SIUE professors granted five-year study of endangered languages and geography in Nepal

The research group in the village of Nace in Manang. From left, back row: Dr. Oliver Bond (University of Surrey), Dr. Dubi Nanda Dhakal (Tribhuvan University), Dr. Kristine Hildebrandt, Dr. Shunfu Hu , Prita Malla. From left, front row: Prabal Malla, Ritar Lhakpa Lama, Kali Lama. Photo courtesy of Shunfu Hu.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has recently awarded 32 institutional grants to support the organizations’ Documenting Endangered Languages program, and two SIUE professors, Associate Professor of Linguistics Dr. Kristine Hildebrandt and Geography Professor Dr. Shunfu Hu, have been awarded grants to participate in this program. Hildebrandt and Hu were awarded this grant in February, but their research officially began this past summer.

With the grant, Hildebrandt and Hu are traveling to the Menang district, located in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal, to contribute to the documentation of endangered languages found in that region for the next four years. The grant was awarded for a five-year study, and Hildebrandt and Hu began their research in Nepal this past summer, with Hildebrandt leaving for Nepal on May 22 and returning on August 8 and Hu departing on July 11 and also coming back on August 8.

In studying Menang’s endangered languages, Hildebrandt and Hu are contributing their expertise to preserve the linguistic diversity in the region. Hildebrandt’s area of study is Sino-Tibetan/Tibeto-Burman languages, and she has been visiting Menang for 15 years to study the languages. Hildebrandt has been documenting languages and studying the endangerment as well as maintenance, revitalization, and marginalization of them since she was a graduate student.

Hu, however, is new to the field of linguistics. His expertise lies in multimedia cartography, and he recently made interactive maps of public gardens for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to encourage people to grow more gardens. He was pleasantly surprised to be asked by Hildebrandt to contribute his mapping skills to this language-centered grant.

“People live in different environments and know different geographic conditions. Where they live is critical for cultures, religions, and languages,” Hu says. “This project is to document those different languages, and my role is to map where the villages are so [we can see] which village speaks which language.”

Dr. Hildebrandt interviewing a native speaker of the Gurung language in Tace, Menang, Nepal. From left: Dr. Dubi Nanda Dhakal, Dr. Kristine Hildebrandt, and male, Gurung speaker. Photo courtesy of Oliver Bond.

Hu, Hildebrandt, and Prita Malla, a Nepali graduate assistant at SIUE, as well as other linguists and scholars from Napali universities, visited seventeen villages in Manang. Hu and Malla, who is studying geography, made videos of the streets, the people, the houses, and the overall physical area of Menang in order to create a map.

“The purpose of my trip is to use the red hand system,” he explains. “It has several components. The video camcorder and the GPS. These two are connected. When I videotape the villages, the video comes with the locations…just like [when] you use GPS in your car for navigation.”

While Hu seeks to make a map of the region to show how the languages are distributed in the district, Hildebrandt seeks to find the differences and similarities between the languages of Menang, the degree of endangerment of each language, and the uniqueness of each language in her language documentation and research.

Some members of the research group walking down on a trail after visiting Nache village (Elevation: 8500 feet above mean sea level) to the Dharapani village (in the background; elevation: 6000 ft above mean sea level). Photo courtesy of Shunfu Hu.

Hildebrandt researches the Menang languages by meeting people and sitting down with them to conduct interviews and documenting (by recording, listening, and writing) the nuances and parallels between the languages. As Hildebrandt has been to Menang on several occasions, many of the people are used to her and welcome her inquiries. She says they refer to her as “the woman who likes to learn about languages.”

Due to the qualitative nature of Hildebrandt’s research, the research is painstaking and long-term, which is why the grant is for five years. She says that in this type of research, one must conduct “very careful observation,” as the study of the languages involves knowing the speakers’ “attitudes about their languages” and how they practice their language.

In the five years of research, Hildebrandt and Hu will be studying and surveying only the Menang district, which in actuality, is a small area. However, the diversity within this area is great, and taking this much time to study the many villages within this area could be a milestone in the field of linguistics.

“Even though it’s a small area, it’s a microcosm for patterns that other researchers might find in other parts of the world,” Hildebrandt explains. “It really builds a kind of platform on which [in] other projects, other people could say, ‘I think similar things are going on in this part of the world.’ Other people could say, ‘No, I disagree, I think it’s very different where I work. There is linguistic diversity, but here’s what’s happening in this other part of the world.’ It at least builds a platform for comparison and contrast about language practices, language attitudes, the future of languages.”

Hildebrandt believes that studying the Menang and any endangered languages is important because if and when a language dies, having basic knowledge of the language preserves it for scholars “because if the language dies without any knowledge about [it], that’s a gap in our understanding, our knowledge of what’s possible [for] the human mind, [and] the human species, and that’s unfortunate,” she says.

What is important to remember with this research, however, is that Hildebrandt and the other researchers are not out to “save” these endangered languages. In their research, Hildebrandt hopes that they may only create awareness of the languages’ near extinction.

Dr. Hildebrandt on a trail to the next village. Photo courtesy of Oliver Bond.

“Nobody has the power to save a language except for the speech community itself. The job of this [grant] is to document and preserve as much information as we can,” she says. “But I think that one of the unofficial…consequences of that is that community members who are observant…see that the language is interesting enough to be studied and archived and recorded. Especially if the archiving methods are innovative and exciting enough like making a map, which is what Dr. Hu is doing.”

With the study, Hildebrandt hopes that the speakers will “take more of an activist role in their language” by encouraging the youngest generation to retain their native language or “mother tongue” even if they go to a boarding school to gain education, which will be taught exclusively in the national language, Napali. Many students learn Napali and associate it with success, therefore neglecting their native Menang language. This is one of the reasons the languages are facing extinction.

Hildebrandt, Hu, and the other researchers are planning to visit nine more villages next summer, which is less than this summer, but only because these nine villages are more spread out in the district than the 17 they previously visited. Getting to these villages will take longer, as the primary mode of transportation between villages is walking.

Hu explains that the mountainous geography contributes to the villages being farther apart. While the villages are not many miles apart, different geographic features make it more difficult to get to another village in the district. To get from one village to the next could require one to walk up a mountain or down into a valley, which takes considerably more time than traveling on flat land. This geographic diversity only adds interest to the region for Hu.

Tal village, entrance to the Manang District, Nepal. Photo courtesy of Shunfu Hu.

Hildebrandt has enlisted some undergraduate students minoring in linguistics to help her go through her data and audio acquired from this summer’s trip to Nepal during this academic year. She believes that these undergraduate students will gain insight into the depth of linguistics that is usually not studied in undergraduate programs at other universities.

In addition to a geography graduate assistant, Hildebrandt hopes to bring one or two of her undergraduate workers with her to Nepal for a month next summer, which would provide an opportunity to see what she calls “linguistic diversity in action.”

SIUE students will be able to get a taste of Hildebrandt’s and Hu’s experiences and research in Nepal when taking their classes, as this grant offers a wealth of knowledge that is incorporated into both professors’ instruction. Hu is currently creating the Menang maps and will show these and his videos shot in Menang to his students, while Hildebrandt teaches a special topics course in endangered languages every other year.

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