Language Documentation Mapped Out

This week I spoke with Professor Marie-Odile Junker of Carleton University. Originally born in France, she has come to Canada and fallen in love with our country’s Indigenous languages. She is an expert in several areas, and excels at bridging disciplines, connecting people, and organizing projects. These are all things that are essential to language documentation and revitalization. She has incorporated technology and digital media into her work on Algonquian languages without ever forgetting the people behind the data.

I spoke with her about how she views technology as a tool that can help languages survive, and also about her work on the Algonquian Language Atlas, which incorporates many languages, people, and technologies. You should definitely play with this site (after reading this first!).

[This is what the incredible Algonquian Linguistic Atlas looks like]

[This is what the incredible Algonquian Linguistic Atlas looks like, click to embiggen]

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in language documentation?

Marie-Odile Junker : Noticing the lack of resources for teaching Canadian Aboriginal languages and also the fact that I “fell in love” with what I find beautifully intricate languages.

MI : How did you get involved specifically with the documentation of Algonquian languages?

MOJ : As an immigrant from France curious to learn the language(s) of this land, I realized you could learn all kinds of immigrant languages, but not aboriginal languages. In Ottawa, the original language would have been an Algonquian language.

MI : Which languages form the Algonquian family? Where are they spoken?

MOJ : It is one of the largest families in North America, in terms of territory covered, if not in number of speakers. The Cree-Innu dialects and the Ojibwe dialects form the Central Algonquian languages, while languages like Mi’kmaq and Malisset make up the Eastern Algonquian languages

MI : What is the general health of the Algonquian languages?

MOJ : It depends on the community and the place, some have lost their language, some still pass it on to their children, but most are endangered.

MI : Your research focusses a lot on the use of modern technologies for the purposes of language documentation and revitalization; what role do you feel technology has to play in the survival of these languages?

MOJ : Technology and the internet play a role in the development of a collective intelligence in a manner unprecedented in the past. If some languages are not represented and used in the digital age, if they do not infuse the communication technologies available, and if their speakers have to abandon them in order to communicate with each other, those languages will not be part of the development of this collective intelligence and that is a loss for humanity as a whole. [By collective intelligence, Professor Junker refers to the idea of the information that is available to society as a whole. What was once specialized knowledge, or only available to a certain group is now available to society collectively through modern technologies]

MI : Do you feel that technology age has been helpful or harmful to the future of Indigenous languages?

MOJ : Time will tell, probably both. This is like asking if the snowmobile has been helpful or harmful for hunting, or if the cellphone has been helpful or harmful to communication between human beings…

MI : What resources did you draw upon to decide how to begin your language documentation? Were there previous successes with other languages that informed how you approached your efforts?

MOJ : I did not have models in my field; I used an approach called Participatory Action Research, which was pioneered in areas like International Development, and asked myself how to apply it to Linguistics. With PAR, you focus on the research process, so I asked myself: how do I make my intervention as a linguist in a community something that would benefit and empower the speakers with what they wish for their language? Do they feel valued? Do they appreciate their language after working with me? [Although the term “Participatory Action Research” may sound complex, the following response is a great illustration of how this works in practice]

MI : Turning now to the large project of the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas, how did you decide to make this project?

MOJ : It came little by little, a side project that grew out of speakers’ interest. That is how Participatory Action Research works. In 2002, I made a Conversation CD with 21 topics of conversation for East Cree, as a side project to more fully engage the interest of young Cree speakers who I had hired on a summer project to work on a database of Cree verb conjugations. I was worried that they would not see the end of the Verb documentation project (it took 15 more years to complete!). This CD went viral and soon other groups asked me for permission to adapt it to their dialect.

The turning point was after giving a guest talk and a workshop at an aboriginal conference in Prince Albert, in 2004… I was being driven back by two Cree women who had attended my documentation/sound recording workshop (where we were recording common words and phrases of their many dialects), and they were asking me to give them a copy of the map of the Cree-Innu language family I had shown them. They had never understood that they were part of a language family that stretched all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. So it just occurred to me: sounds+map; let’s put it all together! I would like to give credit to those two women for that magical moment.

We made a prototype, then funding came, and Google maps became available the same year (2005). At first it was only Cree-Innu, but 3 or 4 years later we had requests from other languages and dialects. We grew to include them and so on.

MI : What were the obstacles and challenges of putting together such a large project, with so many people involved?

MOJ : Some technical challenges: having to reprogram sustainably (run on cheap servers), having to adapt to contributors’ technical preferences and expertise. We have experienced lots of good will. Some people or groups keep contacting me to join in. It usually just takes a willing person to work with us. They want to be represented there. It is open-access and collaborative, so contributors can do what they wish with their material afterwards.

MI : How did the communities involved feel about your efforts, and how do they feel now that they can see the finished product?

MOJ : In general they love it, they feel proud to be represented and they enjoy listening to their cousins and neighbours. More recently, the production of mobile versions (apps) is extremely popular. We had over 1120 downloads of the East Cree conversation app on iOS alone.

MI : How can a language community promote, document, or revitalize their language through technology?

MOJ : I think the answer depends on the situation. It is like asking how to promote housing with power tools. I think it is really important to think of technology as a tool, not an end in itself, and of speakers as users (or not), otherwise we will end up with machines that talk or write dead languages. [The power tools analogy might at first seem odd, but it is a perfect way of illustrating the key issue of documentation. You can have the best tools—the newest and most advanced technology—but it isn’t the technology that saves a language. It is the people who use the tools]

MI : In the past, the role of a documentary linguist was to go in the field and record or transcribe speech; how have the internet and modern devices changed that?

MOJ : With the internet, we now see the possibility of crowd sourcing (which is NOT what we are doing in the linguistic atlas). The problem might soon be the availability of too much unstructured, unedited data.

The change for me was both in the technology and in the approach. Someone can still go in the field, but use videos instead of pencils to record speech and archive those videos in libraries and depositories, with the speakers being left out of the equation. The use of a Participatory Action Research framework together with the technology is what created the atlas.

MI : What is the role of a documentary linguist today?

MOJ : Considering the crisis we are facing, with languages disappearing as fast as biodiversity, their role is in its title: “document”, but also help preserve, if not for the current heirs, for the future generations. I would also add “infuse life” in those languages, by working WITH speakers who wish it to survive. Not all wish that, we see alternating generation patterns. For example, there are cases of language reclamation like Sami in Scandinavia, with bilingual grandparents, parents who did not speak the language at all or became second-language speakers of it, and now first-language bilingual grandchildren.

MI : What do you think will be the role of a documentary linguist in the future?

MOJ : I am not sure, but I suspect they will still be very busy, unless there is nothing left to document.

MI : What is your favourite part of your work?

MOJ : Connecting (with) people, facilitating the sharing of resources, doing linguistic analysis, marvelling at linguistic diversity, hearing people speak in their diverse beautiful languages…

MI : What has been the most important thing you’ve learned through working with Indigenous languages and communities?

MOJ : Nothing ever happens as planned, but something interesting eventually happens.

MI : What would you like to do next, or where would you like to see the Atlas project headed next?

MOJ : We got funding for 5 years to develop a digital infrastructure for Algonquian languages, especially dictionaries. I see the Atlas becoming a portal for those languages’ resources, still with the initial intent of allowing groups not to reinvent the wheel, but also to share educational resources, or anything that is needed to keep their language alive, and let it stay alive with modern communication.

[These are the languages represented. Even those spoken by very few, such as Michif, are a part of this Atlas]

[The Atlas’ languages. Even those spoken by very few, such as Michif, are a part of this Atlas]

A huge thank you to Professor Junker for speaking with me about her great work.

Documenting languages is a huge amount of work. Though technology can help spread information quickly and over great distances, without people to use it, you have a ‘tree falling in the forest’ situation. Thanks to open-source data and increasingly user-friendly software, sharing information with people across the globe is easier than ever.

The goal and success in documenting and preserving a language is that, even if the community doesn’t need those resources today, we, as a society, leave for future generations the tools to reawaken their languages.

So check out Prof. Junker’s Algonquian Language Atlas, and maybe you’ll feel inspired to start a project of your own!


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi