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Former Grantham girl travels to remote island to record endangered language




A former Grantham schoolgirl has visited an island in Indonesia five times as part of a study into a language which is quickly disappearing.

Laura Arnold, who attended KGGS, recently completed her PhD in Linguistics. For her doctorate, Laura, 32, spent several months living on an island in Indonesia among the local people learning and recording their language which is called Ambel.

Laura grew up in Bottesford, where her sister still lives, and then Grantham before going on to study at Edinburgh University.

Laura Arnold in a canoe on her latest trip to Indonesia. (6816347)
Laura Arnold in a canoe on her latest trip to Indonesia. (6816347)

When she began studying the Ambel language for her PhD, it was thought only about 300 people still spoke it on the island of Waigeo, one of about 18,000 islands which make up the nation of Indonesia. But Laura discovered nearer 1,600 people still communicate in Ambel, although it is a fast disappearing language.

Laura, who now lives in Edinburgh, recently returned to Grantham to meet friends and family, said: “It has really changed me as a person. I feel like I have flung myself off the edge of the world. They had no reason to welcome me but they were really excited about what I was doing.

“It was a fantastic adventure. There were some scary moments and some joyful moments.”

Waigeo is an island about 10 times the size of the Isle of Wight, located close to the large island of New Guinea. Between 2014 and 2017 Laura spent several months living with a family in a village on the north coast of Waigeo called Kapadiri.

Laura Arnold stayed in Kapadiri, a village on the island of Waigeo in Indonesia. (6860621)
Laura Arnold stayed in Kapadiri, a village on the island of Waigeo in Indonesia. (6860621)

Laura said the villagers are largely self-sufficient and have their own gardens in which they grow their food. They also rely heavily on fishing. They have electricity, but no internet as yet (except in larger towns) and are looking forward to getting a phone signal! In 2017, Laura made her fifth visit to the island, by which time the villagers had solar panels.

She said: “The people were very generous with their time. Nobody complained. They were happy that somebody was interested in their language. They were amused that somebody from Europe had come all this way to learn their language.”

Laura can converse in Ambel and would love to see the language survive.

But she says: “It would be great to revitalise the language, but that’s a lifetime’s effort and an individual cannot do that by themselves. It would need to be revitalised at grassroots by the community.

Laura Arnold with a family in Kapadiri. (6860449)
Laura Arnold with a family in Kapadiri. (6860449)

“Most of them are happy to speak Indonesian because they believe it will give them more opportunities in life. Some of the younger ones understand Ambel but I did not hear any of the kids speaking it. I would say if you were born after 2000 you are not likely to speak the language.

“My ambition was to preserve the language for posterity.”

Laura has gathered a collection of audio and video recordings which are archived on-line on the The Endangered Languages Archive.

Laura hopes to go back to the archipelago of which Waigeo is a part and study more languages.

In the meantime the Ambel language has been preserved for future generations thanks to Laura’s work.

  • Laura’s research was funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council, the University of Edinburgh, the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, the Foundation for Endangered Languages, and the Firebird Foundation.


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