University of Cambridge > > RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia > Vanishing Voices and the Politics of Language Policy: Reflections on long-term fieldwork in the Himalayas

Vanishing Voices and the Politics of Language Policy: Reflections on long-term fieldwork in the Himalayas

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Susan Rolfe.

Modalities for conducting fieldwork in linguistics are fast changing. Many of these transformations are related to technology access and information flow – compressing the distance between the linguist and the observed; some are the natural result of politics and new funding opportunities; while others can be associated with communities finding a voice in their struggles for representation and greater public discussion about the ownership of intangible heritage. Scholars embarking on new field projects in linguistics in areas where they do not have an established set of contacts should be aware of the fast changing topography of expectations. All of these factors are leading to a shift from extractive models of research to frameworks which are necessarily more engaged. This change of course has been felt particularly strongly in the field of language documentation.

In today’s talk, I aim to tie together a number of intersecting strands of my research through a visual presentation drawing on many examples from fieldwork. Over the past 15 years, in Nepal, India and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, I have worked variously as a linguistic anthropologist investigating issues of ethnolinguistic identity and language competence; as a linguist engaged in the documentation of Thangmi – a hitherto undescribed Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the southern recesses of the Himalayas; as the director of the first modern linguistic survey of India’s second smallest and least populous state – Sikkim; as an advisor to the Government of Nepal and consultant to the World Bank on issues of language rights and mother tongue education; and most recently, as the head of translation and interpretation in the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN).

Some of the overarching questions that lie behind these diverse engagements, and which will be addressed in the presentation, are: How can scholars support endangered languages spoken by marginalised communities without tribalising or marginalizing them further? How should we engage with the messy politics of language rights and revitalization campaigns without becoming co-opted in indigenous or partisan agendas? How can we work towards greater understanding and respect for nationally or regionally dominant languages – such as Nepali, Tibetan or Maithili – which despite being spoken by millions of people remain poorly understood by large multilateral organisations and educational institutions?

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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