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New Research Suggets Cell Phones Are Helping Save Endangered Languages

Texting and emailing may actually be helping to save endangers languages, rather than contributing to their demise, new research suggests.

Victoria University professor of linguistics Miriam Meyerhoff has been studying the effects of technology on the Vanuatuan language Nkep, in the village of Hog Harbour, for the past eight years, and she has been surprised by what she has found.

“Urbanisation and migration are bad news for small languages because people get taken away from the high-density, high-communication networks of the village,” Meyerhoff said.

Technology is helping threatened languages to survive, a leading researcher says.

Technology is helping threatened languages to survive, a leading researcher says.

“But what I’m seeing is people using things like mobile phones, email and the internet to stay in touch and so they are continuing to speak Nkep. The technology provides an extended community.”

Meyerhoff, a sociolinguist in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, has been conducting fieldwork in Vanuatu for more than 20 years.

She will be delivering her inaugural public lecture at Victoria next week, explaining how technology is helping the village “put the brakes on” the negative effects that can follow urbanisation and migration.

She will also be talking about another form of technology Hog Harbour villagers have embraced to help preserve their culture – film-making.

In 2013 and 2014, Meyerhoff helped organise the making of a 40-minute film that dramatised a secessionist attack on the village shortly after Vanuatu declared independence in 1980.

“The filmmakers got together a whole bunch of people who had been around at the time,” she said.

“Old men came and acted themselves being young and being shot. Sons stepped in and acted the parts of people who had died since 1980.”

Meyerhoff said her talk, Film, phones and faraway places: A modern tale of language maintenance, was “basically highlighting that people are pretty savvy about the opportunities new technology provides them with”.


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