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.
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.
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.
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.