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What is Rapid Word Collection?

The Rapid Word Collection method aims to revolutionize the task of collecting words by using a systematic method to capture these words in a workshop organized in the language community. Rather than the default language worker’s process of collecting words over a period of years and then publishing a work containing 5,000 words or so, RWC workshops consistently achieve a total of 10,000 or more raw entries during a brief two-week period. When compiled in lexical format, this will result in approximately two thirds of that amount as unique lexical entries with one or more senses. The only other method that comes close to the effectiveness of Rapid Word Collection is the text corpus method--the highly technical process of gleaning words from thousands of vernacular texts, which are in short supply for most languages which have only recently begun to be expressed in written form. The text corpus method requires a computer-savvy linguist, while the Rapid Word Collection method has been used in over a hundred languages by previously untrained native speakers.

Why collect words?

Words are the building blocks of any communication. They contain information not only about language, but also about culture. Many of the minority languages around the world are crippled by the fact that no dictionary exists in the language. Assisting a language community to capture the words and meanings of their language can have a number of positive benefits:

Foster communication between the language community and speakers of the national language.

Speakers of a language can have trouble relating to the world outside their language group, being required to learn a foreign language without any helps in their mother tongue. There is often no affordable bilingual glossary or dictionary to serve as a language- and culture-learning tool. What is more, without a way to explore its language, outsiders have limited access to the culture. A dictionary builds bridges of communication and opens doors of opportunity.

Serve as a repository of information about the language and culture.

A dictionary helps to document and preserve a language for many generations, beginning with the present one.

Raise the status and value of the language.

Within the community of speakers of a minority language, collecting and publishing their words can positively impact how they value their own language. A dictionary also enhances the status of a language in the eyes of the wider community.

Provide the community with a needed tool for language development.

A dictionary helps standardize the orthography, promotes literature development, aids in literacy efforts, is an essential tool in translation, facilitates linguistic analysis, and helps in many other ways.

How does it work?

Based on principles of cognitive theory, Ron Moe of SIL International pioneered a technique called the Dictionary Development Process (DDP), of which the first phase is Rapid Word Collection. There is substantial evidence that we organize words in our minds in a giant network of relationships. Words tend to cluster in groups called “semantic domains.” So a semantic domain is like a family of closely related words that are linked in a variety of ways. Linguists call the semantic relationships between words "lexical relations."

For many years lexicographers have suggested that semantic domains could be used to collect words. But the method requires an extensive list of domains. Moe saw the need and developed a set of domains that could be used to collect words. He also developed elicitation questions and sample words for each domain to stimulate people’s minds.

Given the uniqueness of each culture, it is largely held that the domains of a language are unique and a unique set of domains must be discovered for each language--a task so daunting that few have undertaken it. While it is true that each language has some unique domains, humans from different cultures are more alike than different and there is a large degree of universality in the semantic domains we use. We find the same universality and variation in the phonological and grammatical systems of a language. Moe’s semantic domains and elicitation questions do not purport to be universal. But they have proven to work in a wide variety of languages to stimulate the neural networks and trigger the release of all kinds of related words.

The human brain has the ability to rapidly recall the words that belong to a semantic domain, jumping from word to word along the pathways of lexical relations. So if you ask someone to list the words that are related to the word "sun," they can quickly give you a number of words such as "moon, light, sunbeam, shine, sunrise, noon, sunset, sunstroke."  Gather these words for each of the nearly 1800 semantic domains Moe distinguishes, and you have a highly effective method for capturing the building blocks of a language.

The Process

In this brief video, Verna Stutzman gives an overview of the Rapid Word Collection process:

Rapid Word Collection-Lotud 2013 from Verna Stutzman on Vimeo.