February 2, 2007
Linguist becomes Landrex Distinguished Professor
Dr. Sally Rice honoured for her dedication to saving endangered languages
by Carmen Rojas
Twenty years ago, it would have been rare for an academic linguist to argue for the need to put aside theoretical concerns about language. But University of Alberta professor Dr. Sally Rice is among a growing number linguists who have shifted to a community-focused approach due to the dire state of minority languages.
"I think that most linguists have woken up to the fact that languages are dying left and right," Rice said. "Increasingly, you're finding theoretically-trained linguists, like myself, who are leaving the theory on the shelf and saying, 'You know what? This is our last chance to get data. This is our last chance to help people save their languages.' "
Rice has dedicated much of her career to working with local Aboriginal communities whose languages are in danger of disappearing within generations. The importance of her work in this area was acknowledged recently when she was named the second Landrex Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Arts - a position granted to a senior faculty member whose research and teaching activities focus on community issues in the Capital Region.
Rice felt honoured to be selected for the professorship, particularly given the level and quality of other community-based work she has seen taking place throughout the Faculty.
As the Landrex Distinguished Professor, Rice will be awarded annual research funding of $50,000 over a five-year term. She plans on using part of this funding to hire a pair of research assistants who will help complete two ongoing documentation projects involving Athapaskan languages. Athapaskan (also known as Dene) is one of the major Indigenous languages families found in the Capital Region and was, at one time, the second largest language family in the world.
The first project involves creating a set of language documentation materials for the community of Cold Lake First Nation, which Rice has been working with since 1993. These materials include a comprehensive grammar of Denesuline (Chipewyan), the endangered Athapaskan language spoken in parts of northeastern Alberta. Rice is also editing a community-based Denesuline-English bilingual dictionary for which the speakers themselves provide the entries.
The second project is the ongoing development - with the assistance of TAPoR (Text Analysis Portal for Research) - of a web-based comparative dictionary of Athapaskan. The online nature of the project will allow community-based speakers of Athapaskan languages - who are spread out across North America - to contribute their knowledge to the database, as well as to access the knowledge of others.
Rice believes this level of access provided by the Internet has the potential to greatly impact revitalization efforts. "This database can possibly help a community restore indigenous forms that have been lost, or concepts that have been lost."
The Landrex Distinguished Professorship will also allow Rice to create new opportunities for students to attend the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute (CILLDI), a unique summer school she co-founded in 2000. Jointly sponsored by the U of A Faculties of Arts, Education, and Native Studies, the goal of CILLDI is to promote language and linguistic education among the speakers of endangered languages.
Each summer, students spend up to three weeks in Edmonton earning university credit in areas such as linguistics, language and literacy, curriculum development, second language teaching and research. Rice plans to use a portion of her Landrex funding to establish five bursaries per year for Aboriginal applicants living in the Treaty 6 area - which encompasses the Capital Region - to attend classes at CILLDI.
"Everything that CILLDI does is about language at the community level," Rice commented.
In the future, CILLDI hopes to offer students the option to spend three summers working towards a specialized Community Linguist Certificate that would prepare them to be leaders in language documentation and revitalization efforts in their communities.
For Rice, training what she refers to as "the first generation of community-oriented linguists" - people who are putting language ahead of linguistic theory - is crucial to ensuring a future for as many minority languages as possible.
"We're really looking at a last-ditch kind of effort," she said. "Some languages won't make it. Some languages will make it. The more we can document, the better."