Q&A with Wall Scholar Mark Turin

May 5, 2020

Communities and scholars around the world are working hard to reclaim and revitalize endangered languages, as these hold important cultural and ecological knowledge.

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) sat down with anthropologist and linguist Mark Turin, a 2019 Wall Scholar and Wall Solutions Initiative award recipient, to discuss his collaborative work in language reclamation, lexicography and language-mapping technologies.

PWIAS: How did you become interested in languages?

Mark Turin: I grew up in North London around a lot of languages. My mother spoke to me in Dutch and my father in Italian, giving me a sense of belonging to something beyond my immediate surroundings.

Over the years, I’ve been frustrated when I’ve travelled to places where I don’t have a language in common with the community. Languages help us to build connections, share experiences and learn from others. Without an openness to imagining other ways of knowing the world, our own experience is impoverished.

PWIAS: As people turn to more widespread languages like English or French, why is it important to preserve other languages?

MT: This is an important question and one that I am often asked. Underlying the question, however, is a deeply-held belief that I would like to dispel: a sense that monolingualism—speaking a single language—is the normal state of affairs. For most of human history and across our entire planet, people have been multilingual, learning national and even international languages while still continuing to speak their own ancestral, territorial or regional language. It’s not a case of choosing between a dominant, colonial language or a traditional, Indigenous language. The two can—and do—exist side by side.

In addition, most societies commit resources to managing their cultural memory and heritage, whether that be architecture, art or nature. The same investment should be extended to languages, one of the greatest collective achievements of humanity. Linguistic diversity remains a defining feature of who we are and needs to be nurtured.

PWIAS: What language-related projects are you currently engaged in through the Peter Wall Institute?

MT: In my capacity as a Wall Scholar and as a recipient of a Wall Solutions grant, I’m involved in two research partnerships. The first is to imagine the future of dictionaries. 

Every dictionary reflects the idiosyncrasies of the language that it documents, the goals of the community that it serves and the mindset of its compilers. For under-resourced and Indigenous communities, a dictionary contains crucial historical, cultural and territorial information, and when languages become endangered, dictionaries become primary tools for language learning.

Traditional dictionary-making—known as lexicography—was established by speakers of dominant languages. Through this project, we’re developing approaches focussed on the needs of under-resourced languages. Working together, speakers, learners, teachers and researchers of Indigenous languages are looking for guidelines that address the specific goals of community-informed lexicography. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, this research partnership fills a resource gap by offering a framework and toolkit for collaborative dictionary work with marginalized languages. We call this process ‘Relational Lexicography’, as it represents a shift towards dictionaries that are created by speakers and with learners of under-resourced languages.

The second project looks at how we represent languages on maps. In general, maps don’t do a good job of representing linguistic diversity. Techniques that locate languages as dots on a map are problematic. For example, where would we locate the dot for English? It’s difficult to make maps that reflect people’s lived experiences of multilingualism.

A failure to appreciate linguistic diversity can manifest in unsuccessful public service delivery, particularly in marginalized communities. Embracing this challenge, our partners at the Endangered Language Alliance have produced a series of beautiful print maps of the world’s most linguistically diverse city: New York City. Municipal leadership in New York are now using this knowledge to shape public policy. The goal of our project is to transform such two-dimensional maps into generalizable, interactive digital tools that support community-based language mapping anywhere in the world.

PWIAS: How has the Peter Wall Institute helped your work?

MT: In the course of a career, academics usually find themselves knowing more and more about less and less. Opportunities to read widely and deeply, to step back and reflect on one’s own work—and the values that we bring to it—are rare, and these are some of the highlights of being a Wall Scholar.

This year, I’ve gained a lot of practical tips from participating in workshops on public speaking and non-academic writing, and am always stimulated by the ideas of my colleagues in the cohort—as well as the visiting researchers who regularly join our meetings. I look forward to taking these teachings—and the strong relationships that I’ve formed—back to my departmental homes.

Finally, and somewhat unexpectedly, my year in residence as a Wall Scholar is helping me to be a more effective teacher. Our cohort have been sharing our very differences experiences of classroom pedagogy and of mentoring students from across the disciplines, and I now have lots of ideas on how to be a more creative instructor.

Photo: Mark Turin with students from Living Language: Science and Society, in front of Reconciliation Pole at UBC, carved by renowned Haida master carver, 7idansuu (Edenshaw) James Hart. October, 2019. Photography by Paul Joseph.