Linguist Colleen Fitzgerald talks language revitalization and diversity in linguistics

Monday, January 15, 2018 - 7:45pm

Colleen Fitzgerald, director of the Native American Languages Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington, gives an academic talk on the importance of Native Languages for reclaiming cultural identity at East Hall Friday.

Colleen Fitzgerald, director of the Native American Languages Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington, gives an academic talk on the importance of Native Languages for reclaiming cultural identity at East Hall Friday. Buy this photo
Nikhil Brueggemann/Daily

 

In the first event of the University of Michigan’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Symposium, the Linguistics Department hosted Colleen Fitzgerald, a University of Texas professor, to speak about her research regarding indigenous language revitalization and its connection to diversity in linguistics. The colloquium, held in East Hall on Friday afternoon, followed a trend in the growing discussion of what linguists owe to the communities they study.

Fitzgerald’s speech focused on her research within the Chickasaw community, an indigenous community in south-central Oklahoma, whose language is spoken by about 50 elders. Fitzgerald believes that language revitalization plays an essential role in decolonization efforts and is a “clear pathway to inclusive linguistics.”

“There’s no way to look at language reclamation and language revitalization without the human side. It’s just not possible, unless you don’t have a heart,” Fitzgerald said. 

Her revitalization efforts include processing recorded texts, asking elders to train student linguists, conducting “narrative boot camps” and fostering intergenerational relationships between fluent speakers and second language learners. Fitzgerald stressed that having students learn the language is essential to revitalization.

“If the goal is to create speakers, someone’s got to spend the hard hours in the trenches,” she said.

According to Marjorie Herbert, a fourth-year Rackham student in the Linguistics Department and one of the organizers of the colloquium, Fitzgerald’s speech encouraged linguists to reflect on their responsibility in promoting equity and diversity.

“Colleen had a lot to say about our discipline, as linguists, and what we should be doing, how we should be engaging the communities we work with,” Herbert said. “That kind of meta-discussion I felt like was something unique to her colloquium.”

Herbert, whose research focuses on the deaf community and American Sign Language, said she tries to support the deaf community as much as she can.

“I have a strong desire to give back since my work, and all people who document language or work with minority communities, we kind of make our careers off of this really precious resource that often times isn’t our own,” she said. “I’m not a deaf person, I don’t belong to the community, but I benefit from working with them and from their generosity, so I feel the sense that I need to return the favor.”

Savithry Namboodiripad, a research fellow in the Linguistics Department, said it is important for linguists to support the communities they study by advocating for scholars studying their native languages.

“There’s a really long history of colonization where people are studying other people’s languages, and that’s really bad,” Namboodiripad said. “But now things are changing, this movement of getting to be an expert and a scholar in your own language, that’s really empowering and something I think linguists should take advantage of more, and support those scholars more and put them at the forefront. Professor Fitzgerald did a really good job of that.”

For its part, the University offers classes on many less spoken languages, including the Native American language of Ojibwe. However, the Asian Languages department has come under scrutiny from students recently for its lumping together of all available Asian Languages into one minor program. 

Herbert attended the Linguistics Society of America’s annual meeting in Salt Lake City, and noticed similar discussions about equity within linguistics and academia, specifically with regard to gender.

“I think right now a big technique that’s gaining popularity in linguistics is more corpus-based, big data-driven methodologies,” Herbert said. “Corpus is a huge amount of words. You could build a corpus from every article the New York Times has ever written and try to make generalizations of English about that. For example, people have done this with academic papers and authorship and have noticed there are so many different trends about how female scientists get published versus males.”

Namboodiripad also hopes linguists will continue to engage in discussion about diversity within the discipline and, thus, take a step closer to equity.

“I’m hoping that it’s more empowering communities and expanding the people who get to work on their language and learn their language, more and more expanding what it means to be a linguist in a way that allows people to preserve their heritage and their culture,” she said. “That stuff is really important.”