August 31, 2016

Class takes linguistics students on cultural journey

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- One of the first calls Vicki Carstens makes during a new academic year is to the Center for International Education to find out what nationalities are represented among new-to-SIU international students. 

Carstens, professor and chair of the linguistics department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, teaches a field methods class in which students learn to document and analyze an unfamiliar language. Carstens relies on the university’s international student population for native speakers of languages appropriate for the field methods class. 

She and several graduate students recently wrapped up the first part of an unexpected project born from the field methods class, one that is leading to advanced study and future research projects -- the Nafara Language Project. 

Aminata Coulibaly came to SIU from the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, to study biological sciences. She speaks French, the official language of Côte d’Ivoire, but her first language is Nafara, an indigenous, minority language spoken in her country. This variety of Nafara, Carstens found, has perhaps never been formally researched. Coulibaly’s agreement to participate in the field methods course presented Carstens’ students with the opportunity to document an understudied language -- without leaving campus. 

Her students worked with Coulibaly first to gather nouns -- names for animals, foods, household items, and so on. They collected singular and plural, definite and indefinite forms of the nouns and from this sample began mapping the phonetic inventory of the language, or the sounds used in making Nefara words. They went on from there to collecting adjectives and verbs, then simple and progressively more complex sentences. 

The linguistics department has sophisticated recording equipment software that the students used to record and edit sound files. These sound files and written documents provide a detailed record of the language, the first of its kind. There are no Nafara grammar books, no style guides. This may be because the language is mostly oral. French is used for anything official in Côte d’Ivoire; Nafara is a language used at home among friends, family and neighbors. 

Despite its minority status and lack of scholarly attention, Nafara is not an endangered language. Approximately 60,000 people speak it and a comfortable percentage of those speakers are youth. An endangered language is one where there is reasonable expectation it will cease to exist within 50 years, generally because of an aging and dwindling pool of native speakers. 

Some languages, notably Gaelic and several American Indian languages, have been brought back from the brink of extinction. Unlike those languages, Nafara is not subject to linguistic oppression. It must compete against French, but so far it is holding its own. 

“I’d never thought seriously about Nefara,” Coulibaly said. “I grew up speaking it, I take it for granted -- it didn’t seem like something someone would study. I’m happy this happened at SIU, and my family is proud that I was part of it.” 

“When languages such as English or French replace the languages originally spoken in far-flung places, this destroys linguistic diversity,” Carstens said. “It’s a side-effect of globalization. Documenting languages helps preserve them and the diversity of cultures. If we fail to preserve a record of languages, we have an incomplete picture of linguistic diversity. When we talk about diversity, we need to include languages in that discussion.” 

The Nafara Language Project at SIU is now concluded, but the story isn’t quite over for Carstens. This summer, she taught a two-week comparative syntax course in the African Linguistics School. Though the school travels to various African universities, this year it was in Côte d’Ivoire. While there, Carstens organized follow-up research trips for future work on Nefara. 

“I was very pleased to be invited to teach in the African Linguistics School for a number of reasons,” Carstens said. “It was an honor to be part of such a high-quality instructional team. I was glad to gain some first-hand knowledge of the country where Nefara is spoken. I also strongly support the African Linguistics School goal of helping and encouraging native speakers of African languages to become linguists. 

“Formal linguistics is like the math of language,” Carstens said. “It’s technical -- it’s an exploration of structure and underlying organizational principles. Much work of this kind is done by researchers without any working knowledge of the language, like me and my Nafara field methods class. We expect great advances to follow from increased involvement of native speaker linguists.”