Looking back and looking ahead

January is generally the month in which we reflect on the past and think about the year ahead. For the Ethnologue, however, our year begins and ends in February. Later this month, on International Mother Language Day (February 21st), we'll release the 19th edition of the Ethnologue. So we have something to look forward to and I'll talk about some of the changes you'll be seeing as that new edition is made available.

For me personally, however, this is also a time to reflect on the last 10 years of my participation in this amazing research project.  I'll be stepping down from my editorial role right after the 19th edition is launched, so part of this post will also be some reflections on the changes and improvements that I've been privileged to be part of. This will also be my last posting here, so look for a new voice and some new perspectives in this space in the months to come.

I'll do the retrospective first as that might set a better context for those who aren't real familiar with the Ethnologue and for the launch of the next edition.

When I joined the Ethnologue team in late 2004 the 15th edition was just coming (literally) off the press.  The database was managed on a desktop computer using SIL's venerable Shoebox program. Though the actual Shoebox file was accessible over our internal network, only one user at a time could be working in the database at any one time. So we managed having multiple users by passing around a flag which sat on the desk of whomever was authorized to be in the database at that moment. When it came time to publish we passed off the data to a programmer who did all the necessary conversions to turn "database" into "typesetting" and then that got turned into page proofs, which after proofreading and copyediting got sent off to a printer.  The process took months and we were grateful at the time that we only had to do it once every four years.  It was only after the books were well on their way that we then did another data conversion to update the website.

As I've described previously, we've come a long way since then with some astounding technological changes but more importantly with an evolving and growing research agenda that has adapted to the emergence of widespread concern for language endangerment and a growing interest in the role of language in education,  the effect of policy on language use and vitality, the increasing presence of digital language use and internet communications technologies.  At the same time, the role of information, "big data," in analyzing and understanding the state of the world turned the Ethnologue's collection of information into potentially actionable data that could be mined for insights and perspectives. From a quadrennial printed reference book, the Ethnologue gradually grew into one of the go-to online resources for those who wanted to know about languages globally as well as individually.  It has been a fun ride that has been both intellectually stimulating and mentally and professionally challenging.

With the 19th edition we continue that trajectory of growth and expansion. Much of what we are adding in this edition isn't immediately visible but the behind-the-scenes development work we have been doing will enable the Ethnologue to better serve its multiple audiences. I've talked about our growing corps of Field Contributors who are using OSCAR (our online interface) to update and improve the information about the languages that they know best. That has already resulted in many more updates and corrections than we would have been able to process in the past.

More visibly, you'll notice a few new data items that are reported on (not for every language yet, but for a substantial and growing number of them).  For example, we are newly reporting the names of language planning and development agencies which are working with language communities.  In most cases those agencies are local community-based organizations that are promoting the maintenance and revitalization of their own languages. And, by restructuring our database, we have greatly enhanced our ability to track and report second-language use. Our data is still incomplete in that regard but as it grows, you can expect to see each subsequent edition providing more and more useful information on multilingualism and language contact.

One of the stellar contributions of Ethnologue over the years has been the language maps that enrich our understanding of where language communities are located.  The maps have developed dramatically as the technology available to produce them and the expertise of our cartographic team has grown, and the team itself has expanded.  In the 19th edition, expect to see several revisions of existing maps, expansions of some maps from one to two (or more) pages, and the addition of some maps that were not previously available.

All of this growth and development has been accomplished through the tireless efforts of a growing team of people. From the work of a single person, to a two-person team, to a three-person office, to the far-flung international team that we now have, the production of each new edition of the Ethnologue requires an immense amount of teamwork and collaboration. The next few weeks will demonstrate that once again. I'm thankful to my co-editors, the Ethnologue staff of research assistants, and most especially the host of collaborators, contributors, and colleagues who have allowed me to be part of this grand effort.


Submitted by Richard Robinson on Wed, 2016-02-17 11:52
Just a note to ask Paul if he was in Guatemala in the last third of 20th C. I think I may have met him there. Congratulations on your work, as you step down, I'm now serving in Peru, working with indigenous peoples. Dick Robinson