Category Archives: teaching

Ipads for research

I’m taking part in a trial of ipads for the field methods class this semester. I’m not totally convinced that it’s going to work yet, since I’m a bit suspicious of the recording capabilities and of how seamless it will be to get items on and off the devices. We will certainly be making backup recordings using my field equipment for at least the first few weeks.

However, one of the side effects of this is that I’ve been spending a lot more time working on an ipad recently, trying out apps. I’m even not taking my laptop to the LSA (I’m writing this post on an ipad on the plane to Minneapolis).

Couple of observations:

The ipad I’m trialling came with a ‘Zagg’ keyboard case. The keyboard itself is quite good. It’s comfortable to use and very responsive. The cover itself is rather clunky and heavy, and the charging position for the keyboard is in an irritating position (the keyboard has to be partly removed from the cover to charge it). It’s also fairly straightforward to pair the keyboard with multiple ipads.

I have an ipad mini and while that size of tablet is mostly great, it is very helpful to have the larger size when working on latexed documents. My ipad mini is also heavily child-proofed, which makes it almost impossible to use with a stylus. I have yet to find a decent handwriting ap that might be useful for field methods. Let me know if anyone knows of one (the stumbling block is the need to be able to use handwriting recognition with accented characters).

We are using Auria for the recording app, dictapad for transcription, and we will be loading the class data into LingSync (which has an online version for minimal data entry). We are syncing files through Dropbox and Box. TeX Writer is great (LaTeX app allowing fill compilation on the ipad) and Zotero for reference management.

So far the biggest issues have been a) the usual problem of syncing between multiple devices and making sure they are all up to date (forgot to do that before leaving…) and b) only having one window at a time. On the other hand, only having one window does make email much less of a distraction.

I will continue to provide updates as the semester progresses and we use the ipads.

Language documentation project videos

I’ve put up the first two videos in a series of short “how-tos” for language documentation. They are aimed at community members, not linguists. Topics to be covered are:

  1. General principles in planning a documentation project
  2. Applying for grants
  3. Steps in a project
  4. Working with/recording elderly relatives
  5. ‘Outcomes’ (examples of documentation projects)
  6. Archiving

The talks are loosely based on my article “Planning a Language Documentation Project” in Peter Austin and Julia Sallabank’s Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages, plus materials from my fieldwork book and notes from teaching about this to undergraduates. Suggestions for other topics that you’d like to see in this series would be appreciated!

Australian Language Polygons and new Centroid files

I’ve finished a *draft* google earth (.kmz) file with locations of Australian languages, organised by family and subgroup.

Some things to note:

  • You may use these files for education and research purposes only.
  • NO commercial use under any circumstances without my written permission.
  • NO republication any any circumstances without my written permission.
  • You may quote from these files. Please use the following citation: Bowern, C. (2011). Centroid Coordinates for Australian Languages v2.0. Google Earth .kmz file, available from
  • These files represent my compilation of many available sources, but are known to be deficient in a number of areas. Some sources are irreconcilable. This work is unsuitable for use as evidence in Native Title (land) claims.
  • Please do not repost or circulate these files. Send interested people to this page. I will be updating the files from time to time.
  • Please let me know of errors! The easiest way to do this is to change the polygon or centroid point for the language(s) you are correcting, and send me that item as a kml file.
  • If you use derivatives of this file (e.g. you calculate language areas from it, convert it to ArcGIS, etc), that’s fine, but please send me a copy of the derivative file

Field Methods Class Pondering

I had lunch with the field methods speaker for the fall class a few days ago. As befits a field methods consultant, she’s awesome! The language we’ll be working on is Fijian, and our speaker has some linguistics training and is very aware of the stylistic and geographical dialect differences in the language.

I am pondering how best to run this class this semester. It seems a waste of our consultant’s abilities to pretend that Fijian is an undescribed isolate. On the other hand, there does not seem to be very much recent published work on the language. There is Schutz’s grammar from 1986 (and Dixon’s grammar, on the Boumaa dialect, from about the same time), but the most recent published dictionary seems to have been compiled by Capell in the 1940s. I’m therefore starting to have a think about what smart students with a smart consultant and a bunch of background materials can do in a semester that would be educational for the students, not too boring for the consultant, and ideally of some use to the profession as a whole. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, besides the usual term papers for grad students on topics they are interested in:

  • Descriptive work using some of the MPI  stimulus kits.
  • Web dictionary with sound and examples
  • Gesture elicitation
  • Prosodic structure elicitation
  • JIPA-type phonetic sketch

High School visit

I spent about 45 minutes or so at the High School this morning. I reckon it was one of the best 45 minutes I’ve spent here. The kids were great – I gave a bit of a talk about what linguists do (complete with powerpoint!), about what I was doing when I was working with their grannies and great-grannies, and they asked me some questions about uni and language work and things like that. I gave them pretty much the same talk about linguistics that I give first year uni students (I used Aboriginal English/Standard English examples instead of Spanish), and they were pretty enthusiastic about the whole thing and had lots of questions.  We also talked a bit about going to uni.

It was really useful to me to get to know them a little better, and I’m glad they’ve now got my contact details. The community is in good hands for the future with those kids! Thanks Richard for letting me take over your literacy class for a bit!

More on language resources

I had a very positive meeting with the One Arm Point Bardi teachers on Friday. Most of the teachers are language ‘remembers’ – that is, they are not comfortable in talking in full sentences in Bardi, but they all grew up hearing the language and they recognise a lot.*

As far as I know, One Arm Point has the longest-running language/culture program in Western Australia. It’s been going for more than 20 years now, which is a real testament to the strength of this community and their commitment to keeping culture strong. It’s really impressive. One Arm Point school is talking about itself as a ‘three language school’ now, which is also really good. The three languages are Aboriginal English, Standard Australian English, and Bardi.

We spent a few hours on Friday afternoon going through some things and talking about ways to get more Bardi into classrooms, and how I could help for the rest of my time here and when I’m back in the US. I also got some feedback on language materials.

  • Google earth placenames: we thought of a bunch of class activities that the kids could do with this, such as:
    • Using the ‘find’ button to find the name of their favourite fishing place and showing the class where it is.
    • Describing how to get to a place using the Bardi place names (this is the way that Bardi speakers give directions too – they don’t tend to use ‘left’ and ‘right’ or ‘north’ and ‘south’)
  • KirrKirr dictionary: this is shaping up to be a pretty important resource, I think, especially for the teachers. I’ve got it running at school now and will be adding sound clips and photos as I have time.
  • However, a much bigger deal would be an English – Bardi dictionary, where the English side of the dictionary has all the information that the Bardi-English side currently has. I think I’ve blogged before about the SIL Toolbox model of dictionary authoring and how badly it serves heritage speakers (and Corris et al (2004) make this point well too). I’m about 10% of the way through converting the Bardi-English dictionary to an English-Bardi one, using TshwaneLex (more on that in a future post). Doing it has made me look much more closely at how texts have been translated and what the semantic scope of each Bardi word is, so it’s quite a good exercise. Who knows how it’ll get done when I don’t have a TV to sit in front of in the evenings though..
  • Time-aligned texts. I showed the teachers a demo of a CuPED text and they thought it was really great, and useful for the older students. We’ve been proofing new (mostly short) texts in the breaks between grammar questions so there’s now a nice collection of time-aligned school texts about various topics.


*An aside: if someone can point me in the direction of good resources for helping such speakers, that would save me some time with google.

Corris, M., C. Manning, S. Poetsch & J. Simpson. How useful and usable are dictionaries for speakers of Australian Indigenous languages? In International Journal of Lexicography, Volume 17, Number 1, March 2004.

Australian folk language policy (1): the failure of monolingualism

When Kevin Rudd came to power nearly a year ago, many of us linguists thought we might get a better deal for language in Australia. After all, it’s not every day that monolingual Australia elects a prime minister who is fluent in Mandarin. I think some of us assumed that Rudd’s sensitivity to multilingualism might transfer to more support for Australia’s Indigenous languages. We were deeply mistaken, it seems.

200 years ago, more than 250 languages were spoken in Australia, from 28 different language families. By way of comparison, Europe has roughly 200 languages from four families [Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and Basque]. These days, approximately 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are being learned by children, with another 60 spoken only by adults or old people. 90% of Australia’s Indigenous languages are reckoned as endangered.

There are 9 bilingual schools in the Northern Territory, and if plans go ahead, those schools will be forced to teach the first 4 hours of every school day in English, leaving between 60 and 90 minutes of class time per day for instruction in other languages.

Apparently the new policy was developed after below par test results for grades 3, 5  and 7 reading and maths. However, the government has repeatedly told researchers trying to access to school test data that test results are aggregated across schools. I take this to mean that the NT government doesn’t actually know if the bilingual schools are doing worse than the English-only schools.

I have a suggestion: mandate the content, don’t mandate the medium. Recognise that English is a second (or third or fourth) language for kids in these schools, employ a few ESL teachers, mandate 60-90 minutes of English as a Second/Foreign Language, and teach the rest of the curriculum in whatever language the kids know best. Trial it in Arnhem Land or a Warlpiri community where there are Indigenous teachers.

Until multilingual Aboriginal communities cease to be treated as ‘English monolingual failures’ there will be no sensible education policy for these areas.

We haven’t heard a peep out of Kevin Rudd. Given that the federal government technically controls 73 NT Aboriginal communities at present, one would have thought that the federal government’s opinion was relevant here.