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PhD Student Researches Digitally Disadvantaged Languages

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Isabelle Zaugg

Isabelle Zaugg, who earned her PhD from American University School of Communication (AU SOC), has always had a passion for understanding other cultures and the power of media. She attended high school abroad at the United World College of the Adriatic, an international school in Duino, Italy, where she earned her International Baccalaureate diploma.

She is currently a Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow in Global Language Justice at Columbia University's Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She teaches classes about global language justice in the digital sphere. She has also been awarded a continuation of her post-doctorate to develop a cross-disciplinary course about multilingual technologies.

“My research is important because it’s an issue of justice that we make digital tools accessible to speakers of diverse languages. My research highlights actions that can be taken to advance digital supports for language diversity, which can help turn the tide of rampant language extinction we currently face,” said Zaugg. But research was not what first brought Zaugg to AU SOC.

As an undergraduate at Brown University, she was interested in understanding how the US media shapes American’s perceptions of “others” as well as the impact that US media has on the rest of the world. She spent her junior year at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design. She also wrote, directed, shot, and edited a documentary, “At Home in the Valley,” which was about the aspirations of youth in her hometown in San Luis Valley, Southern Colorado.

Zaugg then enrolled in AU’s Film and Video MA program. There she created “The Strong Force,” a film about a rancher who refused to leave his cows during a war, which was featured in the film festival circuit in 2015.

Next, she returned to the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design in Ethiopia, this time as a Fulbright fellow. She taught digital video courses and workshops for high school aged youth, and her students’ films were featured as the third season of the “Involve Me” television program. She also helped University students create a promotional video for the school, and to complete an oral history video project about Ethiopian art history and contemporary reality.

Zaugg returned to AU SOC and the U.S. ready for her next challenge: earning a PhD in Communication.

Her doctoral dissertation was entitled “Digitizing Ethiopic: Coding for Linguistic Continuity in the Face of Digital Extinction.” Her interest in language, digital technology, culture, and media drove her to study the relationship between digitally disadvantaged languages and patterns of mass extinction of language diversity. She researched how the Ethiopian and Eritrean languages are supported in the digital environment.

Zaugg is working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia now and will be returning to New York to teach in the fall. She is currently working on turning her dissertation into a book.

Learn more about the Ph.D. program at AU SOC.