Students Author Wikipedia Pages to Create a Lasting Record for Endangered Languages

September 12, 2019

Never heard of the Sierra Popoluca language in Mexico, the Bardi language of Australia, or any of the many other endangered languages across the globe? Now, due to the efforts of Laura Kalin, a Professor of Linguistics in the Humanities Council, and her students in Linguistics Universals and Language Diversity (LIN 360), you can read all about many more of these “lost” languages on Wikipedia. 

Supported by the 250th Anniversary Innovation Fund in Undergraduate Education, Kalin undertook a redesign of LIN 360 to achieve several goals:

1) to give students experience in working with endangered and understudied languages;

2) to put the discovery of linguistic universals and language diversity into the students’ own hands;

3) to guide the students towards developing their own theories of language variation; and

4) to disseminate their discoveries via a variety of formats and venues, to speakers of these endangered and understudied languages, to linguists, and to the general public. 

With additional support from The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, The Wiki Education Foundation (a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that supports the integration of Wikipedia into undergraduate coursework), and The Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES), Kalin took a novel approach to the final project by asking students to use the research they conducted over the semester to create public pages on endangered languages, many of which are only spoken in remote, underdeveloped areas, on Wikipedia. 

The course redesign left a lasting impression on Kalin’s students.  Will Sweeny, now a senior, who took LIN 360 last spring noted: “LIN360 offered me an invaluable, hands-on approach to studying and engaging with the natural languages of our world. Over the course of a semester, we progressed from observing surface similarities between world languages to discovering profound truths about the universal properties that all languages share. The ability to investigate patterns and similarities in search of a deeper truth is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

Kalin’s students enthusiastically published on Wikipedia for their very first time, as Sweeny explained: “Though I had some limited experience with wikis before taking this course, I had never found the time or courage to write a full-fledged Wikipedia article before. I’ve always believed that knowledge should be freely accessible to anyone, and it was immensely gratifying to further that ideal in some small way by publishing my very own Wikipedia article. Almost all of the languages our class studied were underrepresented on Wikipedia, and either endangered or extinct. I’m very proud that because of LIN360, several of these underrepresented languages now have their own Wikipedia page. I hope to have the time to edit Wikipedia more in the future.”

Each student considered the endangered status of languages and selected a different endangered language for the purpose of creating Open Source Wikipedia pages for almost 40 languages from all over the world, most of which had no prior public presence, previously written about only in expensive grammars, or reference books, and behind paywalls. Students, including senior Hanna Semmelhack, valued the reach of this project.  “Researching an endangered language and writing a Wikipedia page gave me the opportunity to feel like I am making a concrete difference.  I was able to learn about a topic that is understudied and then use what I had learned to make that knowledge available to a broader audience,” said Semmelhack.

The course further aimed to demonstrate that, contrary to initial impressions, languages of the world do not differ arbitrarily, rather all human languages share a common core.  According to Daniel Afolabi (Class of 2020) who also took Kalin’s course last semester: “My experience in LIN 360 helped me think about the universal aspect of language.” 

Reflecting on the class, Afolabi added: “Authoring a Wikipedia page on an endangered language both allowed me to present my academic work to a broader audience and also made me come to grasps with how universality can be framed in either a superficial or deep manner. Going forward, I aim to take this analytic outlook to other areas of life and seek other ways in which my academic pursuits can extend beyond the classroom.”

The redesign of LIN 360 is not only encouraging new perspectives inside and outside of the classroom; it’s also reaching beyond campus by helping to create a public, lasting record for the 90% of world languages that are not widely spoken.

By Suzanne Roth

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