The Language Vitality Initiative partnered with Nankai University (NKU) in Tianjin, China, to offer the Sino-Tibetan Language Research Methodology Workshop. The workshop is a two-week series of courses that train thirty-five to forty-five students each year from Tibetan and other minority nationalities and languages in linguistics and language description, language and cultural documentation, and approaches to multilingualism.
The linguistic picture of Tibetan areas in China is complicated. In addition to the large Tibetan languages of China—Ü-Tsang, Amdo, and Kham—there are at least fifty smaller Tibetic languages and thirty-eight minority (non-Tibetic) languages, whose speakers often identify as Tibetan. With perhaps the exception of the largest three, all urgently need measures for maintenance and learning.
Responding to the need for training, the Sino-Tibetan Language and Linguistics Summer Institute is a collaboration between Tibetan students, community language practitioners, NKU, the Ancient Tibetan Texts Research Center of Qinghai Province, Shanghai Normal University (SHNU) Tibetology Research Center, and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH). The institute consists of two parts: the workshop and the Tibetan Language and Linguistics Forum. For three days in the middle of the workshop, the forum brings together Chinese academics for presentations of research and rigorous discussion. Both workshop and forum are hosted at Nankai University. NKU is a top-tier research university with international collaborations and a long tradition of research in ethnic minority languages, including graduating the first Tibetan PhD in linguistics.
In June 2016, CFCH and NKU signed a memorandum of understanding, two months before the first workshop. There had never before been an academic institute devoted exclusively to Tibetan linguistic training in China, and the 2016 forum was the first major academic gathering held in Tibetan.
- Provide coursework in descriptive linguistics for minority nationality students, primarily those from Tibetan languages and cultures
- Provide hands-on training in documentation of their own languages and cultural practices, including introductions to linguistic software
- Increase awareness of language shift and approaches to maintenance and multilingualism
- Introduce students to Chinese and international researchers and instructors, making connections and giving encouragement to further their education and practice
The workshop provides two weeks of intense training through ten to twelve courses. There are three categories: core courses (1:45 hours for 3-4 days), documentation and technology (1:45, 1-2 days), and field methods, using a small Tibetic or Tibeto-Burman language (every day). The evenings are equally full with guest lectures, study hall, and salons, where students share their own research or community language projects.
The courses are taught by professors at NKU, SHNU, and Beijing University, internationally recognized guest professors from Europe and the United States, and curators from CFCH. Introduction to Linguistics and the technical workshops are taught by graduate students to give them experience teaching in semiformal settings.
All participants must go through a short application process run through NKU.
Here are some of the criteria used:
- Enthusiasm for applying what they learn to their own languages and communities
- Background in linguistics via language teaching, traditional text-based historical linguistics, or linguistics coursework
- High proficiency in Chinese (because of the diversity of languages represented, Chinese is the common classroom language)
- Ability to speak their Tibetic or minority languages is not essential, due to lack of intergenerational transmission of highly endangered languages and from urbanization
Once accepted, tuition is free and includes the cost of travel to Tianjin and room and board on campus during the workshop. Interested students within the People’s Republic of China should contact Professor Yeshes Vodgsal Atshogs. Interested students outside of the People’s Republic of China can contact Dr. Mary Linn.
During and after the workshop, students connect to each other and instructors through a group chat. These groups provide continuing support and allow our partners to funnel news and opportunities their way.
We also use the chat groups to conduct follow-up surveys six months later. By this time, students understand better what information they found the most useful and what they need more of. We ask how they have used the information (e.g. teaching products, data collection, furthering their education). We gauge broader dissemination by asking if they have shared the information with others, and if so, how (e.g. local workshop, teaching, discussions, group chats). To this end, the workshop is successful, as students each year report documentation projects in their own communities, sharing information, encouraging language use, and acceptances into graduate programs.