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Unintended consequences of methodological and practical responses to language endangerment in Africa

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Abstract

The nature and processes of language endangerment in Africa continue to bedebated and contested (see e.g. Luepke 2009). There is however a consensusamong linguists on language documentation as a strategy for safeguardingAfrica’s linguistic diversity. Nevertheless, Africanist linguists are divided on howfar linguists involved in language documentation should be language activistsor get involved in language support work (Ladefoged 1992) and on how totrain African students for the task of documenting African languages (Newman2003). In this paper I examine some of the practices that are associated withlanguage documentation whose principal goal is the creation of a multi-purposerecord for posterity. I argue that some of these practices, despite the good intentions,in the end do not promote the preservation of linguistic diversity. I demonstratethat practices of orthography development, standardisation, literacyand development of pedagogical materials in endangered languages of Africawill in the end kill the variation and multilingual practices that are prevalenton the continent. African language documentarians are faced with questions ofediting oral material for use in school books for example. Some consequencesof some of these practices are explored. I advocate that Africanists should paymore attention to the multimodal modes of representation and in particulartake advantage of the oral nature of the socio-cultural communities of practiceand develop methods that promote diversity rather than kill it.

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