WWU student Yukaiya Nomoto at CoLang 2022
by Sara Helms
Western Washington University linguistics major Yukaiya Nomoto attended CoLang 2022, documenting it along the way on the WWU Linguistics Instagram profile.
CoLang, the Institute on Collaborative Language Research, is a community of academics, Indigenous tribal leaders and community members coming together to talk about best practices when it comes to language documentation. They work to decolonize language documentation and language study.
This summer they had their biennial gathering, a four-week event, CoLang 2022, at the University of Montana. There were over 30 workshops focusing on things like language archiving, language teaching and learning, and using technology to document language.
“One of their mottos is that everybody is equal,” Nomoto said of the CoLang 2022 organizers. “They really make it a point to set the atmosphere and the curriculum as something that's not meant just for linguists. It's all about collaborative research.”
Two practicums, one on South Bolivian Quechua and one on Northern Cheyenne, gave participants the opportunity to work with native language consultants to learn about their culture and practice techniques such as transcribing and interpreting. Materials developed within these “community-centered” practicums could then be used within their respective communities.
“CoLang made it very, very clear that language is culture. It's very important to have language as a part of identity."
Nomoto participated in the two-week Northern Cheyenne practicum, incorporating the skills he’d gained throughout the CoLang workshops. Nomoto worked with native Cheyenne speakers the first week, learning bits of their language. The second week Nomoto worked on a personal project, documenting his native dialect of Japanese, Tosa-Ben, spoken in Kochi prefecture in Shikoku.
See Nomoto's presentation on Tosa-Ben
“Throughout CoLang, I started to realize how similar my own dialect was, in terms of how it was treated, to native languages here,” Nomoto explained. “In Japan, the dialects are much more like languages, in that they are sometimes phonologically, morphologically, syntactically different. They're not just accents. And so there had been stigma because of the standardization of the Tokyo dialect. The native speakers don't want to use it because they're embarrassed. The youth don’t want to use their language because they don’t see the use or the value in it.”
Nomoto explained, “CoLang made it very, very clear that language is culture. It's very important to have language as a part of identity. And so instead of working on Cheyenne, I decided it was personally more important that I did my own dialect while the elders were still around.”
Nomoto wrote a script in Japanese and emailed it to his dad and stepmom in Japan. The two of them read the script for Nomoto who did a tonal transcription of the passage.
Nomoto encourages his peers to ‘take a leap of faith’ and seek out experiences like CoLang.
“I was a first-year linguistics student. Last year, I took all the basic classes. I haven't even gone through semantics yet. You know, [CoLang] really changed me. It changed the way that I think about the field,” Nomoto says. “Truth be told, I failed phonology spring quarter. And then right after I went to a place with Ph.D. students, and yet we were all equals.”
Nomoto stresses the importance of righting the wrongs of our colonialized pasts.
“The field of linguistics was made to study language. As we began to document things, we lost the human aspect of language, the cultural aspect of language. We went into communities mostly without their permission or consent. And we studied them like they had no will, they had no history, they had no emotion. And we took them as data. And by ‘them’ I mean their language, which they described at CoLang as a living thing.”
“There is a big gap now and there are people who are trying to reclaim all of that. And as people who love language, we need to really be there to support the longevity of language and culture and history.”