April 18, 2017

Documentation of an Endangered Language

Documentation of an Endangered Language

The Lisa J. Raines Summer Research Fellowship is an opportunity for Georgetown sophomores and juniors who wish to conduct independent summer research. The Raines Fellowship provides awardees with $5,000 to design, investigate, and produce an original research project over the course of 10 weeks.

Toby Hei Nok Hung (C’18), a summer 2016 Raines fellow, studied Zaramo, a language native to Tanzania. For the last 30 years, Zaramo has been categorized as a dying language. When he first applied for the Raines during his sophomore year, Hung knew that he wanted to do something related to language documentation. When the fellowship coincided with a study abroad opportunity in Tanzania, he decided to take part in resurrecting this endangered language.

A Passion for Communication

Hung first discovered the depth of his passion for language during a freshman year linguistics course in syntax and grammatical analysis, which examined the structure of sentences across different languages. In an extra credit project that involved documenting the Burmese language from a scientific perspective, he developed a new appreciation for the elements of communication. His experience documenting Burmese inspired Hung to formulate the proposal for his research in Africa.

Hung credits his motivation for documenting a dying language to growing up in Hong Kong where there are dozens of languages spoken. “I realize that when I reach my grandparents’ age, their languages may no longer be spoken in Hong Kong. They’re well documented so the communication will never be lost. I felt that was just as important for the Zaramo community.”

The Introduction to a Minority Language

Tanzania, located in eastern Africa, is known for its expansive plains of wilderness where both people and wildlife can coexist. Home to the Serengeti National Park, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the tropical beaches of Zanzibar, Tanzania is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse countries in Africa. Prior to gaining independence from Great Britain in 1964, Tanzania had been colonized by Portugal, Oman, and Imperial Germany for over three centuries. Because of these different factors, this East African country presents unique opportunities to people studying ancient cultures and minority languages in a modern context.

During his stay, Hung was based in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. When he first arrived, he had trouble meeting people who speak Zaramo. The primary languages spoken in Tanzania are Swahili and English, and being in the capital city made finding speakers of the minority language no easy task.

“There were a lot of difficulties with preparing because at first I had no idea how to find the people who spoke the language,” Hung shared. “The Georgetown counterparts in Dar es Salaam had an understanding of what languages were spoken and where, but scheduling a meeting with the right people was almost impossible.”

Coming to understand the cultural differences of arranging meetings was a new experience for Hung, and one that he says he appreciates. Immersing himself in the everyday culture made his time in Tanzania that much more worthwhile, and eventually, he was in touch with the people of the Zaramo community outside of the capital.

Posterity: The Social Value of Language Documentation

Hung spent most days with Zaramo speakers, an experience that helped him to create a record of the linguistic patterns and speech characteristics. He created the record with the intention of preserving Zaramo for future generations, and to ultimately contribute to any future research of the language. Hung presented his research at the 48th Annual Conference on African Linguistics at the University of Indiana and Georgetown's Colloquium for Research in the Social Sciences.

About the subject matter of his work, he said that, “Scientific language documentation has social value. Researching something that the scientific community doesn’t know anything about was a huge motivation for me. But language preservation has a humanitarian purpose.”