by Emmy Walters
Just back from his year-long adventure in South Asia and South Pacific Islands, DeAndré Espree-Conaway (C’13) returned to the Mountain on Friday, August 29, to share findings from his Watson Fellowship with students, professors, and other members of the Sewanee community. The Watson Fellowship grants students $28,000 to pursue a project of their own design anywhere in the world (outside of the United States) for a year. Sewanee is one of 40 colleges nationwide whose students are eligible to apply for the Watson. Selected as a fellow for this incredible and unique program, Espree-Conaway chose to study languages on the verge of extinction.
In his project “Taking Down Tongues: The Culture of Language Documentation,” Espree-Conaway essentially asks whether language documentation helps anyone. Over the course of one year of study, he traveled to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, and French Polynesia, observing the role that language documentation plays in the world’s indigenous cultures and societies. From walking the circumference of Tahiti to giving a sermon in the Solomon Islands, Espree-Conaway encountered great adventure and hospitable people as he studied how language documentation affects minority language speakers. In his engaging and unique project, Espree-Conaway interviewed language conservation authorities and lived in settings where language documentation projects are underway. He found that language acts as a primary connector for a community; it is an aspect of culture in which members of a society take great pride. Espree-Conaway witnessed various forms of language documentation taking place, including dictionary-making workshops and Bible translating. He saw that serious academic work being done on language assures communities of their culture’s value and place in the world. Espree-Conaway is currently pursuing a Masters degree in linguistics at the Canada Institute of Linguistics at Trinity Western University in Vancouver, British Colombia. He plans to document Pa’umotu, an endangered language spoken in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia.