SOAS University of London

Department of Linguistics

Applied Language Documentation and Description

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Term 1

Linguists studying a language, especially an endangered language, are often called upon to assist the local community in a wide range of aspects in applied language matters such as developing an orthography for an unwritten language, making a dictionary, developing and evaluating a language program, helping to articulate language policy, and producing reference and learning materials (print and multimedia).

This course introduces students to practical and theoretical factors in language documentation and description, and critically examines issues and problems that often arise when working in this field. Examples will be drawn from successes and failures in applications of linguistic techniques to practical language problems.

This course is CORE for students on both pathways of the MA in Language Documentation and Description.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

The course aims to prepare students to work on documentation projects, with regard to both practical issues such as project planning, and ethical and ideological issues such as collaborative and interdisciplinary research and the role of an external linguist in language communities.

Critical evaluation of methods and practices is encouraged, focusing on the aims, audience, impact and outcomes of language documentation and description.


This course is taught over 10 week with a two-hour lecture and a one-hour tutorial per week.

Scope and syllabus

Topics covered will include:

  • Introduction to language documentation
  • Project planning
  • Collaboration, ethics and interdisciplinarity
  • Language vitality
  • Language contact, variation and change in language endangerment 
  • Orthography development
  • Lexicography and dictionary making
  • Texts and translation
  • Language policy, planning, support and revitalisation
  • The role of the linguist

Method of assessment

This course is examined by coursework only.  An essay of 1,500 words to be submitted on day 5, after reading week in the term the course is taught (20%); an essay of 1,500 words to be submitted at the end of week 9 in the term in which the course is taught (20%); an essay of 3,500 words to be submitted at the end of week 1 in the term after which the course is taught (60%).

Suggested reading

Suggested reading

  • Austin, P.K. and Sallabank, J. eds. (2011) Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bonvillain, Nancy (ed). 2016 . The Routledge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology. Oxford: Routledge.
  • Dorian, Nancy C. ed. 1989. Investigating Obsolescence: Studies in Language Contraction and Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gippert, Jost, Nikolaus Himmelmann and Ulrike Mosel (eds) 2006. Essentials of Language Documentation. Berlin: Mouton. pp 67-86.
  • Grenoble, Lenore A., and Whaley, Lindsay J. (eds.) 1998. Endangered Languages: Language Loss and Community Response. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, K. David. 2007. When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Miyaoka, Osahito, Sakiyama, Osamu, and Krauss, Michael E. eds. 2007. The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nettle, Daniel and Suzanne Romaine 2000. Vanishing Voices. Oxford: OUP.
  • Thomason, Sarah G. 2015. Endangered Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A full weekly reading list will be supplied at the start of the course.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules