Building an Infrastructure for Documenting the Acquisition of Indigenous Languages

Clifton Pye

Email: pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

The need to document the acquisition of endangered languages as rapidly as possible demands a coordinated effort by researchers worldwide to map out the most efficient way to proceed. Investigators can post a set of maximally efficient procedures online, which can be used across research sites. Above all, there is an urgent need to identify the languages that are most in need of documentation so that scarce resources are not devoted to documenting languages that already receive substantial institutional support or are not in immediate danger (c.f. Campbell & Belew, 2018 and UNESCO’s Atlas of the Worlds Languages in Danger). Likewise, it is not possible to document the acquisition of languages that are no longer being acquired by children. The latter decision must be made with care because of the difficulty of locating the last few children acquiring a language. The sustainability of each language varies enormously depending on its local context. Languages have maintained themselves for centuries with populations of fewer than 100 speakers, but other languages with small populations vanish overnight once their children are sent away to school.

The effort to identify languages to study should proceed hand-in-hand with identifying local resources that can support language documentation. Selecting languages to document will depend upon a number of factors, including 1) whether two-year-old children are acquiring the language, 2) ease of access, 3) the political context, and 4) the available linguistic resources. The language acquisition researcher should make contact with linguists who have worked with the language community if only to access the grammars and dictionaries they have produced or know of. The linguist may be able to provide up-to-date information on the vitality of the language. In turn, the acquisition researcher can offer linguists information about child-directed speech, and child language that will enhance a general understanding of the language.

If researchers cannot travel to the field site themselves it may be possible to ask linguists who are in the field to record children speaking the language. The language acquisition researcher must be cognizant of the limited time that linguists spend in the field, and so it may not be possible to make longitudinal recordings of the children. Nevertheless, much can be learned from limited recordings of children at different ages. In this scenario, I suggest recording each child for at least one hour on three separate occasions. The recordings should be continuous in order to evaluate the overall rate of language production by the children and their caretakers during each recording session. Setting a standard length of time for recordings will make it easier to compare results across languages.

Working in small communities with limited resources makes it difficult to record many children. The documentation of indigenous language acquisition will likely produce small samples of children’s speech. For this reason researchers will need to develop techniques for extracting the maximum amount of information from limited data sets. Cook (2006) and Mithun (1989) are examples of how investigators have made efficient use of limited data sets to document the acquisition of phonology and morphology respectively in two indigenous languages. Research with children acquiring majority languages can inform this endeavor as many studies of a few children acquiring these languages have been replicated in later studies with larger numbers of children (e.g. de Villiers & de Villiers, 1973). These replication studies provide an idea of what can be learned from a study of even a single child’s speech.

The main consideration in research on the acquisition of endangered languages is the possibility that the investigator will only have a single opportunity to record acquisition data for posterity. If the investigator is fortunate enough to document the acquisition of an indigenous language they should assume their study will be the last to ever record children speaking the language (e.g., Kroeber, 1916; Nokony, 1978). In the absence of potential follow-up studies, the researcher must identify the most important features of the children’s grammatical knowledge to record, including basic information on the children’s lexicon, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and discourse. The imminent loss of indigenous languages demands that research on their acquisition be broad rather than deep. The acquisition data recorded today may well be used hundreds of years into the future to address theoretical issues that are as yet undreamed of.


Campbell, L. & Belew, A. (Eds.). (2018). Cataloguing the world’s endangered languages.

Cook, E.-D. (2006). The patterns of consonantal acquisition and change in Chipewyan (Dne Suliné). International Journal of American Linguistics 72(2), 236-263.

de Villiers, J. & de Villiers, P. (1973). A cross-sectional study of the acquisition of grammatical morphemes in child speech. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 2, 267-278.

Kroeber, A. L. (1916). The speech of a Zui child. The American Anthropologist XVIII 529534.

Mithun, M. (1989). The acquisition of polysynthesis. Journal of Child Language 16, 285-312.

Nelson, K. (1973). Structure and strategy in learning to talk. Monographs of the Society of Research in Child Development 38, no. 149.

Nokony, A. (1978). Word and gesture usage by an Indian child. In A. Lock (Ed.), Action, gesture and symbol: The emergence of language (pp. 291-307). New York: Academic Press.

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