Contribution by Tachini Pete, NLCC TTA Director

You can only teach what you know. The more you know the more you can teach. A core capacity in developing an effective language program is the amount of and the ability to document and organize language knowledge. Building this capacity makes language accessible and available to design and refine an effective learning path. Language knowledge directly informs the scope and sequence of the language learning path. It is important to have ready access to organized language knowledge when developing a learning sequence. The three core capacities essential to achieve effective language transfer are: documented and organized language knowledge, a 2,000-hour learning path, and sufficient teaching capacity. This article provides a brief overview of what language knowledge is, how to gather it, how to organize it, and what to do with it.

How does your language work? This is the primary question on which to build language knowledge. This knowledge, in general, includes all aspects of generating meaning through sound, word, and sentence formation.

Sound formation includes pronunciation and the symbols used to represent them. The sounds are represented with orthography, syllabary, or alphabets. As well, sounds can change when in the presence of other sounds, this is called morphology.

Language knowledge also includes the words of the language. In most languages’ words are formed from smaller parts such as root words and affixes. Each area of a particular language’s word content needs to be discovered, documented, and organized for easy reference and access.

Finally, the sounds and words form together to produce sentences, thoughts, stories, and histories. Sentence or narration formation is often the most challenging part of language to capture and understand. Linguistics, the study of language, can be a great resource to assist with understanding how a language works.

Gathering language is a time and energy-intensive effort. The best source of language is from first-language speakers. Ideally, a first language speaker linguist would record and document the language. Short of this, time spent with first language speakers is the most valuable investment a language community can make. It takes an individual or a team to learn, record, and document language knowledge from elders and first language speakers. The main aspect of gathering language information is to build a process to intake this information. Second language learners tend to have a great amount of information in their learning notes. Create training for language learners on how to journal and document their learning path. Develop a way to submit these notes to allow for further organization and dissemination of language knowledge.

Other areas to glean language information is through the work of linguists, clergy, or other historical documentation efforts. Audio and video recordings in the language are valuable and need to be transcribed. Language transcription can shed light on many aspects of the language in addition to building vocabulary. All of these areas contain a great amount of language knowledge and will need an investment of time and energy by individuals to document and organize.

Organization is the most important area of work to translate language knowledge into developing a learning path. A language proficiency assessment scale will aid in the organization process. If you do not have an assessment scale for your language you can create basic levels such as novice, intermediate, and advanced. The proficiency scale designations will be used to organize language knowledge. Some tools that can help organize are Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, SIL Field Linguists Explorer (FLEx), ELAN, etc. Every language will have a different organizational scheme. Something as simple sounds, words, and sentences can begin the organization of categories of the language. Along with a proficiency scale, language knowledge can begin to be organized in a meaningful way that will help design language learning paths.

Knowledge is power. An effective and efficient learning path can be developed with well-documented and organized language knowledge. When language is organized based on a proficiency scale the language that falls into the initial or beginner stage can easily be identified. With some work and creativity, one can create a sequence of learning sessions based on the words and concepts that fall in the first levels of the proficiency scale. Imagine creating a set of instructions for building a table. There are many things to consider regarding measurements and the necessary construction steps. It helps to have a set of plans to create the sequence of steps. Plans are a form of knowledge about the project. They help to see the big picture and understand the components of the project. Creating a language transfer process is similar just on a larger scale. If you can see the whole picture, all the components (documented and organized language knowledge) you can then begin to create a set of steps to build the desired product. For language revitalization, an effective and efficient learning path is essential. When language is organized by a proficiency scale creating a learning path will be much clearer.

Well-documented and organized language is essential for any language learning program. Language transfer is greatly enhanced when a larger picture of the language can be established for the support of creating an effective language transfer program.

The next issue will look at how organized language knowledge is used to create an effective language learning path.

Resources cited: FieldWorks consists of software tools that help you manage linguistic and cultural data.

ELAN (Version 6.1) [Computer software]. (2021). Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Retrieved from