Tag Archives: indigenous languages

Remote fieldwork in post-pandemic times

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.

Meet a Fieldworker: Martine Bruil

Last month, I chatted with Dr. Martine Bruil from Leiden University about what it’s like to conduct fieldwork with indigenous people and pursue a career in academia as a linguist and a new mother. We talked about the very real dangers that are present when conducting fieldwork in the Amazonian jungle of Ecuador, such as swimming with piranhas, anacondas and caimans, a type of crocodile, transporting expensive recording equipment between villages in an area which is known to be frequented by guerrilla forces as well as dealing with thieves. After covering the basics of working in this type of location, we talked about what it’s like to bring a child into the mix and how that can affect working relationships with speakers of indigenous languages, comparing attitudes towards children in the workplace between European and Ecuadorian contexts. Women who work are often faced with the question of motherhood and whether or not it should affect their professional life. In the interview below, Martine speaks candidly about her experiences as a linguist and a mother so far, and how important it is for women to talk to each other and share their experiences. Thus, we invite you to join us in the celebration of women on International Women’s Day by taking the time to read about the work and experiences of one of the amazing 3.5 bn women we share this planet with. Happy International Women’s Day!

For more information about Dr. Martine Bruil visit her profile on the Leiden University website.  

To hear examples of Amazonian Kichwa being spoken click here.
To hear examples of some of the languages spoken in Ecuador click here.



ED: Could start by telling me your name and explaining a bit about where you do research and what you’ve done research on?

MB: Ok, so my name is Martine Bruil, and I am an Ecuadorianist. I’ve done all of my research in Ecuador. I’ve worked in more communities, but I now have an ongoing research connection with three groups of people. So, I work with the Sionas in Ecuador who are on the eastern slopes of the Andes, so more of the jungle area, and I work with the Kichwas who are on the hills, or rather mountains I should say, and then I work with the Awa, also in the mountains on both slopes. They are mostly in the western slopes of the Andes, less so in the Eastern slopes, and also in the north of Ecuador and a little bit south of Colombia. They’re extending their communities. I began working with the Kichwa in 2007, so that’s the longest working relationship that I have. I haven’t done anything actively for the last years. I did something in 2011 but I have an on-going working relationship and we’re planning to go back and work with them this summer (2019) because of a field school with students. And then we have an ongoing working relationship with the Siona, and I started in 2010 with them. The ongoing relationship I have with the Awa I started in 2016.

ED: And when was the last time you went and did fieldwork?

MB: I got back in January 2019, but it was partially a personal visit partially fieldwork so I worked a little bit on Spanish-Kichwa contact. I did some interviews and did a two day workshop with the Awa. I didn’t work with the Siona this time, but I hope to work next time when I go over next summer.

ED: What does the fieldwork you do look like? What does that imply?

MB: So it’s very different from community to community, also because the surroundings are so different. The traveling is different. When I go to the Sionas, I usually go somewhere between a few days to a few weeks. From where I usually stay in Ecuador it’s about between 6-17 hours travel to get there depending on whether I fly or take a bus, depending on whether I take a cheap route. It is in a dangerous area. It’s on the border with Colombia and I have seen people from the FARC. When I’m in the community I feel very safe, but on the road I feel very unsafe and exposed. I’ve heard of a lot of things that happen. I’ve had a bag stolen but otherwise I’ve been pretty lucky in the area. It’s not very pleasant to travel there, but then at the fieldsite it’s very nice and it depends a bit on which community I go to. So there’s one community where I’ve started working where there are not a lot of speakers of the language, but it is more touristic so it’s easier to get in contact with speakers in that respect. I work with a very good speaker there and I work with her whenever she’s available. Depending on when she’s available, I might start out at 8am, work until lunch and then after lunch until 4pm we go bathing in the river. I always have to say, that even though I swim between the piranhas, anacondas and caimans, they are not dangerous animals if you know what you’re doing. I’ve seen someone being stung by a stingray, so yeah it can be dangerous, but you have to know where to swim. Locals know, for example, that on the other side of the river there is a little beach, and that’s where the stingray lives so you shouldn’t swim there. The side where I live there are no animals like that. The community members know the dangers very well and they make sure that nothing happens to me.

ED: It’s good to know that there are very real dangers around fieldwork. Fieldwork can be anything from walking around in the city and actually going into the jungle and swimming between piranhas, caimans, anacondas and sting rays. It’s good to provide this kind of context.

MB: Yeah, definitely. So piranhas are not dangerous. They only eat dead meat. Anacondas, they can be dangerous, but if there are a lot of people they don’t want to come out.

ED: They’re shy as well.

MB: Yeah, I don’t really get to see a lot of anacondas. I’ve seen the caimans. I don’t think they will attack a person. I mean, I think it’s more the other way around. They’re very tasty. So poor caimans. The stingrays are the most dangerous animals, and of course the mosquitoes. They’re pretty horrible especially after bathing. Also sand flies, which are there during the day and are very itchy.
So, after 4pm in that community we tell stories and then we think about which one we should record and want to pay a lot of attention to. After that we won’t do much more work because it’s better to make recordings during the day because you have light.

In the other community it starts out very early because there are so many people who speak the language who are involved so sometimes I work from 7am to 11pm because I want to fit everyone in. Mostly I have appointments from hour to hour so it really feels like a very European schedule. It doesn’t feel like fieldwork because it’s so full and I always have to go to the next person. There are a lot of people involved in transcribing. They are very motivated, but not necessarily because they feel language endangerment is a real threat. The language is very vital in the community and they don’t feel the threat. Yes, they want products in the language, but revitalization is not their main goal for working. I think for some people it might be, but for other people it has become a source of income so that’s why people want to be involved. At some point I start feeling like a bank because of the whole financial part. Traveling in a dangerous area with so much money is so scary as well.

ED: Are all the transactions in cash?

MB: I do try to pay in cash as much as possible, but if people have bank accounts, I try to pay them a little bit in cash and then the rest via transfer, but even then it’s not an electronic transfer like here in Europe. You still have to go to the bank and stand in these huge lines with your little piles of money in order to pay them into different people’s accounts. But since people don’t always have bank accounts I sometimes try to travel with up to $1,000 which is quite a lot of money and that is quite scary to me. So at first I would travel by bus –

ED: With all the equipment?

MB: Yeah, with all the instruments. And then when my bag got stolen, I thought, “I can’t do this anymore. I need to think of safer ways of traveling.” And the bag wasn’t stolen because I was traveling by bus. I had asked the hotel where I was staying to look after my bag and someone came and took it away with my laptop in it. So even though it wasn’t because of my travel arrangements, I did feel insecure about travel because I’ve seen thieves boarding the bus to steal cell phones. I felt very uncomfortable having those thieves right next to me. I’ve had people help me in those situations. There was a lady that came because a man had sat next to me. She came over and said, “this man is a thief, please stay with me”. She was really good to me and saved me from him. So yeah, I thought, I’m traveling here with $3,000 equipment, I don’t want to risk it anymore. So I decided to take planes, and after the plane, stay in a hotel, and from the hotel a car picks me up and takes me to the community. That’s what I do when I travel alone. And the car goes with me when I go shopping so I don’t travel alone when I go places because I feel too unsafe.

ED: Yeah, and for example, before you were talking about your daughter traveling with you. How does that affect the travel aspect?

MB: So last year, it was the first time I was going to the Siona community after having her, and my husband and I talked about taking her to the community. I have this friend in Leiden who took her daughter to Indonesia with her to the fieldwork community so she knows about malaria, and all the things you need to think about if you’re planning on taking a child to a tropical fieldwork site. She gave me a lot of tips and clothes which are suitable for the environment. When we went to Ecuador, we first had a conference and then we had a field school in the community. It turned into a four week thing. The conference and the summer school were so difficult for her that we decided not to take her in the end. It’s a dangerous area, and traveling was going to be difficult because we were traveling by bus. So she was going to have to be on that bus for at least 10 hours in a little bus that we had rented. In the end I think it was for the best because she doesn’t like the heat, and if she had come it would have been very uncomfortable for her. She was still very small as well and not even walking. That would have been hard to participate with her there, and I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on the work. The community was very sad because they were very excited to see her but we decided against taking her. I think it was good even though it was hard. It was the first time I had been away from her, and it was for two weeks. I thought I would be crying myself to sleep every night but it was actually very good. Of course I missed her but it was very good because I got a lot of work done. I got very concentrated and I could really focus on the thing I was doing. Like mostly when I work here (in Leiden) I’m constantly in two places because I’m constantly thinking and planning for her like when do I have to pick her up and feed her etc. Whereas without her with me during fieldwork, all I had to do was focus on the students. It was really good, I could really be there.

ED: How old was she at the time?

MB: She was a year and three or four months. The sad thing is that I was still breast feeding before I left, and because I left I had to stop breast feeding because the production just went down and completely stopped. I was really sad about it because I had planned to continue but I think it’s part of being a working mom anyways. If you’re not around your child, pumping is just not the same as breast feeding live so production goes down a lot. I hear from a lot of friends as well. Some people are lucky, they just have milk until their kid is 18 [laugh]. I mean, obviously not 18 but you know.

ED: [laugh] yeah. So you were saying she was around when you were doing the summer school. How was that? How was the experience of being a mom while also being at the summer school? Did people interact with you differently because you had a child with you?

MB: So she was at a day care nearby, so she was never physically at the summer school. It was good. I really liked that the day care she went to was one of the better ones in Ecuador. It was expensive, but they were really good. So that wasn’t really different. I’ve taken her to the Kichwas recently, but also because they’re close personal friends. They met her when she was two months I think. When I went to the Sionas when she was a year and three or four months, I felt like I had other things to talk about. I could understand their stories about children better. They also gave me this drink that you normally get when you’ve just had a baby. It’s against anaemia. Even though it had been over a year since I gave birth, they gave me the drink. Normally mothers are given this drink straight after they have given birth. So I saw that it wasn’t just a health thing, it was also a social thing and a ritual.

ED: It’s also taking care of you and wanting to look after you because you are part of the community in a way.

MB: Yeah yeah! Yes, and they welcome you as a mom. And really, they were acknowledging the fact that something major had happened to my life and it felt really special that they did that. And the funny thing, it’s not like they did a big ceremony. One of my Siona moms she just said, “I made this for you, drink this”, and I knew what it was. So it’s not like there were people around or anything, it was just given to me, and it felt so normal. It felt like it was really special. The taste was not really special. It was not bad. I mean I’ve had bad things, but it tasted like water with a glue type of taste.

ED: Like the texture?

MB: No the texture was like wooden, I don’t know how to describe it, but it wasn’t the special part. It was nice that she offered it to me.

ED: Yeah, it’s the thinking about you and what you must be going through.

MB: Yeah, she was really sad that she didn’t get to meet my daughter. The summer school also included some of the Sionas so they participated in the activities and met my daughter then. I think they thought it was very special for them to see me as a mom and to meet her. It was weird because normally when I’m with them I have to think about being with them, but then I had to think about two sides. I received them when they arrived to Quito so I suddenly had these two things coming together. It was only for a few hours but they were really excited to meet her. My daughter was just like, “who are these people?”, but it was nice. They spoke a bit of Siona to her which was also nice. I would love her to hear more. When she was just born and I got out of pregnancy leave, I was in Ecuador doing more fieldwork, because I had been there for the previous months. One of the Awa ladies who I worked with, I asked her to take care of my daughter so we could be at home, so that was also very special. She knows my daughter well from when she was very little. She always said that my daughter would start crying when she spoke Awa Pit. Also, family helps out. My brother-in-law, for example, was taking care of my daughter during the workshop, and at one point he had to start leading the workshop but I couldn’t take her so he started leading the workshop with her in a carrier. That must have been interesting. Well, for them, they are very used to having kids with them. I think the weird part is that we try to separate it so much. In Europe it’s seen as being really unprofessional to have your kid around. It’s really not done to work with your children around.

ED: But really it makes you more relatable because they see you with a child, getting on with your day, and they know what you’re going through.

MB: And the stories. We had trouble getting funding for day care because of our personal situation, and I talked to them about day care, and it is a concept that simply doesn’t exist. So even for the people who live in the city and have jobs outside of their home, they have to take the kids to their jobs and the kids just have to shut up, because if not, they can’t do their jobs. So for me, I had so much admiration for these people because we often worry about are we stimulating our kids enough, do we do enough, do they have good education, but these are really luxury worries that we have. Especially people from the country side living in the big cities, they don’t have the same support networks they would have living back home. They just have to make it work. Even if you have a bad deal here in Europe, it’s still pretty good because I can go to work without having my daughter in the office, and I have other people taking care of her. So if you think about it, day care isn’t great even in the cities, because the day care we took her to in Quito was only until 4pm when the majority of jobs are until 5pm. What do you do? It’s not like the whole day care situation is seen as school, it’s not, it’s something that helps moms work. It’s crazy expensive here in Europe, but in Ecuador it’s not there to actually help mothers go to work and do their jobs.

ED: So in fact you’re relying more on the people within your community rather than a system.

MB: Exactly. But then as I said, when you are someone from the country side going to the city, then you don’t come with your whole extended family and you don’t have that same luxury. So you’ll see a lot of the women from the country side working as maids and they have to take their child to the job. It’s a working condition that has become very difficult and employers don’t really see it as their job to provide good day care. I think the society doesn’t really the importance of having good day care. It’s really hard for working moms there.

ED: When is your next trip?

MB: I’m going at the end of May if everything goes well.

ED: What are some of the things that you have learned from taking your daughter with you? And what are some of the things you’ve learned that you want to do in the next trip?

MB: It is hard to say because when they’re just born it’s so different. The stages are so different from one to the next. Like now, I don’t even have to think about whether I have to take her because I’m not going for a long time and breast feeding is no longer on the table so I can more easily let her stay. The one thing that I did learn is that I don’t want her moving around from one place to the next. It’s too much for her. She has to adapt to every environment again. She stops eating and it’s better to have her adapt to one environment and to be there. So I wouldn’t even think about taking her to the field anymore. I would do that for a one day trip from Quito for example, but otherwise no. I’ve learned she needs more consistency and not do crazy things. I would adapt my schedule more to hers because it’s hard on her having to travel constantly. Me being away is hard on her as well, but I think she has a very good time with my husband, her dad. She doesn’t always get to spend time with him so she’s always excited to see him. I think it’s a good opportunity to actually spend time together. Once I got over the fact that we could be away from each other for a few days, that’s when it got easier to plan things. If I would take her to the field, then I would try to make traveling as short as possible because I think the traveling is really unpleasant. We would take a plane and a car, and make it as safe as I can. Those are the things I would take into account, but for now it’s better not to take her.

ED: But also, one last question, because we were talking about a network of mother or new mothers and the sharing of new experiences.

MB: Not just new mothers. For example Colette Grinevald is not a new mother. She is a grandparent, but she was one of the first people I heard talk about taking kids to the field and that really made me feel like it’s possible to take your children into the field. It also made me feel like you don’t have to put your personal or professional life completely on the line if you want to continue in this line of research. There are a lot of moms that have showed me the way. It is great to continue to be involved, and even in the workspace it’s great to talk about it. I just had lunch with a colleague who just had a baby. Her son is a year and a half younger than my daughter, but it’s so good to talk about the challenges you’re facing. When you’ve just had a baby and it’s been three months and you have to start working. You’re not ready. No one is ready. Some people have to start working earlier. I think if it’s more organic like it is in the indigenous communities, it’s still a challenge but it’s better. Here it’s a huge change from being 100% of my time with the baby. People expect you to be 100% back when you come back from having a baby but your mindset is different. Even hormonally you’re not yourself. You just had this huge change happen to you. You might have planned it and wanted it for so long but it’s still going to be very uncertain, especially because of the hormones going through you. Just talking to other people who have gone through the same thing, you can recognise the things you’ve gone through and discuss it. I think not being judgemental, and simply listening is really helpful. Sometimes it’s personality differences. There are babies who only fall asleep on their parents so their parents don’t get any sleep. Not everyone goes through that same situation. I’m lucky in a sense that my daughter wants me to be there but she’s happy to do her own thing. She’ll sleep next to me. But just to hear those differences, if you’re having difficulties, it’s gratifying to have that validation from other people and realise that yes, it is as hard as you think. It’s also helpful because you validate your own feelings. My colleague for example when I was trying to make up my mind about taking my daughter to the field, my colleague helped me make up my mind about what to do. It is helpful to have a network of people to discuss these things with. It would be great to be able to write to someone to discuss these issues or doubts, particularly for women. We shouldn’t have to lose these talented women just because they’re becoming mothers. They should continue their work. It’s great to talk about experiences, and when I was pregnant, I listened to a lot of stories. I was talking to Stephanie Farmer, she was PhD student. She was finishing her PhD when I was a post-doc a Berkeley. She had a baby after she graduated and started her job at another school. We were talking about this and how we need to talk about motherhood more, but of course you get into your own life and it’s so busy. You don’t get a lot of time to talk about it. When we do see each other we talk about these things though. Like at the same conference I was talking about, she also came along . It was the first time she was leaving her daughter for going to such a conference, and these things are hard. It feels good to be able to talk to someone else. Another fieldworker, I met her at a conference when I was pregnant, and she was still breastfeeding. It was great to see how she set things up. She was actually staying in the hotel where the conference was so she could just go up and pump and come back down. It was the best way to do it, and it was great to see how other mothers do it and set things up to look after their children. It can help you plan your own conference visit. That’s why I think a network would be really good.

ED: It certainly sounds like it would be, and maybe it’s something that can be done in the future. I’m going to leave it there for now. Thank you very much.

MB: You’re very welcome.



Anaconda – A type of snake, a boa constrictor which can grow to be very large
Caiman – A type of freshwater crocodile
Piranha – Flesh eating fish

Meet a Fieldworker: Fieldwork and Funding

In this month’s ‘Meet a Fieldworker’ post, we speak with an early career researcher currectly carrying out their PhD studies and applying for funding in order to conduct fieldwork. Their name, language being studied and background info has been anonymized and amalgamated to other similar students’ backgrounds to diminish impact on  any ongoing funding applications. Keep reading to learn more about what a funding application for language documentation at PhD level might need to consider, as wll as some of the challenges that might be faced during the application process. Applying for funding to conduct fieldwork is something all fieldworkers must engage with at some point in time.

This post includes some technical linguistic terms. A glossary of these can be found at the end of the post.


ED: Hi Paula, could you first introduce yourself. Say a little bit about what you’re doing, how long you’ve been doing this, and then I can ask more questions about your fieldwork and where it is that you’re conducting fieldwork.

PM: My name is Paula. I’m from Italy and I’m doing a PhD in Linguistics at SOAS, and the topic of my PhD is documenting a minority language in Thailand called Iu Mieng, and my research questions deal with tone, phonology and historical phonology.

ED: What has been your experience with fieldwork so far?

PM: During my BA, we were requested to do a couple of interviews for sociolinguistics, so that was my first experience with fieldwork. Then for my degree in History, we had to do fieldwork with our grandparents and ask them about the coup d’etat in the 80s in Spain and its relation to the Spanish Civil War. That was my second experience. And then my actual serious linguistic fieldwork was in Mexico, when I took part in the Engaged Humanities Project between SOAS, University of Warsaw and Leiden University. There was a summer school in Tlaxcala and we were documenting Nahua languages. While I was learning Language Documentation I did fieldwork as well documenting heritage languages in Barcelona, particularly Maya and Nahua communities living in Catalonia. That’s my experience with fieldwork so far.

ED: And so far during your PhD you have also gone to visit the fieldsite where you will be working?

PM: Yes, I didn’t do fieldwork, but I visited the country. I lived with ethnic minorities and worked with them by doing some volunteering. So yeah, I will have a better idea of how to work with them when I actually go.

ED: When will you be going?

PM: If I get the funding, I will be going in March 2020.

ED: So, at the moment you’re in the phase where you’re preparing for fieldwork by applying for funding and designing what the fieldwork will look like.

PM: Exactly.

ED: What are some of the ways you’ve had to design the fieldwork? How have you prepared for it? Because when you apply for funding you have to propose what you will be doing when you are conducting fieldwork.

PM: I’ve designed the fieldwork in accordance to the funding that I’m applying for and the requirements they have of their applicants, which was a challenge. There were things I’ve had to prepare which I wasn’t ready to do because it’s not the time to think about those things. I prepared a plan for a full documentation of the language (not that you can do a full documentation of the language), but I’m preparing to collect a wide range of genres and texts, and then I will have to adapt my research to fit into this plan in order to get the data I need.

ED: Does the funding body ask you to collect a wide range of documentation materials?

PM: Yes, exactly. So, it determines the scope of the fieldwork and your actual research because the funding bodies that fund documentation aren’t necessarily interested in research. In my case, research and documentation are part of the same project which is my PhD, but for the funding body, they are only interested in documentation. So, I have to fit the interests of the funding body into my whole project.

ED: What are your interests?

PM: My research interests are phonology and tone, but I also like anthropology. It doesn’t bother me that I have todocument a wide range of genres and stuff like that, but for example as I’m interested in phonology, I’m not interested in recording everything in video, but I have to because that’s one of the requirements. So that’s one of the issues. It means that I will have to train people and show them how to use camera equipment, record and process all the files and data as well as subtitle videos. It means a lot of extra work that may distract me from doing other things because I’m doing a more general project, I’m not only documenting language.

ED: What are some of the other requirements that the funding body asks for? Right now for example, you mentioned training locals in the techniques you will be using to document. Are there any other requirements that they ask of you?

PM: Yes, ideally, I have to provide something called interlinearization, glossed texts, even though I am not doing syntax or morphology. Ideally, I wouldn’t do that, but I have to. There are some programs and software that I need to learn to use in order to do the interlinearization because they offer the standard conventions. I also have to archive my material, which means getting training for it and then I have to spend a lot of time simply archiving the data that I will be gathering. So that also conditions a lot how my time will be spent. Then there is the timing. I have to submit archivable materials within a certain time frame, usually before the end of my PhD, so this means that this timeframe will condition my research, my data analysis, documentation, etc.

ED: So, say for example, since you were talking about a timeline, right now, you’re in the application process so you’re designing the fieldwork itself. If you get the funding, how long will you conduct fieldwork for?

PM: I will go twice. The first time 8 months, and the second time 4 months. That’s what I’m planning to do.

ED: And then after you come back from both of your field trips, does that mean that you have to immediately archive or is there a period of time for you to actually process all of your materials?

PM: Since I had to create the project workflow and project plan, I was able to set the timeframe as I best see fit now, but in order to get the scholarship, the sooner I say I will archive something, the more chances I have to actually get the scholarship. So, in a sense you have the liberty to set your own pace, but it’s not that ‘free’ let’s say. In my case I have given myself a couple of months to archive after my first trip, and after the second, since it will be shorter, a month.

ED: Yeah. Because, as you say, archiving in itself, you need specific training in order to actually be able to do that, and there is the actual preparation of materials. For example, you said you were going to collect some video. What other formats will you use to collect data?

PM: It’s mainly audio and video. I’ll document cultural practices, and some narratives. Also I met a guy who explained to me how he had recorded cultural practices and then played these videos back to the speakers in order for them to comment on the recorded events. It’s a way of documenting comments on existing documentation efforts. It was interesting and I’m going to try to do that because it seems like an interesting method. When you document a cultural practice you may not understand it at all. You may say, ‘oh they’re doing some weird things’ and not understand at all why they are being done. But then if the actors engaged in the cultural practice can explain it later on by commenting on the existing video, you might get a better sense and understanding of the cultural practices, rather than asking the partcipants on the spot when they are busy and don’t have time to explain to you.

ED: You were talking before about doing phonological research. What is involved in this type of research? What are specific tasks involved when you look at the phonology of a language?

PM: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have the correct answer.

ED: There is no correct answer, but before you were talking about contextualisation within a language for example.

PM: Yes, I suppose elicitation is the best way to get into phonology and sound systems of a language. So that’s the first thing I’m going to do. I like the sounds of a language, I always have so I will try to pronounce them by repeating what people say. I will also check what is written on the phonology of the language.

ED: Will you have to talk to different people?

PM: Yes, the community I will be working with is scattered between five villages. So, I will need to talk to people from different villages as well as different ages and, I will have to take into consideration people who don’t have teeth for example. Or other conditions that may affect how they pronounce sounds which is an issue. If I wanted to do more detailed research, I would ideally compare young people with old people. I don’t know if I will have time to actually do that but if I have to time to at least document it, I will. So, as I said, first I collect words, then they need to be heard within different contexts, and then compare these.

ED: I suppose it might also be interesting to consider the personal histories of the individual. To see if they have moved around and had contact with speakers of other languages which might affect the phonology. Also, education and socio economic status of the individual.

PM: Yeah, so with education I know that in Thailand the unified national curriculum is very recent and also within ethnic minorities there is an early school drop out rate. Also, I read about the community where I will be working, that there is an extinct dialect in the area, and that the language spoken now is influenced by that extinct dialect. So that’s also interesting. I don’t really know how to differentiate between Thai influence on the language and the extinct language’s influence, but it will be interesting to try to reconstruct the dialect, or at least think about and be aware of it.

ED: Maybe it isn’t extinct.

PM: Yeah.

ED: I’m just thinking about El Salvador and the Nahuat we hear today, most people who had worked on it or heard of it, didn’t think it was spoken anymore, but it still is and you can to certain extent distinguish between those who speak and don’t speak Nahuat by listening to the way people speak Spanish. In El Salvador at least, the people who speak an indigenous language have a different accent in Spanish. So maybe in Thailand, there is an influence in the phonology of the language you are working on because the dialect is still alive or because they themselves still speak that language.

PM: Yeah it could be.

ED: There might be other reasons why it might be socially unacceptable to speak the language which is now considered to be extinct.

PM: Yeah, I mean I don’t even know if they are multilingual or not. Because the researchers who wrote about the extinct dialect were only interested in theoretical linguistics, and not at all on sociolinguistics or society even. So I’m going to have to find that out.

ED: Yeah, I find that’s the case as well, that as linguist doing documentation, the emphasis in the past has been on documenting the syntax of language, and that’s why for example funding bodies might emphasize interlinear morpheme by morpheme transcriptions which are useful for syntacticians and morphologists, but there’s not so much consideration of how the technical aspects of documentation might be different if you were doing phonology or if you were doing semantics or phonetics for example. So, say rather than asking a phonetician to provide interlinearized transcriptions for example, you could ask them to provide an acoustic analysis by using Praat.

PM: Yes, I will be providing Praat analysis.

ED: But that’s not because they’ve asked you to, rather because you want to.

PM: Yeah, it’s because I think it’s a basic standard for documenting phonology. Also, with isolating languages, the syntax and morphology are not that interesting in a way. I mean, we cannot say that one language is more interesting than another one, right? But, the morphology, at least, is not as complex in this case as it might be in others. There is no morphology for example, so there’s not really enoughsubstance to talk in an in-depth manner about agreement. A widespread general understanding of agreement and segmenting is not that clear or visible therefore syntax depends more on word order and that sort of thing. At least that is how it seems to be me, but I could be wrong. Whereas for phonetics and phonology, we have other things that other languages don’t have, such as tone for example. Specifically,Southeast Asian tone, which is different to African or Mesoamerican tone. We can even question if tone is even a thing, if African tone and Asian tones should be called different things. So, if you want to document a language in South East Asia, it is normal to look at phonetics and phonology rather than syntax because what is ‘normal’ in SE Asian languages might not exist in other parts of the world. In a way you end up with a paradox, because if a funding body wanted to document syntax in an area where syntax is not as interesting as other features of the language, it doesn’t really make sense to focus on that.

ED: But then it also ties in with revitalization. If you’re doing a documentation project, the question is who are you doing it for? If you are only looking at the theoretically interesting aspects of the language, that indicates that you are really doing this for the academic interests. Whereas if you are doing it with the intention to revitalize, you really need to consider what the interests of the people who are speaking the language are.

PM: Yeah, that’s a big question. I mean, I’ve always wanted revitalization to be my main occupation, but then you can’t go to a community and say ‘hey, I want to revitalize your language’. You first have to meet them, speak to them, get to know them, and do things with them and THEN you know their situation and interests. Possibly then you can start a project. I thought that documenting a language and doing things for academia may be a good start for approaching the community. Because obviously if you’re a student with no grants, you can’t just hop on a plane and go to Thailand and start meeting minorities. I could do that, but I would be left with no money. So that’s what I thought.

ED: It’s like you say, it’s a starting point. And you also have to see whether once you’ve done it, you enjoy it and want to continue doing it. Establishing relationships with the people and speakers is something that takes time, especially if you want to do it long-term. Spending one year, is already more than spending three months or three weeks, but even then there are things that especially once you start looking at the subtleties of the language, of meaning, of cultural practices, there are some things which you won’t be invited to observe unless you have actually spent time with the people who speak the language.

PM: Yeah. So, you asked what the documentation is for, and I would say that sometimes we ask a lot of questions, but what is important is what you actually do. Not just what you think, like the classical dichotomy between thinking and action. I guess what is more important is how you are going to document language. Because how you document language in the end will answer the question of what the documentation is for. Because you may say, ‘I will document with the community’ but then you get there and you don’t train them, you don’t work with them, instead they work for you.  Whereas you can think that it’s an academic thing to study tone which is what I thought, but then you work with the speakers and do collaborative research, train them to use video cameras, pay them to be your research assistants, you transcribe with them, do the same things, and in the end you give the data that you have gathered, you give it back to them. You print texts in their language, you maybe design an orthography and so on. So maybe the way you document answers this question rather than what you plan or what you write to the funding bodies. Because you can write one thing and not do it.

ED: I think also at the end of the day, like you’re saying, you write one thing, but the reality is that you don’t know what is coming ahead of you.

PM: Oh yeah, obviously.

ED: It’s also important to be flexible with yourself and accept that obviously you’re going to do your best to make sure you can do X, Y and Z, but there are chances that you won’t be able to do it for reasons beyond your control. It’s all a process and it’s something you have to constantly react to and adapt because of natural catastrophes for example, or your own personal issues, or maybe you find that some key members of the community don’t like you for whatever reason and then you have to spend maybe six months winning them over. I agree, it is what you do, but there are also things that will affect what you do and how you do it.

PM: Yeah, in that sense, because I’ve been writing applications for a couple of years now, in previous application some of the feedback I received was that I didn’t have contact with the community. Which was absolutely true. But then I thought, how are you supposed to go the community as a Masters student when you’re still completing your degree?Where do you get the money to establish contact when you can’t get money because you haven’t established contact? But then I went to Thailand and when I wrote the application the second time –

ED: How did you go to Thailand?

PM: Self-funded. Yeah, I spent a lot of money and came back a bit poor let’s say. But then when I was writing the application the second time, I had already had an experience in Thailand, so it was easier to write the application. There were things that I could imagine that I could never have imagined before. So, in that case, it’s true that previous experience makes a lot of sense.

ED: Yeah, but you’re right. Not everyone will have the means to be able to do that.

PM: Exactly.

ED: It’s important to consider that you as the funding body may already be excluding some applicants if they don’t already have funding.

PM: Yeah, I was lucky that I already had a scholarship for the MA which meant I was able to travel to Thailand.

ED: One last question, are you looking forward to your fieldwork?

PM: Yes, very much so. I’m excited! A little bit scared as well, but I think everyone feels that way before they go.

ED: Yeah, that’s normal. It is exciting as well though. And you don’t know what’s coming ahead of you.

PM: I mean I was scared before going to Thailand and that was only three weeks, but within a day of being there I already knew it was going to be ok and that it was a good place to be. I think it will be the same, just longer.



Data Elicitation – A data collection technique used in the social sciences. In linguistics, the practice of ‘eliciting’ information or data, involves asking questions or using stimuli to collect linguistic data.

Interlinearization – The process of providing a morpheme by morpheme translation, or glossing, of a word or utterance.

Morphology - In linguistics, morphology is the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language. It analyzes the structure of words and pPetes of words, such as stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes

Phonetics – A branch of linguistics that looks at the sounds of a language, or in sign languages, their corresponding signs. Phonetics concerns itself with acoustic or physical properties of a given sound or sign.

Phonology – A branch of linguistics that looks at the systematic organization of sounds in languages, and the patterns and combinations of sounds that are characteristic of a given language.

Syntax - In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, usually including word order. The term syntax is also used to refer to the study of such principles and processes. The goal of many syntacticians is to discover the syntactic rules common to all languages.

Tone – In linguistics, tone refers to the use of pitch in a language to add meaning. All verbal languages use pitch to convey emotions and other paralinguistic information such as emphasis. Tonal languages however use tone to distinguish between sounds much like you would use vowels or consonants to distinguish between sounds in non-tonal languages e.g. consider English words cat vs cut; Thailandesewords cá [rising tone] = fish vs. cà [falling tone] = coffee vs. cả [contoured tone] = both.

Meet a Fieldworker: Willem Adelaar

The year 2019 has been named by the UN as the year of indigenous languages, and to commemorate this Language Landscape will be hosting a series of events around the topic of what it means to speak an ‘indigenous language’, multilingualism and the movement and representation of language around the world. These events will be hosted in and around London, Oxford, Cambridge and Glasgow, and if you are interested in hosting your own Language Landscape event, we are open to the opportunity to collaborate wherever you may be in the world! 

Since Language Landscape (LL) came together in 2013, our aim has been to challenge preconceptions of where languages might be spoken around the world, and notions of monolingual nations. This has been done by thinking about how language can be represented in a visual form in a geographical context. Thus, when visiting the LL map, it is possible to find examples of language being used ‘outside their country of origin’. A search for Chinese on LL for example reveals that there is representation in at least ten different countries. Likewise, the project Czech it Out! boasts examples of spoken Urdu, Slovenian, Bulgarian and Russian in Czechia. In this way, viewers can also find examples of indigenous and endangered languages like Náhuat-Pipil in El Salvador, Tz’utujil in Guatemala, Taiyal in Taiwan, Nez Perce in the USA to name a few examples.

In addition to the events which will be published at a later date, we are also starting a new blog series titled ‘Meet a Fieldworker’, where we will speak to different types of researchers who have worked with indigenous language and speech communities around the world, and who can offer a unique insight into what language means to people of diverse communities. We start the blog series with an interview with Willem Adelaar (WA) Professor Emeritus of Amerindian Languages at Leiden University and we discuss how linguistic fieldwork on languages has changed over the past few decades. Adelaar conducted fieldwork in the Andean and Amazonian regions of South America in the 1960-70s, and he talks about how technological advances have changed the way in which research is conducted, as well as how ethical considerations have expanded to include collaboration with members of language and speech communities as well as researchers from other disciplines. We hope you enjoy read!


ED: How are things different now compared to when you conducted fieldwork?

WA: If I had to do fieldwork now, I would need to familiarize myself with a number of technical issues, including modern ways of archiving. I could do fieldwork like I did in the 60s/70s, but we used to build our archive on paper, in a notebook and on system cards. Now, for example, you are expected to use a computerized archiving programme, which I would have to learn. My recordings are now in a digitized archive, but this is thanks to project funding specifically focused on archiving pre-digital data. I was a guinea pig of sorts. When it comes to fieldwork however, people now have to prepare for it in a different way.

ED: Are the methods of fieldwork different?

WA: In a sense they are. More technical assets are now available. We used to rely on fieldwork manuals such as Hockett, Samarin, Pike and Nida. We used relatively large and clumsy tape recorders, which sometimes would refuse service in the sunshine. But technology has developed since then. We now have advanced recording equipment, computers and video recorders. Handbooks such as the one by Gippert, Himmelman, and Mosel provide an overview of the possibilities of modern language documentation. However, continuing to conduct this type of field-based research also presupposes large and complex documentation projects for which the funding has now largely dried up (e.g. Volkswagen Foundation and ELDP). Fieldwork in the US particularly is more successful in smaller projects.

ED: How have ethics changed?

WA: Ethics was not an important issue in the past. Now it is more relevant, in some countries such as Australia, and also at EU level, but not necessarily so much in other countries like the Netherlands. Sometimes the issue of ethics still requires a content, and this may take time to resolve.

ED: Why might ethics be an issue today?

WA: Researchers now have recognized that previous ways of working were insensible to ethical considerations. We now recognize that we should give something back to the community so now we attempt to do so. But that I would argue is plain decency. So before the view was that you couldn’t do anything because you were only paid for research, without space for additional activities focused on speaker communities. Today people are free and less free in some ways. There are academic restrictions (teaching obligations, administrative tasks, etc.), things are more organized, there is more competition. There is still no organized system today for providing or giving back to the community. Projects are temporary, they create an infrastructure for 2-3 years, then disappear. If you are in a situation where you can’t give back, then you simply don’t. No one else will do it for you. But modern researchers do what they can to give back to the communities. These are also more demanding and rightly so.

From my own experience of gathering lots of data over several years, you would hope that people in the communities would become interested and involved in the documentation and the revival of their languages. This interest however has to come from the locals themselves. Together, you can combine the know-how and eagerness for action e.g. within indigenous populations who speak the language. It is true that the exposure of speakers to the presence of linguists in their communities has often changed their attitude and made them more conscient of the importance of rescuing a linguistic heritage.

Another thing that has changed very much is the idea of multidisciplinary research. Before you hardly talked to each other, as a linguist you rarely met an archaeologist or an anthropologist. You were completely different creatures. Now you at least try, but it still isn’t easy. Money also plays a role within this dynamic. If you have access to a lot of funding, you also have to use it in an adequate way. You can form a diverse research team. It gives you the feeling of strength and support. We should also listen to each other and learn from each other. Look at historical reconstruction for example. Before, our research was focused on rigid synchronic description, but now you know for example that a phoneme is no more than a theoretical construct and that each sound has a history. The historical background is significant for understanding the present. Morphological and phonemic structures differ, and you can see there is an ongoing change taking place in a language. We realize this more now whereas before it was a deadly sin to combine synchronic and diachronic research. Now you can think about the history of what you are seeing. Similarly if you are looking at a specific language, you need to consider the context of the languages that surround it. Language contact is part of your perspective on language.

In my case, I would have liked a local group to take over the work I did. As a European in my case, research was for me and for linguistics. If you are dealing with a large community, you cannot talk to everyone. But really the impact of research has to spread like an oil stain. It has to sink into the local environment, and this is what is often lacking. In some parts there are local interested and concerned people, for instance, teachers or retired civil servants who try to do something with the local language, but this can also go wrong e.g. in the case of the Cuzco Language Academy, whose authority is not accepted by linguists. For this to work, indeed, local efforts should also collaborate with science. Nonetheless continuity is more easily obtained with such institutions. Furthermore, it is often easier to do this with smaller groups as it is being done in Brazil, where language experts within a specific language community can receive training and as a result, can always be available to the language community. But this is more difficult with larger language groups like the case of Mexican Nahuatl.


More information about W. Adelaar’s work can be found here.