Linguistic’s Fitzgerald Piles on Projects, Grants

Professor Colleen Fitzgerald (Linguistics & TESOL) coordinates documentation and revitalization programs for endangered Native American languages. (Photo contributed)
Professor Colleen Fitzgerald (Linguistics & TESOL) coordinates documentation and revitalization programs for endangered Native American languages. Daryl Baldwin, director of the Myaamia Center and a key collaborator and instructor with the Oklahoma Breath of Life workshops, is pictured at right. (Photo contributed)

Two recent National Science Foundation grants have been awarded to Professor Colleen Fitzgerald (Linguistics & TESOL) to continue work with endangered Native American languages, adding to UT Arlington’s reputation in language documentation and revitalization.

Fitzgerald is currently principal investigator on three separate National Science Foundation grant projects totaling more than $270,000: the Breath of Life workshops with Dr. Mary Linn of the University of Oklahoma; the 2014 Institute on Collaborative Language Research slated for next summer; and the recently announced Chickasaw verb documentation and analysis project with the Chickasaw Nation.

Each of the projects incorporates community and student training alongside academic research and language revitalization.

“This is significant validation of the way I approach doing work with Native American communities,” Fitzgerald said about the NSF grants. “All these projects really draw on participatory models, where training is part of that research as well. There’s a synergistic relationship between teaching and training. It’s not only about training community members, but training students to do the research ethically and responsibly. The projects are all tied together in that way.”

The Breathe of Life workshops have helped Native American communities in Oklahoma organize language classes. They have also inspired some of Fitzgerald’s students to move beyond the classroom: doctoral student Lori McLain Pierce won a $10,000 research award to work with Choctaw speakers, cataloging stories and basic components of the Choctaw language. Other students are considering similar research projects.

“Dr. Fitzgerald works hard to help students understand the ethics involved in working with indigenous communities, and she emphasizes the need to be open-minded respectful when working with speakers,” said doctoral candidate Libby Tatz. “She stresses the importance of finding ways to be helpful to community members while working with indigenous languages.”

The 2014 Institute on Collaborative Language Research, or CoLang 2014, will be held June 16-July 25 and feature students, instructors and linguists from Nigeria, Kenya, Japan and Canada as well as across the United States. Fitzgerald said the biennial conference will address documentation, revitalization, teaching, ethics and community collaboration.

“There’s been a lot of discussion over the past 20 years about the global crisis of endangered languages we’re facing and how linguists can responsibly respond to it,” Fitzgerald said. “There are number of people who have advocated training community members as linguists.”

That community training is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s latest project, the Chickasaw verb documentation and analysis. The 36-month, $100,000 NSF grant will enable researchers to catalogue nearly 500 Chickasaw verbs. Josh Hinson, director of Chickasaw revitalization program, is co-leader on the project.

“There are lots of ways to conjugate a Chickasaw verb,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s incredibly, beautifully complex. The Chickasaw [language] is severely in danger. There’s, at best, 70 speakers. This is the time to do it.”

In addition to documentation and analysis, Fitzgerald includes community and teacher training into her projects. Documenting an endangered language isn’t enough, she says, and many of her colleagues agree.

“All one has to do is read the projections of how many indigenous languages in the United State will die out by mid-century to realize how important Colleen’s work is,” said Dr. Ken Roemer, Professor of English and co-advisor of the Native American Student Association. “What especially impresses me about her work is that she and her colleagues collaborate fully with the remaining speakers and those who want to learn. Her work does not follow the 19th- and early 20th-century model of the outside expert coming in to tell the Indians what they should do; Colleen’s is a 21st-century collaborative venture.”

For Fitzgerald, the service-learning components of her projects are inspired by the very people she works with.

“There’s an expectation in Native American communities to participate in a culture of giving back,” she said. “As an outsider, it’s important for me to show that I can do the same.”

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