Tanzanian community event on language documentation and endangerment
On 16-17 July 2018, representatives from four different central Tanzanian ethnic groups met in Babati to discuss the changes currently experienced by their communities and the effects on their languages and cultures, as well as potential ways to combat any negative changes.
These groups included the Gorwaa and Ihanzu, who had been invited by ELDP grantee Andrew Harvey, a linguist and ELDP grantee who is documenting these languages and R. Lindfield, an undergraduate student at SOAS interested in Tanzanian languages and language dynamics. The Asimjeeg Datooga and the Hadzabe were invited by Richard Griscom, another ELDP grantee and linguist working in Northern Tanzania, primarily spending time documenting Asimjeeg Datooga.
On the ELAR blog today, Richard tells us more about this community event on language documentation and endangerment in Tanzania.
What was the motivation behind holding this event?
The primary aims of the conference were to share experiences of cultural change, to build a network between different communities engaging in linguistic research, to exchange knowledge and lessons from different projects, and to discuss different options for potential revitalization or preservation.
There are now a number of groups in Northern Tanzania that are participating or have participated in language documentation projects, but prior to this meeting there was very little to no contact between those groups. We realized that there was a lot to be gained by connecting members of the different communities to create a better shared understanding of what language endangerment and language documentation is, as well as what locally appropriate methods and resources have been used in the past.
Can you tell us a bit about how it happened and who attended?
The first day was spent discussing a series of topics related to language endangerment and cultural change, structured so that small groups divided into different language communities could discuss in detail their experiences within their localities. Each group was given a chance to report their findings to the larger group, and common issues noted by the linguists were openly discussed with all participants together. Everyone had the chance to speak their mind, and a stack system was used to keep track of who would like to speak. The topics discussed on the first day included:
- What are the cultural changes in your community that you see today? How do you experience them? Do you feel that these changes are negative or positive?
- What are the sources of these changes?
- What are potential solutions to these problems?
- How can we work together, between these ethnic groups as well as with linguists, to achieve these solutions/goals?
The second day was spent near Lake Babati, sharing knowledge about conducting field research. These discussions were much more centered around practical knowledge, such as equipment, techniques for recording, and storing data. Members of the Gorwaa community demonstrated how they recorded video and audio with cameras and audio recorders, how they recorded metadata into binders, and how they used ELAN to transcribe and translate. Members of the Asimjeeg Datooga community demonstrated how they used mobile phones to record audio and video, to collect metadata, and also to transcribe and translate recordings.
Can you share any insights from the community members?
Overall, this meeting was successful in starting a conversation in a cross-community setting, which we hope will lead to further dialogue and cooperation in the future. We were able to get a small picture of the effects of cultural and linguistic change in Northern Tanzania, and what is driving these changes. Members of all communities reported that use of their languages was in decline among the youth and that traditional ways of life are being lost. A significant driving factor in these changes is the national education system, which requires all students to speak in Swahili in the classroom and, through mandatory attendance, takes students away from traditional community activities.
Can you give our readers an insight into why this event was so special/worthwhile?
This event was important because it increased participants’ awareness of language endangerment issues and also possibilities for addressing them. It connected members of different communities and allowed them to exchange ideas, and helped the linguists involved to understand some of the similarities and differences across different local community contexts. For example, members of both the Gorwaa and Asimjeeg Datooga communities mentioned that they have observed a loss of respect for elders in their community due to economic and cultural changes. Members of the Asimjeeg Datooga and Hadzabe communities reported that they had experienced discrimination and stereotyping by members of larger ethnic groups. Members of all groups supported the idea of developing community-specific cultural centers as a means of addressing some of the aforementioned issues, with a focus not only on language teaching but also instruction in traditional customs and activities.
Is there anything that didn’t go quite to plan?
It would have been useful to have someone present with experience of language revitalisation projects that could provide concrete examples. If such a meeting were to happen again, this might be worth considering.
One further point was that the meeting was definitely dominated by men, with only two women present. Going forward it is important that we create balanced spaces that give women a voice too, in order to ensure that the views heard at meetings are reflective of variations in opinion and experience within different cultures and communities.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to do something similar?
There is a balance between leaving the discussion open enough to allow participants to feel comfortable expressing themselves freely and also structuring the discussion to keep the dialogue focused. It is important to have a set of ideas and activities developed beforehand but also to be flexible when the discussion or dynamic moves in a particular direction. There should also be at least one group discussion facilitator who summarizes and synthesizes discussion points and offers guidance for the discussion, but who otherwise does not contribute directly to the discussion.
It is also important to establish a welcoming and respectful environment when members of very different backgrounds are meeting together. The stack system we used for keeping track of the order of speakers allowed us to prevent interruptions and provide equal access to participation in discussions. At the beginning of the meeting, we learned greetings in each language, which also established a sense of respect for each community.
Notes from the meeting were compiled by Andrew Harvey, Richard Griscom, and R. Lindfield, and a short report was produced in English, and translated by Hezekiah Kodi into Swahili. The report can be accessed at Zenodo, with the following DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2529349.