New project turns schoolchildren into field linguists to try to preserve endangered Czech dialects

The Czech Academy of Sciences has launched a campaign using bold comic-book style graphics under the heading “Become a superdialectologist!” to try to get young people involved in a new project. The aim: to capture the current landscape of Czech dialects as they are spoken today, before they disappear.

Young people aged 10-19 are the target audience of this Czech dialect mapping project’s poster campaign, with the aim of getting them to collect a large number and broad variety of recordings from all over the country. Marta Šimečková is from the Czech Academy of Sciences’ Czech Language Institute, which is behind the project.

“Usually it is dialectologists like us who go out and do fieldwork. But we would like it if young people tried their hand at playing the role of a dialectologist, by going out into the field and talking to their grandparents or other relatives, and getting a recording of the conversation.”

Be a superdialectologist! | Photo: Czech Academy of Sciences

The recordings will contribute to the creation of the first dialect catalogue in the Czech Republic, and thus preserve these older forms of speech even if they eventually die out. Enlisting the help of young people means the linguists will be able to get their hands on a much larger array of material than they would otherwise have been able to. And since linguistic fieldwork always involves an interlocutor and a respondent, it made sense to get young people to ask the questions, says Šimečková.

“Young people are much better with technology and mobile phones than people from the older generation and so will be able to work better with the recordings, plus it will be an opportunity for them to discover how varied and diverse the Czech language is. They will get to have inter-generational dialogue with their nearest and dearest over the Advent and Christmas period, so they can talk about how their grandparents celebrated Christmas in the past, for example.”

There is another reason to have young people be the data-gatherers and older people be the source. Younger generations tend not to speak in dialect as much as the older generation, for which Marta Šimečková says there are many contributing long-term factors.

“The influence of education in school, where children are taught to speak and write a standard form of Czech; the large influence of media and social networks, where traditional dialects aren’t heard much or at all; and increased migration of the Czech population between regions. So people might be born somewhere but then they move somewhere else and may start to feel embarrassed about how they speak, so they stop using their dialect.”

Illustrative photo: Max Fischer,  Pexels

That’s why the target source for this research is primarily the over-60s, who are the main users of traditional regional Czech dialects nowadays. But although older speakers are preferred, recordings of younger and middle-aged people are also welcome.

Children can record their grandparents or other relatives, neighbours or acquaintances. The conversations should be around 30 minutes long and be in natural, everyday colloquial speech. They can be on any topic, but if participants are struggling to think of ideas, the project organisers have come up with some helpful starter questions, which can be obtained with the help of a QR code. The only things needed are a mobile phone, dictaphone or other recording device, and a quiet environment in which to record.

Interested individuals, groups, or entire school classes can send their recordings via the online form on the project’s website until 30 April, 2024.

Author: Anna Fodor | Sources: ČT24 , Akademie věd ČR
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