I’ve been talking to David Harrison off-blog a bit. I didn’t realise the extent to which the content for his site is managed by National Geographic. Readers should therefore transfer some of my vitriol to National Geographic, and apologies to Daivd and Greg.
This of course brings up its own set of questions for endangered language reporting. I’ve made fun of journalists’ formulas for endangered language reporting on many occasions (although the original formula seems to have disappeared off Harvard’s blog site now, but I have a copy… somewhere…). We should be encouraging our students to go into journalism. There are so few journalists with any background in linguistics, and it shows in the language reporting at all levels, from historical linguistics to language endangerment. (Language Log picks up on this theme fairly regularly.)
There’s been a noticeable gap in the recent reporting. Two gaps, really. The first is that all the stories are about either the linguists or the languages. There’s been precious little about speakers, and that’s a shame, since many have fantastic stories. Bonnie Degan’s work in the Kimberley, for example, or Raymattja Marika at CDU. Second is the lack of “context” for the story. That’s especially striking because there’s a formula for news reports which goes something like 1) opening statement of fact; 2) “the announcement comes as…” (i.e. a placement of the news in context); 3) a comment or two from interested parties, or cut to a local reporter; 4) further information; 5) sometimes, potential implications. There has been nothing of the kind. Such a story might run like this:
“Linguists in the US have identified Northern Australia as one of the world’s biggest ‘hot spots’ for language endangerment. The finding comes just a few months into the Federal Government’s Intervention into remote Aboriginal communities, which has included the abolition of funding for language programs running on CDEP.”Most of what we know about species and ecosystems is not written down anywhere, it’s only in people’s heads,” [Harrison] said. “We are seeing in front of our eyes the erosion of the human knowledge base.” This work was released just days after Australia refused to ratify a UN treaty on the rights of Indigenous peoples. The research group travelled to several places in Australia’s Top End and the Kimberley, where they made recordings of basic vocabulary from speakers of a few of the many endangered languages in the region.”