SOAS University of London

Department of Linguistics, School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics

Preserving and revitalising languages

According to the United Nations, there are almost 7,000 spoken languages in the world and, by the year 2100, we will have lost more than half.  The Department of Linguistics conducts vital research to preserve and revitalise rapidly diminishing linguistic diversity around the word. Together with peers and partners, our work has contributed to a change in thinking about language and its role for communities, their cultures and their identities.

We use the insights of our research to:

  • Impact and shape public discourse related to language endangerment with communities, government, media and the general public
  • Advocate language documentation and revitalisation which includes description and support of endangered and little studied languages
  • Devise and support accessible language documentation and revitalisation resources  in order to engage with the wider public

We are involved with external organisations and individuals in many different ways, including

  • Working with language planners and activists to influence public policies related to languages and cultures
  • Working with indigenous communities and individuals to develop materials and curricula to support the revitalisation and maintenance of their languages and cultures
  • The Endangered Languages Archive, funded by Arcadia as part of Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project hosted by SOAS since 2002, aims to document and support endangered languages

Exploring language and environment

The ongoing work of Friederike Lüpke, Professor of Language Documentation and Description, on multilingualism in West Africa has great potential impact for a wide range of extra-academic stakeholders because it touches on language ideologies, attitudes and practices such as teaching models and provides a better understanding of the ecology of languages and linguistic diversity. It can also inform language management and pedagogy, in Africa and elsewhere, by providing inspiring models and reversing global tendencies in knowledge flows.

Dr Candide Simard, Volskwagen Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, is working closely with rangers at the Jutpurra National Park in Australia, where her knowledge of Aboriginal languages contributes to discussions on environmental monitoring, the protection of sacred sites, invasive species control, fire management, and mineral exploration applications.

Influencing language policy and learning

Dr Julia Sallabank, Senior Lecturer in Language Support and Revitalisation, has worked on the minority language of Guernesiaise. Her research has involved study of the needs of learners of this language, as well as language policy and planning, and aims to develop learning materials based on both the outcomes of this research and on language documentation. The research has been conducted in close collaboration with the Guernsey Language Commission, as well as with local NGOs such as the Comité d’la Culture Guernesiaise (an umbrella body for language support groups) and La Société Guernesiaise, a local scientific society which advises government officials on language-related issues. Read more...

Professor Peter K. Austin has been involved in a language revitalisation project with the Dieri Aboriginal Corporation (South Australia) since 2010 that has included production of teaching materials, a bilingual dictionary, an online language learning blog, and community-based workshops. Professor Austin’s engagement with the Dieri community goes back to 1974 and has included publication of a grammar and stories in the language, and a biography of one of its last speakers.

Language documentation and digital resources

Siberian Languages pic
The Endangered Languages Archive, a major initiative sponsored by Arcadia fund as part of Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project (HRELP) hosted by SOAS since 2002, aims to document and support endangered languages. This initiative trains language documenters, preserves and disseminates documentation materials among academics and the general public, and raises public awareness of linguistic diversity. A major activity of HRELP has been its annual Endangered Languages Week which has attracted large audiences of students, staff and the general public. The HRELP website receives over 1 million visitors per year.

Professor Irina Nikolaeva, Head of the Department of Linguistics, created a digital resource on endangered Siberian languages and cultures, based on her field materials, which is freely available for public online use and targets both academics and non-academics. 

Advocating minority language rights

The research of Dr Justin Watkins, Senior Lecturer in the Languages and Linguistics of South East Asia, with minority languages in Burma made him one of very few non-missionary experts in the field of linguistic diversity and language policy in that country. In 2013, he was invited to address two key audiences in Burma: the politically influential monastery in Mandalay and a group of Burmese MPs, mostly from ethnic minorities.

The work of Itesh Sachdev, Emeritus Professor of Language and Communication, on ethnolinguistic minorities and community languages has had an impact on the maintenance and learning of these languages by members of the communities themselves. The high profile of this research has helped to raise the status of minority languages amongst members of both minority groups and the general public.  

Professor Peter K. Austin has given a wide range of public lectures on language diversity, language endangerment and language documentation and revitalisation in the UK, Europe, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, India and the US. He was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate honoris causa by Uppsala University for his “crucial international part in drawing attention to endangered languages by emphasising the importance of documenting the human cultural heritage represented by the thousands of languages at risk of vanishing in the near future”.

The research of SOAS scholars also informs government organisations. For example, Professor George Hewitt has contributed to conflict-resolution in Transcaucasia and disseminating the Abkhazian position vis-à-vis Georgia through publications. This work benefited diplomats and NGOs, and was recognised by a medal “for Services” from the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Abkhazia.