Communities pursue language development through dictionary workshops

Malango speakers in the Solomon Islands collaborate on gathering words for the first dictionary for their language.

(March 2014) Though separated by continents and oceans, two communities committed to developing their languages have recently taken a significant step towards the same goal: creating a dictionary for their language. Kaansa speakers in Burkina Faso and Malango speakers in the Solomon Islands recently completed a Rapid Word Collection workshop.

Rapid Word Collection (RWC) is a systematic process designed to gather many words in a short time. Key to the process is a questionnaire which guides mother-tongue speakers through various semantic domains which prompt participants to make note of words in their language that are related to that domain. For example, the household equipment domain asks questions about objects used for various functions in the home. The resulting collection of words reflects not only the language, but also captures unique cultural practices and even traditional knowledge of science or nature which has been passed down through generations.

For each RWC workshop, local leaders are encouraged to invite a diverse group of participants in order to allow for adequate representation of the language’s vocabulary. The ideal mix of participants will include men and women, seniors and young people. No prior linguistic or technical knowledge is necessary—training is provided at the beginning of the workshop. A consultant provides mentorship and training for those who wish to gain further skill to lead their community’s project or conduct workshops in other communities. SIL’s Dictionary and Lexicography Services team encourages each group that completes an RWC workshop to publish their collected words on, a website which provides hosting for bilingual and multilingual dictionaries.


Burkina Faso: Kaansa

In Burkina Faso, the Kaansa translation and literacy team set a goal of gathering 10,000 words. At the end of ten days of word collection, the participants had surpassed that goal by eliciting 11,500 words from 1,302 semantic domains. Of particular interest are several hundred words related to trees, bushes, grasses and local animals, many of which were unfamiliar to the younger participants. Recalling these names prompted elders in the group to comment on how local plants have traditionally been used in village life—valuable information that might have otherwise been lost to time.

Significantly, the leader of the community, the Kaan king, lent his influence to the project. Consultant Kevin Warfel expressed appreciation for the king’s support:

The king not only supported the workshop in principle, but also spoke passionately to the entire group of participants on the first day about the importance of collecting Kaansa words and of publishing a dictionary, and then he himself took part as a language expert as much as possible during the word-collection phase. His example, together with the hierarchical structure of the society, went far in motivating the participants to invest themselves significantly in the work. Without such support from the king, the results of the workshop might have been quite different.




The Kaan king (wearing purple) showed his support for the project by participating as a language expert. The group kept track of their progress with a chart based on a traditional granary and exceeded their goal of collecting 10,000 words. Community elders shared words and traditional knowledge that had been unknown to younger participants.


All of the collected words have now been given a basic gloss (the closest equivalent word in French) and entered into a FLEx lexical database, the foundation of an online dictionary which will continue to be refined and developed. The Kaansa translation and literacy team hopes to be able to offer printed copies of the completed dictionary at the ceremony introducing the Kaansa translation of the New Testament, which is tentatively planned for late 2015.

The Kaansa-speaking community sees value in a dictionary as a tool for language development and the sustainability of the language—the dictionary will support efforts to develop literacy materials and provide a standard reference for spelling. As a bilingual resource, the dictionary will provide a bridge for students learning French. It is also hoped that the dictionary will provide a bridge between generations, as young people have the opportunity to learn traditional terms and concepts that may have fallen out of daily use.

Participants in the Kaansa workshop expressed that they previously had a desire to develop their language and now have a way in which they can be personally involved in that development. Participants whose role involved transcribing the collected language data gained linguistic insights. Other communities in Burkina Faso have also requested workshops. The RWC team is waiting for the funding needed to respond to requests for workshops in the Bissa Barka and Dzùùngoo language communities.


Solomon Islands: Malango

In the Solomon Islands, participants from the Malatoha and Belaha communities joined efforts for the first Malango language dictionary development workshop. Organized by the Solomon Islands Translation Advisory Group (SITAG), the event was held 17-28 February in Belaha, in the Central Guadalcanal region.



Mother-tongue speakers of the Malango language collected 4,735 words during their workshop.


An average of twenty community members participated each day in the word-gathering exercise. After some initial training, the group was able to collect a total of 4,735 words. These words will be entered into a computer and will eventually form a dictionary of the language. The community's goal is to develop a dictionary that can be used in schools, homes and in the community’s future efforts to translate the Bible into Malango.

Participants reported that they enjoyed the chance to discuss their language, and now recognize the value of developing their language in written form so that it will not be lost in the coming generations. Many of the elicited words prompted participants to recall stories from the past, indicating the close tie between language and culture.

One foundational element for the dictionary project and other language development is the orthography (writing system) for Malango. Little language development has been done in the language previously, and the dictionary project is part of efforts to improve the profile of the language within the community, both nationally and internationally. An initial orthography was adopted by community leaders so that the dictionary workshops would consistently represent the sounds of the Malango language.


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