In the ideal world, linguistic fieldwork always stems from the needs of the language community, whereupon the speakers themselves, aware of the loss of their language, or its uncertain status, invite a linguist to work with them, and set the agenda for such work. Everyone – the speakers and the linguist – is equally invested, and the work benefits all.
Does the ideal world exist? I have heard of very few cases like the one above. Too few and far between to be the norm, and certainly not a norm at all for how doctoral programs, postdocs and funding agencies operate.
My case is, I think, more typical of what usually goes on in the field. I have done a PhD on a language in Ecuador, having had a theoretical interest in a phenomenon which this language exhibits, and contacts in the country who suggested I should work there, not least because they knew someone in the community.
The speakers accepted me, and eventually we got together a really interesting documentation project, but at no point was documenting the language my co-workers’ most pressing concern. They had much more serious issues to take care of, such as being able to support their families. Or the environmental degradation of their traditional hunting grounds. Or the fact that they live in one of the few villages in the area that still doesn’t get phone signal…
After I finished my PhD, I kept in touch with my consultants, and would gladly go back there to work, but the reality of funding is that doing more than one project with the same community, or on the same language variety, is not really possible, unless the language is extremely typologically rare or severely endangered. Or – even better – both.
So, wanting to do more fieldwork, but also wanting to have a chance to actually get a grant, I decided to try to work on a related language, spoken not too far away. Learning the ropes of how a different speaker community works is easier, at least, then figuring out how to do fieldwork in a completely new country. This also means saving resources and decreasing chances of failure, which is important from the funder’s perspective. I also counted on being able to get some contacts once I went on my first fieldwork trip.
And then the pandemic happened.
And here I was, a few days ago, having used my contacts to get in touch with someone in the ‘new’ community, talking to this potential collaborator on zoom. I showed him the language archive website and the deposit in it, shared screen to explain what ‘transcription in ELAN’ is, demonstrated my language skills acquired during fieldwork, explained the project’s goals and budget…
It felt like a job interview. And, actually, it felt right. Or much better, at least, than going into the field and giving all this information, or some of it, to a group of people who are kind enough not to kick you out once you’ve come across the world, irrespective of whether they like your project, or not. This time I felt like if the community doesn’t want to work with me, they will feel free to say so, and just not get in touch with me again. If they don’t like my project goals, they will actually have a chance to change them, since I might not be able to go there, and the funding agency is also more likely to be flexible than in other circumstances.
It felt strange. It made me feel insecure. And yet it felt so profoundly right.
Maybe this pandemic will be a chance for us, and other fieldwork-based disciplines to really, truly, re-think our fieldwork practice. And, in 2020 and the years to come, to actually be serious about abandoning the post-colonial paradigms still pervasive in how fieldwork often operates. Now that we have no other choice, from half a world away, maybe we can truly foster ‘documentation BY the community’. I truly hope we’ll take that chance.