Contributing to Vital Research in African Linguistics

By Logan Jackson

Undergraduate students who are part of the Collaborative Research in African Languages (CORAL) team at the University of Missouri contribute to vital research in African linguistics. Students perform a variety of tasks depending on their experience, their interests and the needs of the team. Some of that work includes extracting linguistic data from existing sources, such as vocabulary from dictionaries, and working with software to align transcriptions and translations with audio from interviews.

The CORAL team, which began in 2016, is an extension of two separate National Science Foundation (NSF) grants secured by Mizzou faculty – Michael Marlo, an associate professor of linguistics, and Rebecca Grollemund, an assistant professor of linguistics. Marlo and Grollemund co-lead the CORAL team.

“This work has been a unique, long-term collaboration and one that has been valuable for all parties involved,” Marlo said. “Our team has enjoyed being able to serve these communities. There is still a lot of work to be done, but it has been very rewarding to work in tandem with our partners overseas.”

Much of Marlo’s research is centered on an ongoing study of the tonal systems of Luyia, a Bantu language spoken in western Kenya and eastern Uganda with more than 20 linguistic varieties. Among many grants, he received an NSF grant in 2014, Structure and Tone in Luyia, which focused on the documentation and description of three Luyia language varieties of western Kenya – Bukusu, Tiriki and Wanga.

“A lot of my work came from community needs,” Marlo said. “The individuals I worked with wanted dictionaries for their languages, as well as story collections for teachers to share with their students. I conducted countless interviews to learn the basic vocabulary of these languages. I transcribed thousands of words, and students used that material to begin our databases.”

Undergraduate students working with Marlo listen to sound files to confirm the pronunciation of the words they are transcribing. They even have the opportunity to interview native speakers to verify that the words they are working with are being used in the correct context. Students also scan through dictionaries to map certain groups of words, such as mammal species. They fill in a spreadsheet with the scientific name of the animal, for example, as well as what the name is in each language. Compiling and organizing data is a big part of the work.

While the early focus of the CORAL team was primarily on learning the vocabulary and grammar of these understudied languages, there has been additional work with the historical context of the languages, led by Grollemund. She was awarded an NSF grant in 2022, titled Continuity and divergence in Cameroonian languages: New perspectives on the Bantu genesis. The aim of the work is to study Bantu and Bantoid languages spoken in Cameroon to better understand how Bantu languages emerged 5,000 years ago from the Proto-Bantu nucleus located in southern Cameroon.

“We’re collecting a variety of data to better understand the history – not only of these languages but also about how individuals lived thousands of years ago,” Grollemund said. “Having a better understanding of the vocabulary allows us to trace the history of these areas in Africa. It’s truly amazing what we can do once we have the data.”

With two different focus areas, the CORAL team provides ample opportunities for Mizzou students to participate in original, cutting-edge interdisciplinary work that uses linguistic data to address historical questions. They contribute to research that address questions about the classification and evolution of languages, reconstructing the past from modern-day linguistic data. Through their research efforts, students gain professional experience in technical writing and presenting their findings to specialists and non-specialists, learning about the communication of scientific findings.

The CORAL team is also one of five research projects that make up the ASH Scholars Program, which includes research teams based in the arts, social sciences and humanities (ASH) disciplines. ASH Scholars receive a $3,000 scholarship, disbursed in four equal parts over the academic year. The ASH Scholars Program is a collaboration between the Honors College and the MU Office of Undergraduate Research. While the Honors College plays an important role in the program, students do not have to be pursuing the Honors Certificate to participate. Students of all academic majors and grade levels are invited to get involved.

“We are in a very unique space, as our work is primarily located within these important ASH disciplines, but we’ve also received funding from scientific foundations,” Marlo said. “Our research crosses boundaries; it’s not about pitting science versus the arts. We’ve been able to connect the two to provide outstanding opportunities for our students.”

Along with the hands-on experiences for students, there are also many mentoring opportunities for the more senior members of the team. A key part of the ASH Scholars Program is providing a team environment for student researchers, too. Those aspects are a big focus of the CORAL team and gives students an opportunity to share their work with a wider audience.

“While the work is vital for documenting these languages, our students have been able to benefit from the various tasks they take on,” Grollemund said. “Whether they continue to pursue research or not, they’re building so much confidence. Their work sets them apart as they go on to pursue graduate school of jump into their professional careers, too. It’s a complete team effort, and we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the undergraduate students stepping into these important roles.”