Practical lexicography for speakers and linguists: developing a usage-embedded dictionary of Albanian in multilingual Switzerland

Being able to speak various languages is considered an increasingly valuable skill, not only in terms of practical aspects such as job and career perspectives, but also in terms of strengthening cultural awareness and intercultural competence. Both is of particular relevance for heritage speakers: they face the double challenge of developing language skills that enable them to successfully participate in the socio-economic life of their new home while at the same time keeping the language of their origin in order to maintain ties to the socio-cultural background they brought with them. The relation between both aspects changes over time: while for first generation speakers, acquiring the languages of their (new) social surrounding is most challenging, the later generations struggle with the language of their (grand)parents. Even though specific classes in school do a good job in teaching children their heritage language, there is a growing need of hands-on material supporting these speakers in a very practical way. One of the main needs consists in a dictionary covering and meeting the demands of actual language usage, i.e. reflecting contemporary language and being at hand whenever need arises.

This project aims at developing the technical infrastructure for such a usage-embedded dictionary of Albanian and German/French, thus taking into account the multilingual environment in Switzerland. The above-mentioned needs are meet by designing it as an interactive web application with the following functionalities: (a) text fields for adding lemmas and translations to existing lemmas, (b) multiple choice fields for judging translations (highly reliable – not reliable), (c) questionnaires asking for personal information (anonymised) such as age, gender, language competence etc. Functions (a) and (b) are contributed by and beneficial for users, functions (b) and (c) provide for linguistic insight into lexical contact, entrenchment and change. Within the project the basic technical infrastructure will be developed and tested on the basis of a prototype.

In 2018, an SNF-grant investigating Albanian as a heritage language in Switzerland was awarded to Barbara Sonnenhauser (PI) and Paul Widmer (cooperation partner; both U Zurich). A crucial component of this project, which aims at tracing mechanisms of language change, identifying processes of identity formation and developing teaching materials, consists in building-up a crowdsourcing platform to involve speakers in acquiring linguistic data. This platform is being developed with the help of Jean-Philippe Goldman (U Geneva). He provides his computational skills for the present project as well, which allows for synergies on the linguistic and technical level. The linguistic and technical expertise is complemented by Shpresa Jashari’s (U Zurich) ethnological approach. She will identify the precise needs to be covered by the dictionary, take care of the equal integration of speakers/informants and supply her networks among the Albanian community. At the University of Geneva, a precious technical help will be added by Luka Nerima (U Geneva) from the unit of Computational Linguistics (within the Department of Linguistics). He has a long experience on building, maintaining and capitalizing on syntactic bilingual lexicons for various NLP applications.


Barbara Sonnenhauser, University of Zurich

Paul Widmer, University of Zurich

Luka Nerima, University of Geneva

Jean-Philippe Goldman, University of Geneva

Sphresa Jashari, University of Zurich