories, and knowledge about the language and its people.

The Alaska Native Language Archive stacks for Comparative Eskimo-Aleut (CE), Unangam Tunuu (AL) and Alutiiq / Sugpiaq (SU), July 8, 2016. Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

We were also presented with tours and talks relating to working with language archives by a variety of speakers, including Leslie McCartney, the curator of the ANLA, April Counceller, the Executive Director of the Alutiiq Museum on Kodiak Island, and Michael Krauss himself, who came to speak with us one afternoon and shared some of his vast, encyclopedic knowledge of Alaska’s languages and cultures.

Alaska Native Language Archive curator Leslie McCartney introduces Unangam Tunuu practicum participants to archival materials, July 6, 2016. Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

Each of us was asked to develop a final project for Unangam Tunuu based on our own interests and specialties. Conscious of my responsibility as a linguist to address community needs, I worked with Julian Rauter, a fellow undergraduate from Harvard College, to develop a set of materials the community had specifically asked for: the digitisation of a set of audio recordings accompanying Anna and Moses’ 2008 phrasebook How the Atkans Talk: A Conversational Grammar, and the transformation of those recordings into a set of materials that could be used by language learners, particularly younger speakers. In three weeks, we set up Unangam Qiliĝingin, a vocabulary course using the audio recordings and the free online language learning application Memrise as its base. Memrise employs a spaced repetition algorithm that recognises which words a learner is having difficulty with and which they find easy, and adjusts the number of times the learner practices each word accordingly. Unangam Qiliĝingin is, as of now, open to the public, and you can totally learn Unangam Tunuu for free right here.

Kevin Martens Wong and Julian Rauter presenting Unangam Qiliĝingin, July 21, 2016.
Photo by Yoko Kugo.

Other cool materials that were developed over the course of the Unangam Tunuu practicum include videos for language learning, a talking dictionary, a dialect map, and an online song repository, all of which can be found here on Edwin Ko’s Unangam Tunuu repository page.

Unangam Tunuu practicum participants, July 22, 2016. Back row, from left: Edwin Ko, Nicholas Toler, Hortènsia Curell, Marc Robinson, Svetlana Zwetkof, Audrey Richardson, Kelly Nuttall, Anna Berge, and Moses Dirks. Front row, from left: Myles Creed, Julian Rauter, Maya Wax Cavallaro, and Kevin Martens Wong. Photo by Yoko Kugo.

Miyako and Hän Athabascan

Meanwhile, the Miyako practicum team developed a website for Miyako, which in addition to the Miyako language also introduces songs, dances, games and more.

Bonnie McLean and Christianne Ono with the Miyako website, July 23, 2016.
Photo by Yoko Kugo.

They also organised a Miyako Night for all practica participants in which we got to participate in these activities.

Miyako practicum participants perform a traditional Miyako song at Miyako Night, July 13, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Martens Wong.

The Hän Athabascan practicum, working with three of the last six fluent speakers of Hän Athabascan, performed extensive documentation and research on the language, developing new understandings of a variety of linguistic features previously undocumented.

Native Hän Athabascan speakers working with Hän Athabascan practicum participants, July 19, 2016. Photo by Yoko Kugo.

The way ahead: Better together

In Language Activism, we talked a lot about being rebels for language, which is also the title of this piece. Why are we rebels? Because we’re in the minority, and because so many negative attitudes about languages remain entrenched in the minds of governments, organisations, officials, and even communities and individuals. We need to work towards overturning those stereotypes, and rebelling against these prejudices, because they destroy languages, they destroy communities and cultures, and they destroy futures. CoLang is such a wonderful resource because it jumpstarts that process of change, and gives you the tools, collaborators and specialist knowledge you need to make true, meaningful change concretely possible in your community. What can you do? Go out and get involved with your community. We work better when we work together.

And that’s, I think, the most important thing I’ve taken away from CoLang, that fundamentally, language and language work are a collaborative endeavor: with communities, for communities, and ultimately, by communities. We use language to communicate, but we can also use language to collaborate; and when we do that, we are often so much greater than the sum of our parts.

CoLang 2016 participants, July 1, 2016. Photo by John Robert Ancheta.

The next CoLang will be held in 2018 at the University of Florida. I’m hoping to be there; what about you? Beng papiah kung nus! (Come speak with us!)

CoLang 2016 Co-Director Alice Taff wants to see you on the airport shuttle to Florida.
Photo by Yoko Kugo.

More from CoLang 

To find out more about CoLang, check out the 2016 website here, or the past institute websites: CoLang 2014 at the University of Texas Arlington, CoLang 2012 at the University of Kansas, CoLang 2010 (called InField) at the University of Oregon, and CoLang 2008 (called InField) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You can also read more about CoLang and submit your proposal to host CoLang 2020 at your university at the dedicated CoLang page on the Linguistic Society of America website.

To find out more about the UAF Alaska native language initiatives, check out the Alaska Native Language Center and the Alaska Native Language Archive webpages. The ANLC also blogs semi-regularly at the blog Talking Alaska.

Looking for CoLang materials? They’re all here!

Interested to find out more about Unangam Tunuu, the language of the Aleutian Islands? Kevin profiles UT in a forthcoming Language Profiles piece in Unravel issue 9. In the meantime, why not learn a bit of UT yourself with the free online Unangan Language Course, developed by Anna Berge for UAF, or with the materials developed at the Unangam Tunuu practicum, which you can find here, including Unangam Qiliĝingin, the free online Unangam Tunuu vocabulary course on Memrise.

What about the other native languages of Alaska? The website Alaska Native Languages is an excellent resource for every single one of Alaska’s native (and now officially recognised!) languages.

What about Miyako? The Miyako Projects website developed by the Miyako CoLang Practica participants is here.

What about that other language, Kristang, that Kevin keeps talking about? Check out our Unravel feature articles on Kristang in Malacca and Singapore, and the Kodrah Kristang Online Archive, which is the main site for the revitalisation initiative. Kevin also made a video at CoLang with Kira Dell, Emmanuel Asonye, Bonnie McLean, and John Huisman in which we show the differences between Kristang and Brazilian Portuguese.

What does it take to run CoLang, the Institute for Collaborative Language Research? Kevin continues the CoLang conversation with Siri Tuttle, Co-Director of CoLang 2016 and newly-minted Director of the Alaska Native Language Archive, in a forthcoming Interrogatives piece in Unravel issue 8.

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