A Living Tradition
Two graduate students adapt a collective approach to preserving endangered languages
By Liza N. Burby
A community’s language is a sacred part of its cultural identity, but some languages are vulnerable to disuse either because native speakers have passed on or because the country’s policies prohibit its use. Many communities around the world are doing important research to preserve and revitalize their languages. And linguists are working with them to pursue those goals by recording and documenting the structure.
Among them are two PhD students in the Department of Linguistics at Stony Brook University, both of whom are collaborating with community members and undergraduates to ensure two endangered languages will continue to live on.
Grace B. Wivell, who began working in Indonesia in 2014 when she was a Fulbright English teaching assistant and later transitioned to language documentation, is coordinating with the Lio community in Wolondopo, Indonesia. She’s managing a team who is creating trilingual teaching materials to support ongoing initiatives by Lio-speaking communities.
Michelle Mayro is working with the Algonquian languages native to Long Island through the Algonquian Language Revitalization Project (ALRP), which includes members and leaders from the Unkechaug, Shinnecock and Montaukett nations, like Harry Wallace, Leighton Delgado and Tina Tarrant, among others. The project involves taking inventory and cataloguing the ALRP’s library of materials on Indigenous languages, histories and cultures. Mayro became interested in documentation as an undergraduate, and when she came to SBU for her doctorate, she made a point to work on the ALRP and get to know the community.
“A separate project that I am working on with members of the ALRP is editing the Unkechaug dictionary, but that is not entirely related to the library cataloging project,” Mayro said.
Both graduate students are members of the Department of Linguistics, which Lori Repetti, professor and chair, said has distinguished itself with expertise in areas such as endangered languages and a commitment to fostering the growth of its undergraduate and graduate student researchers. It’s one of only a few departments that offers three stand-alone linguistics degrees (BA, MA and PhD) and two degrees in TESOL and TESOL certification (BA and MA). It also provides an MA program in computational linguistics.
A Distinctive Partnership
The two language projects have very different origin stories, which require distinct approaches.
Wivell conceived of the Lio teaching materials project in spring 2022 in collaboration with Fransiskus X. Mbete (Faris), a member of the Wolondopo community whom she met during her Fulbright. He created a school in which he teaches English and Lio to encourage Lio usage in the younger speakers of the community. Wivell and her team of dozens of interns create materials that he can use in his lessons.
“Lio is an at-risk language but it does still have speakers and we are at a stage where this is a language that can be maintained and can continue to be spoken,” said Wivell, who hopes to graduate in spring 2025 with her PhD in linguistics. “This encourages Lio usage in the younger speakers of the community. That’s important for the communities that I work with for their identity. Lio is not only the name of their language; it’s also the name of their culture.”
The Indigenous languages of Long Island are in a different place. “Locally, there are no current, fully fluent speakers of the Long Island Algonquian languages. Members of the local communities are actively developing their language proficiencies and working together to become more fluent speakers,” said Mayro, who plans to graduate in spring 2024, also with a linguistics doctorate.
Both projects rely on a partnership between the two doctoral candidates and undergraduate students that Repetti said is unusual for a graduate program, but not for the Department of Linguistics.
“We’ve been committed for decades to involving undergraduates in research projects,” she said. “The number registering for independent research, a volunteer research team or internship credit has been on a steep upward trajectory. The undergrads are interested in getting hands-on experience that might help them in their professional development and give them thoughts about whether they want to go to graduate school to work further in these areas.”
In Wivell and Mayro they’ve found excellent mentors who said that juggling so many moving parts has also proven a learning experience for them. “We did have an organized system of what we want to accomplish, otherwise you can’t get projects of this kind of scope done,” Mayro said. “But we really wanted to make sure that the undergraduates were able to utilize their expertise and their skills.”
For instance, Mayro said, some students are taking Long Island Algonquian language classes, which are offered through a partnership between the ALRP and the university, so they can share their language experience. “Some come from a background as a history major so can offer that perspective. Another had a library science background.”
She’s had the help of five student interns each semester to work on the cataloging project. They’re preserving cultural materials and identifying vocabulary for language work in the ALRP Library, which is sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. Mayro and her interns created an online catalog for the public with nearly 1,400 items, some from the 1800s that require careful handling because they’re delicate.
Meeting Community Needs
The projects are shaped by the communities, Mayro said. “They have needs and wants and after discussions with them, Grace and I work to identify how we can address those needs and wants. Then we come back to the communities to identify how we can work together to leverage the skills and expertise of everyone — community members, graduate students and undergraduate students — to pursue language goals.”
It’s an experience that Michelle Wang, who will graduate this fall with a bachelor’s in linguistics with a TESOL certification, said has made her time at the university unique. Wang has been helping to create and illustrate the Lio teaching materials, turning a traditional tale into a printable children’s book.
“It can be nerve-wracking because I have not done anything like field experiences in another country with data collection,” she said. “That was one of the reasons why I did want to join the project because it would give me more experience making these teaching materials.”
Wivell and Mayro were able to showcase this innovative educational environment at two major linguistics conferences. In January 2022, they presented a talk at the annual meeting of the Linguistics Society of America, which was held in Denver, titled “Expanding Collaboration: Language Maintenance and Revitalization with Community Members, Graduate Students and Undergraduate Students.” As part of their presentations, they had 12 of the undergraduates individually discuss their work. The focus was how graduate student-led projects can coordinate not only with undergraduate students, but also with community members. They received a standing ovation.
Wivell said that bringing that many undergrads to present at a conference “was the wildest thing I’ve done and the best experience I’ve ever had.” She added that by having the students participate, they were responding to conversations in the field about collaboration between linguists and communities and how to ethically set up projects that are sustainable and helpful to them. They also wanted the students to have the experience of presenting academic work.
One of these 2022 conference presenters was Thomas Conway ’22, who spoke of his work with Lio serial verb constructions. He also presented this work as a poster. “The presentation was really exciting because we were a massive group,” he said. “It was nice to have the moment at an event where there are other scholars and we just talk about our work that we’re proud of.” He added that it also helped him build his credentials as he applied to graduate school.
Distinguished Professor Mark Aronoff, who was also in attendance, said, “It was remarkable since this is a competitive meeting where few get to make presentations let alone a dozen undergraduate research assistants. They also spoke about how they all had been transformed in some way. The fact that it was two graduate students who don’t need to involve undergraduates in their work I think reflects on the department. While a lot of our recent focus is on computation, we’re not losing sight of these other equally important goals.”
With a slightly new group of undergrads who joined the projects in Fall 2022, they gave a similar presentation virtually in March 2023 at the International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation, which was also well-received.
Evolving Projects and Skills
Erica Solis ’23 said being able to attend the conferences, as well as doing the work she’s been involved in since her first year at SBU, are experiences that are distinctive among her peers. She’s been involved with both the ALRP library project since her first semester and Lio loanwords for her honors thesis.
“It’s been something I’ve really loved about the linguistics department. As much as I’ve been able to handle doing, I’ve been offered. A large part of that comes from Grace and Michelle because they were able to give me that first experience,” she said. “The department really feels like an outlier where everyone I know is involved in some sort of research project. I really feel like that’s due to the outreach of the people in the department.”
Wivell and Mayro said that they too have had unique experiences as PhD students, especially because each of their projects has evolved.
“My project changes every semester depending upon who can participate,” Wivell said. “Michelle’s project has changed as the library has gone through different stages. That comes with certain challenges too, where you just have to stop and reassess and then get all of your interns together. I don’t know that graduate students always get that level of responsibility to manage these large projects, so it’s a really good experience.”
Mayro said that being able to work with the students requires a lot of organization. “Coordinating and checking in with so many interns was challenging, but when your interns are so enthusiastic about what they’re doing, it makes it easier. We wouldn’t have made the progress we have without their participation,” she said, adding that she has gained confidence in her leadership skills and ability to manage large projects.
Wivell said she now feels more comfortable mentoring students, which will help her career as a linguistics professor. “This mentoring experience is key to my professional development,” she said. “Getting to see them have success when you help them with their projects and then have them present at a conference where people are really impressed with the work they’re doing — that is a confidence boost for me.”
Both doctoral candidates said their personal drive to work on these understudied languages is tied to the ethics of helping communities preserve their cultural identity.
“Essentially, the field of linguistics has come to recognize that linguists cannot ethically build their careers on writing about understudied languages if they are not also responding to the wants and needs of the community,” said Wivell, who is hoping a research grant will enable her to return to Indonesia this summer. “As burgeoning linguists, Michelle and I believe it is vital to ensure that we are serving community needs and wants in our own work, and that we emphasize the importance of this as we mentor the undergraduates we work with.”
Mayro added, “This kind of work is important because it contributes to the (re)learning of heritage languages in communities. The community members are central in this — they’re reclaiming their own languages, and we’re assisting to the extent that we’re able and invited to. So if someone asks why does the work we do matter, we say, ‘how could it not?’”
Update: The Algonquian Language Revitalization Project Library officially opened on April 14. Click this link to read the story and see photos from this special event.