Saturday, October 24, 2009

Helping Language "Hearers"

Many endangered language communities have three groups of speakers, often linked to age:
  • those who are fully fluent in the endangered language
  • those who understand the language, but have difficulty expressing themselves
  • those who can't say anything
Much of our attention has been focused on children, since they seem to pick up language naturally. The middle generation is commonly left out, even though they're often the ones who are actively involved in raising kids.

I've heard linguists use several terms for those who understand a language but don't speak it, including "passive bilingual" and "semi-speaker." In the community I'm visiting now, people say they "hear" (i.e., understand) the language, but don't speak it.

For several weeks now we've had a support group for these language "hearers." We meet once a week to have lunch together, and we usually plan a fun activity involving language:
  • Day 1. Each person gets a slip of paper with the name of a community member or celebrity on it. Then everyone asks questions to try to guess who that person is.
  • Day 2. The group divides into pairs. Each pair gets a slip of paper describing a situation. Each pair then has to act out that situation in the form of a skit. Situations: a) one person is a hairstylist, the other is the customer; b) one person is sick in the hospital, the other is visiting; c) one person is calling the other person on the phone wondering if they're going to the store and whether they can get something for them.
  • Day 3. We decide to start a phrase book to help others in the community. We divide into two groups, and each group chooses a specific topic (Greetings, Getting to Know Someone, Eating Together, Cooking Together, Driving, Shopping, On the Phone, When Someone is Sick, At Church, etc.). Each group then writes down 10-20 sentences on that topic, practices them, and then reads them to the other group.
  • Day 4. The group plays $10,000 Pyramid. We each write the names of five objects or people on slips of paper and put them in a hat. We divide into two groups. One person from the first group draws a piece of paper and has to get the others on the same team to guess that word. The team that gets through the most slips of paper in a given time period (say, three minutes) wins.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Printing Books Online with

You hardly ever find a company that's eager to publish a children's book in an endangered language. That's where on-demand self-publishing comes in: instead of submitting a manuscript to a publisher and waiting for it to be reviewed, you just send files to an online printer. The printer then provides a link, and you advertise the link to people who want to order the book.

I've been in Elton, Louisiana for the last two weeks. In that short time, my Coushatta friends and I have made not one, but THREE books for kids in the Koasati language that way:

First Words in Koasati, by Barbara Langley. Barbara made a baby's quilt with images of a star, a house, a ball, etc. We turned this into a book by photographing each block on the quilt.

A-faa-hil-kas Gracie, by Nina Poncho Fuselier. Nina made this book with her daughter in a language workshop. She photographed a stuffed animal in various locations and then added Koasati and English to make a story.

Ko-was-saa-ti Nas-ma-thaa-li A-saa-la / Coushatta Animal Baskets. The Coushatta make baskets out of pine needles, sometimes in the shape of animals. We photographed twenty of those, added the Koasati and English beneath, and turned it into a book.

All three of these books are "photo books", with better printing for color images. The first two are "mini books" (about 3.5" x 5.5"). The third is 7" x 9".

Formatting these books was pretty easy using You choose the type of paper you want, binding options, the size of the book, etc. Then you upload the content (text, photos) and choose a format. When you order a book through them, it takes a few days for them to produce it, and then a few days more to get to your mailbox.

The REALLY great thing about on-demand publishing, though, is that you can correct typos as you discover them. That means you can get a draft version out to a language committee, incorporate their feedback, send another draft out to community members, and revise it again when you've heard back from them.

Because of the high cost of postage, it would be hard to make a profit making books this way. But on-demand self-publishing seems like a great way to create small quantities of nice looking books. And it's really pretty easy.