Language Keepers began in 2006 as an experimental project to document endangered languages, addressing a central dilemma in endangered language work: the decline and loss of public group discourse. When a language is no longer spoken in groups outside the family or in public, it cannot be passed on or documented effectively.
The loss of public speaking is a significant symptom of language endangerment.
Language Keepers uses an innovative approach combining descriptive linguistics, documentary video, and community outreach to encourage speaker groups to use heritage language in traditional and contemporary activities, while filming, for language learning, dictionary development, research, cultural transmission, and revival.
In the first three years of documentation with the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet people of Eastern Maine and New Brunswick, Language Keepers filmed more than 50 hours of natural group conversation with 70 speakers, producing 8 DVDs of edited programs subtitled in Passamaquoddy and English. The data from the filming contributed hundreds of new words to the on-line Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary, stimulated language revival programs for people who understand but cannot speak, and identified new sources of resiliency and leadership in the language-speaking community.
Today, this methodology has evolved into a community documentation resource to include the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Language Portal. The Portal now integrates dictionary development with media archives of Passamaquoddy language and culture, including public access and feedback functions, to create a resource that encourages language use, language learning, research, and continuing documentation.
The Portal has stimulated the training of indigenous filmmakers in IT skills as well as transcription and translation. Language Keepers offers this training. As a result, the group being documented becomes self-documenting and creates a self-sustaining documentation resource in the community.
The Language Keepers team includes David Weiss, archive development; Robert Leavitt, linguist educator; Ben Levine, filmmaker, project director; Julia Schulz, language educator; Barbara Manning, project administrator. Language Keepers is a project of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities Documenting Endangered Languages Program. The documentation has taken place at the Passamaquoddy communities of Pleasant Point and Indian Township (Maine), and Tobique First Nation (New Brunswick, Canada). The fiscal sponsor and archive partner is Northeast Historic Film Archive, Bucksport, Maine. The Portal is developed, hosted, and maintained by the Electronic Text Center, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB, Canada.