Language and Identity: In Conversation With Dr Danielle Barth on the occasion of International Mother Language Day 2022

17th February 2022

Hero Image: Danielle Barth & Kadagoi Rawad Forepiso

“I am always sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigrees of nations.” – Poet Samuel Johnson

In 1952, four student activists from Bangladesh were in the midst of demonstrations to make Bengali a national language. They were killed. International Mother Language Day is celebrated annually on 21 February to commemorate their tragic deaths. Bangladesh has celebrated Bengali Language Movement Day on 21 February since 1955. UNESCO began celebrating International Mother Language Day globally on the same date in the year 2000.

On the occasion of International Mother Language Day (21 February) this year, we caught up with CHL’s Dr Danielle Barth from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. She spoke to us about mother languages, her own research on Matukar Panau, a language spoken in the Madang province of PNG.

International Mother Language Day falls on 21 February. What is your take on the importance of mother languages, and what does your research focus on?

Our mother languages are the ones that most fundamentally connect us to our identity. They are our homes and lens with which to view the world. The world (and CHL) are very multilingual places, and it is really important that we help to support people to use a variety of languages for different purposes. I work on language documentation in Matukar, Papua New Guinea. Matukar Panau is a language spoken by a few hundred people in only a couple of villages in Madang province. No one is monolingual in Matukar Panau. However, it is incredibly important for the identity of the people there. It is clearly an endangered language, but even for those people who only know a few phrases in the language, it connects them back to their place.

Latest studies have cited that Indigenous and regional languages are fast fading. What’s your opinion on this matter, and what do you think needs to be done globally and nationally to reverse this trend?

We definitely need more documentation, and more intense documentation, in language hotspots around the world. We especially need videos of people speaking or signing their languages. This is something people can do for themselves, but it is also of intense interest to linguists like me.

Without language documentation, we lose so much information: information about the biological and cultural worlds people inhabit and interact with. For example, in Matukar, the verb kabiyai is used to mean ‘discuss’ but comes with so much extra information. Kabiyai is part of the cultural ritual of problem resolution in Matukar. People bring their problems out into the open, discuss them in front of others, agree to a resolution and then consider the problem solved. Parties are no longer able to complain about these problems, because the issue is now closed. While I wouldn’t enjoy discussing my problems in public, I think there are definitely lessons to learn from such an approach.

Danielle2John Bogg & Jillian Forepiso

The theme of 2022 International Mother Language Day is “Using technology for multilingual learning: challenges and opportunities”. In what ways do you think this could apply to your research and to languages in general?

In times of COVID, language documentation has really changed. I find it very difficult to not see people in person, gauge their reactions, celebrate with them and hang out alongside doing work. However, there are some small boons that have come about during this time due to technology. I am very thankful that I can still talk to my friends and family in Matukar and Port Moresby on the phone or through WhatsApp. I am glad that my PNG brother Rudolf Raward, and member of the Matukar documentation team, can still transcribe and translate materials and email me back documents. I have also heard stories from colleagues at other universities, such as a new PhD student building on archived material by finding and interviewing a speaker of a Vanuatu language through Facebook.

Danielle1Danielle Barth, Peter Ratan Barui, Anna Nani

Unfortunately, our world is such that many places do not have reliable access to technology. It is important that we remember it is still essential to interact with people face-to-face when the world opens up again.

What are your current and future plans or projects in the pipeline?

My currently funded documentation program is slowly coming to an end. Although I think there is still so much more to learn about Matukar Panau, we have built up a comparatively large corpus of transcribed and translated video data. I am now working on a book (a grammar) of the language that describes how it works. I will combine the language description with quantifications and visualisations that come from data science techniques that are usually used on larger languages. I think it is an important part of linguistic science that, where possible, we ask the same questions of minority languages that we do on well-resourced ones.

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