Being a field linguist is a hard, if rewarding, job. You have to travel to far-off places, often isolated villages with few luxuries. Then, you spend a lot of time recording the sounds and words of endangered languages that few people still speak.
In the past, most of the recording was done on tape recorders, with transcriptions being laboriously transcribed on paper. Now, according to this article in the New York Times, digital recording is making this important work both a little bit easier and a little bit more accessible. The Times article follows linguist Dr. Tucker Childs as he tries to record the Kim language in the Sierra Leone.
By using a solid-state recorder and a variety of computer applications, he is able to record and analyse words, as well as record the GPS coordinates of the last few villages were Kim is spoken, which are so remote that they do not appear on any standard maps of the country. Once he has finished his work, this data will be stored at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where other scholars can access it.
Of course, digital equipment has its pitfalls too-travelling to remote areas is hard on even the toughest electronic devices. But, once data about an endangered or dying data is collected, it’s much easier to do something constructive with it if it’s already in digital form.
For example the University of Sydney has developed software for cell phones that helps Aboriginal children and teenagers from the Dharug tribe learn the Dharug language. The program is basically a mobile dictionary that allows users to look up the meanings and definitions of words in Dharug, a dead language that would otherwise not be in use.