Exploring the crossroads of linguistic diversity: language contact in Southeast Asia

The complex linguistic diversity and endemic multilingualism represented in the cohabitating ethnolinguistic populations of Southeast Asia remain poorly understood. Until now, the phenomenon of language contact – whereby the languages of closely interacting communities influence each other’s grammatical structures and vocabularies – has not been systematically studied in this region. This ground-breaking project will address significant gaps in our knowledge by documenting four endangered languages while simultaneously exploring four language contact situations in Southeast Asia. The work will produce empirically-based predictive model of language contact that will inform linguistic theory and guide future research in the field, and the grammatical descriptions will preserve the languages for the communities that speak them and research scholars alike.

Singapore’s DNA: Storytelling of Singapore History through Clothing and Textiles

Singapore, as a migrant society, embraces ethnic and cultural diversity from the beginning. Renowned English writer and traveller reveled her first impressions of Singapore in 1879, describing the clothing worn by the different races at that time (Bird, 2000). Textiles are a central part of ‘human consciousness’ and play a significant role in cultures (Gordon, 2010). As clothing or costumes, textiles define who we are, symbolise the connection across time and contexts, and function as a form of wrapper, container or framer of our body from birth to death.

In a multicultural society like Singapore, the way people value a country’s heritage is influenced by the way they had previously defined their own cultural identity (Arizpe, 2000). The meanings, stories and identities behind textiles and clothing from the past may be different today. And yet, ‘what we wear’ is often forgotten and taken for granted in the passage of time. For instance, the cheongsam or qipao was regarded as an everyday wear for Chinese women back in the 1920s and 1930s, but today, it became a rarity to see them on the streets. The 1993 exhibition titled ‘Costumes through time’ indicated that British influence, mass media (such as newspapers and televisions) and political changes were among the key factors contributing to the decline of traditional costumes in the 1950s (National Heritage Board, 1993). New ideas, technologies and cultures from the West were adapted and expressed in unique ways by the people in Singapore rapidly (National Museum of Singapore, [2015]).

A team of scholars from different disciplines (product design, humanities, library and digital preservation) is assembled to collaborate on this research project. Together, the team will investigate and preserve the textile heritage of different cultures in Singapore with the following aims:

  1. To build and create physical and digital collections of clothing and textiles that reflects the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the major ethnic groups in Singapore.
  2. To engage different groups of people in Singapore through talks, presentations and community events as part of the iterative process of this research.
  3. To challenge people to think critically about their history, culture, society and environment through the investigation of clothing, identity and storytelling.
  4. To revitalise the cultural heritage by leveraging on emerging technologies into new forms relevant to today’s society

This research project will be conducted in three key parts:

  1. The study of the origins of Singapore’s textiles and clothing
  2. The study of the aesthetics of clothing across different periods, gender and cultures of Singapore
  3. New applications and outreach

Lost voices – Patchwork Playeum (Singapore Children’s Museum)

Imagine an English speaking world without ‘Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock’ or ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ or ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. ‘Patchwork of Lost Voices’ is a project that explores nursery rhymes and children songs in languages which are disappearing. In language loss, one of the little known issues concerns the loss of a special register. That is, a specific language repertoire used to engage children. This often takes the form of  word play, rhymes or songs. This project features several languages which are not used by young children anymore. Older speakers are interviewed about the nursery rhymes and songs they grew up with. “Patchwork of lost voices” aims to document some of these samples before they disappear into oblivion and to evoke memory and interest in current and new generations of speakers.

AILCA 2.0 – The Archive of Indigenous Languages and Cultures of Asia

According to the most optimistic views, we will see about 3,000 languages disappear by the year 2100 worldwide. In Singapore’s immediate geographical area (South East Asia) the number of languages that will most likely die out by the turn of the century is about 2,000. More pessimistic researchers posit that only about 700 languages will survive into the next century (Nettle and Romaine, 2000). With increasing awareness of the fragile state of many languages in the world, universities worldwide have been creating repositories for storing research outputs of their fieldwork.

AILCA would be the first digital archive for endangered languages to be set up in Asia. Singapore is ideally placed to house a collection of material from the region and to play a pre-eminent role in Asia and worldwide in the documentation and preservation of endangered languages. NTU has a long and reputable tradition of technological expertise and, with the newly established Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies, can play a leading role in digital archiving internationally. The primary mission of AILCA is the long-term preservation of endangered Asian languages. Emphasis will be placed on the maintenance or even revitalization of the languages through the creation of school and other educational material and by supporting local/regional language centers, for example by storing their data so that it is safeguarded for posterity and then either making the material available online or creating complete copies of materials and returning these to the communities.

The archive will have three interfaces, namely:

  • The Research Interface – through this portal language experts can access the data stored on the archive as they would other language archives (see Appendix for a list). To do this we will partner with the MPI archive and adopt the deposit and retrieval system they have developed. The adoption of the system developed by MPI will ensure a close and long-term collaboration with MPI. This relationship will serve to ensure NTU establishes itself as a global player in language archiving.
  • The Educational Interface – A web site will be designed specifically for educationalists around the world who do not simply want to have access to the data, but would like to make meaningful use of the material in a pedagogical and structured way. This is particularly true of communities that still have hope and plans to revitalize their traditional language. Academic staff from the National Institute of Education have agreed to collaborate in this aspect.
  • Public Access Interface – There is a lot of interest worldwide in the cultural traditions and heritages of minority groups. However, the general public does not have the skills and knowledge to make any use of a traditional language archive. We would like to cooperate with international initiatives for streaming parts of the collection in the form of a language museum. In collaboration with the NTU Heritage Museum, a web portal specifically designed to allow easier access to some of the archived material will be developed.

Bali – The Intangible Discourse of Nature, Culture and People

ri Hita Karana is a belief system that underpins the intangible relationship between the temple temples, nature and the Balinese culture. The phrase means “The way to happiness is the balance between people and people, people and environment and people and god”. The project visualises intangible and cultural rituals that regulate the survival of the landscape and the people in the subak system. The starting point is the harmonizing role language plays in the negotiation of delicate balance of people, culture, nature and spirituality.

Meeting with a Priest and Priestess in Bali:

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