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Meet a Fieldworker: Sadie Ryan

This time on our “Meet a Fieldworker” series, Sadie Ryan, who produces the Accentricity podcast series, writes a guest post about what it’s like to start a linguistics podcast and how doing research for a podcast is different to conducting research for a PhD. More specifically, Sadie talks about ‘outliers’ of traditional research, and how outlets such as podcasts can provide the perfect platform for exploring the aspects of language that theoretical research can struggle to explain or come to terms with: people.

Sadie conducting interviews at the Barras, a market in East Glasgow

Sadie conducting interviews at the Barras, a market in East Glasgow

Sadie is currently based at the Manchester Metropolitan University and is researching variation in Englishes across greater Manchester. To get in touch check out @accentricitypod on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or email accentricity.podcast@gmail.com. Finally, in light of on-going events, Sadie is doing a fundraiser to raise £250 in April. The money will go to a charity doing emergency food deliveries during Covid-19, and if the goal is met she will release a special lockdown-themed episode of Accentricity. To donate please check out: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/accentricity

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Finishing a PhD and starting a podcast: The story of Accentricity
By Sadie Ryan

While I was doing my PhD fieldwork, I met a boy called Marek. Marek isn’t his real name, it’s a pseudonym that I use to protect his anonymity. I did my fieldwork at Marek’s high school, in the East End of Glasgow. My project was an analysis of the speech of fourteen pupils at the school, who, like Marek, had all moved to Scotland from Poland. My research questions were about how they, as a group, were acquiring Glaswegian speech patterns.

Although I was very interested in the experiences, stories and ideas of these pupils as individuals, my statistical analysis of their speech was about looking for patterns and commonalities across the whole group. Describing the way that one person is acquiring new speech patterns doesn’t tell us much about the way that people in general acquire new speech patterns, but finding commonalities across a group of fourteen people might tell us something about how people in that kind of context acquire new speech patterns. In this type of analysis, where there were differences between the individuals, I was looking for explanations for those differences. Where explanations couldn’t be found, I was focusing on the similarities. Where one individual’s speech behaved really differently from the others, they would be designated as an ‘outlier’, described, and then possibly removed from the analysis and put aside.

Marek was an outlier. When I looked at the group as a whole, there were some clear trends. One was that most of those who had arrived in Glasgow at primary school age generally now sounded very Glaswegian, and those who had arrived after the start of high school generally didn’t sound very Glaswegian. But Marek didn’t fit this pattern at all. He had arrived in Glasgow when he was five, but at age thirteen he hadn’t picked up many Glaswegian linguistic features at all. I found that I really wanted to find out more about Marek. He had lots of Glaswegian friends, he was surrounded by Glaswegian speech, so according to established theory we would expect this to be reflected in his own speech, as was the case for the other participants in the study. I wanted to look at his speech in more detail, look at his story and attitudes and feelings in more detail, and learn about why his linguistic behaviour was so different to that of the others in the study. Unfortunately, the type of analysis I was doing didn’t really have space for that. Within a statistical model that looked at group behaviour,  Marek’s exceptionality was notable, but not really a finding in itself: he was, after all, just one person.

I didn’t change the focus of my PhD research: I conducted my analysis using established methods, and I produced interesting and informative findings about how most of the speakers, generally, were acquiring Glaswegian speech norms. I commented on Marek’s outlier status, discussed some hypothetical explanations, but I wasn’t able to go back into the school and spend more time with him to find out more. That was OK.

But while I was getting my PhD ready for submission, I decided to find myself an antidote. I started a podcast, which I called Accentricity: like Eccentricity, but with Accents.

As the name suggests, I wanted the podcast to be about the inconsistencies, eccentricities and strangenesses of language: the messiness, and the bits that don’t fit. At times I’ve branched out to discuss linguistic theory more broadly, but in every episode so far, my aim has been to bring linguistic theory up against the everyday linguistic experiences of people outside of academia. Sometimes this means explaining and contextualising their experiences using linguistic theory, but sometimes it means bringing established linguistic wisdom into conflict with their lived experience.

For example, the first episode opens with my friend Jennie. Jennie is a bit like Marek, in that she’s a linguistic outlier. When I interviewed her, she told me about her working-class childhood in Nottingham. Usually, her background would be associated with a specific way of speaking. She told me about how she wishes that her voice matched with the way that people expect her to speak when they hear her story. But she sounds, for want of a better word, a bit posh. Her siblings don’t sound posh, she doesn’t want to sound posh, so why does she? I can’t really explain Jennie’s experiences with the linguistic theory that I know. She doesn’t fit neatly within the patterns that language and identity generally follow. And that’s why my interview with her is my favourite that I’ve done so far.

Making Accentricity was very different from my PhD research. I started making recordings just after finishing my PhD, when I wasn’t attached to a university and I didn’t have a supervisor. That meant that it didn’t have a pilot study, there was no funding, no deadline, and initially there was very little structure. The early stages were pure exploration and play, and it was joyful. I interviewed friends, friends of friends, linguists I’d met at conferences, people I’d found on the internet, and even strangers on the street – anyone who would talk to me, really. I had questions I wanted to ask, things I wanted to find out about the ways people related to their own language use, but when something else came up that interested me, I was able to change course and follow that topic instead.

As time went on, things became more structured. The original idea had been simply to release the conversations I’d had with people as stand-alone episodes, but as I was having these conversations I kept noticing interesting parallels, and I found that I wanted to place different ideas and different voices alongside each other within an episode. I sifted through my many hours of recordings and began to build episodes around themes.

Without planning to, I’d begun to make a narrative non-fiction podcast, assembling clips from different conversations and sewing them together with voiceover narration. This is a much more time-consuming and complicated way to make a podcast, but it felt right. Since starting Accentricity a year ago, I still haven’t released all that many episodes, but each one is very dense. There’s a lot of recorded audio that doesn’t make it in, and usually several abandoned ideas left out. I’m now working on being a bit more efficient in how I work, trying to make the production less time-consuming, but I’m glad that I started the way I did. Making a podcast without funding or institutional support was in some ways very difficult, but it gave me the freedom to be inefficient, and as I emerged from the highly-structured PhD research I’d been doing, that was great for me.

It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. There were technical difficulties, there was new software to negotiate, there were periods of boredom. In the first two obstacles, I was incredibly lucky to have the help of my partner John (both my partner in podcasting and my boyfriend), who has worked as a radio producer. He trained me in the basics of radio production, and continues to support me with feedback and editing help. I’d also made linguistic field recordings before, so I knew a little about microphones, audio quality, etc., so transitioning to making a podcast wasn’t as steep a learning curve as it would have been for a complete technical newbie.

Lack of money for equipment was a potential barrier, but it wasn’t as much of a barrier as I expected it to be. I found that recording straight onto my phone or laptop was possible, and that the free software Audacity provided all of the editing tools I needed. On advice from one of John’s audio technician friends, I bought two SM58 microphones, and then I started recording. When I eventually launched the podcast, I set up ways for listeners to make donations. I still don’t make a lot of money at all, but I quickly made enough to offset the cost of the microphones and website hosting (I use Squarespace). I then used additional donation money to add to my kit, getting a proper digital recorder (a Zoom H4N), another microphone, some microphone stands and cables.

Lack of time became a bigger issue. As I’ve mentioned, the ratio of time taken to audio content produced is, for me, very high. Not having funding (other than listener donations) meant that I had to work full-time elsewhere, which meant that my work on Accentricity had to be (and continues to be) confined to evenings and weekends. Whether this is a hobby, a job, or might become a part of my job in the future, is something I’m still not sure about. I know that I enjoy it enough to call it a hobby. I feel lucky that I’m someone who (currently) has time for hobbies. I hope I can continue making Accentricity even if my life circumstances change. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never be able to produce as much content as fast as some podcasters do. Among podcasters, I’m a tortoise. I think that those who listen to my podcast understand.

The making of Accentricity series 1 was unstructured and messy, but I think that was what I needed to help me develop as both a linguist and a podcaster. It forced me to listen to people talking without trying to fit them into patterns and theories that I’d read about. It brought me face to face with the messiness of lived experience. It made me confront how I felt about my own voice, as I listened again and again to my interactions with people. It reminded me why I fell in love with language in the first place.

During the hot summer just after my PhD viva (I’d passed!), I spent three days recording short conversations with strangers at the Barras market in the East End of Glasgow, near where I lived at the time. These were some of the first recordings I made. I had an SM58 microphone plugged directly into my phone, and that was all. John was with me on the first day, but he was also working on his own recordings for a radio piece he was doing. The rest of the time I was alone.

I expected that maybe half of the people I approached wouldn’t want to speak to me: I’d prepared myself for rejection. But actually, everyone I approached was friendly and most were willing to talk. I asked people about their experiences of linguistic discrimination. Some people gave the kind of answers I was expecting, and some really didn’t. I heard stories that were familiar to me, of adults trying to shape children’s voices to sound a certain way, and of people feeling out of place at college and university because of the way they spoke. But I also heard from people with the same often-stigmatised accents who didn’t feel that they’d ever faced linguistic discrimination, even when in similar situations. Everyone’s answers were different, and in the moment it was impossible to pick out patterns or trends. Some people veered wildly off topic, giving answers that weren’t related to language at all. One man began asking me to explain the meanings of local words he’d heard young people say. Some people stopped in the middle of answering my questions to shout to their friends. A stall holder with a South African accent suddenly turned around and spoke to another stall holder in an accent that sounded completely and utterly Glaswegian. People shouted to me as I walked past, calling me over to speak to them. Around me I could hear Glaswegian accents, Aberdonian accents, Irish accents, Arabic, Polish and French.

Sadie conducting sociolinguistic interviews at the Barras, a market in East Glasgow

Sadie conducting sociolinguistic interviews at the Barras, a market in East Glasgow

I arrived home from my fieldwork at the Barras exhausted, with way too much audio of variable quality recorded, and unsure what I was going to do with it. By many academics’ standards, what I had just done wouldn’t really be considered research: it wasn’t structured enough, it wasn’t theoretically underpinned, it would never be turned into a publishable journal article. But to me, in many ways, it felt like the best research I’d ever done. It challenged me to step far outside of my comfort zone – both in terms of how I conducted fieldwork, and how I thought about language and identity. It challenged me to resist the temptation to tidy up messy data, remove outliers, find the neatest patterns and simply leave it at that. And perhaps most importantly, it cemented my belief that research on language needs to be centred around the people that speak it: that to understand the structured patterns of sound and gesture that allow us to communicate, we need to wrap our heads around the complicated beings who produce them.

 

Meet a Fieldworker: Eleanor Ridge

In May 2019, Eleanor Ridge and I sat down and had a conversation about the role technology plays when conducting linguistic fieldwork. Eleanor talks about using apps like SayMore for collecting metadata, language anotation tools like ELAN, and FLEx, as well as the importance of transcription and innovations in the field, and how connectivity (internet and phone) affects one’s ability to do fieldwork in remote island locations. This conversation is contextualised within her experience of conducting linguistic research on the Vatlongos language of Southeast Ambrym Island in Vanuatu. Eleanor is currently based at Massey University, University of New Zealand. Some of her recordings are available through her Language Landscape project page ‘Vatlongos SEAYou can follow her on twitter: @eleanor_ridge

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ED: I am talking to Eleanor Ridge.
ER: That’s me.
ED: Hi Eleanor.
ER: Hi Ebany.
ED: Could you tell me a little bit about the type of field work you have conducted and where you have done your fieldwork?
ER: Yes, I certainly can. So, my main bit of fieldwork has been for my PhD and I’ve been working on Vatlongos language which is also known as South East Ambrym in the literature, and it is spoken in Southeast Ambrym island in Vanuatu. It’s an Oceanic language and it’s closely related to Paamese, another language on the island opposite. My project has been documentation and description, but particularly paying attention to variation between different speaker communities because it is spoken both in South East Ambrym and in a community called Mele Maat, which is just outside the capital of Port Villa. They relocated there in the 1950s following a volcanic explosion. So I’m looking at the differences between how language is spoken in those two communities.

ED: When was the last time you went and did fieldwork?
ER: The very last time I was there was in August last year (2018) because I was in Vanuatu for a conference and I managed to squeeze in a couple of weeks on the island and a week in Mele Maat which was really nice. I was finishing up my thesis at the point so it was a good opportunity to ask some final questions and get a couple more stories as well. Before that I did two chunks of six months in 2014-15 and 2016-17.

ED: So you started visiting them in 2014?
ER: Yeah, that was the first time I went to Ambrym but I had worked in Vanuatu before which is what originally got me into linguistics, because I was teaching on Pentecost Island and learned Apma language, the language of Central Pentecost at that point. That was when I decided that I really like languages and that they’re really fun, and that I wanted to come back and study that for my Masters.

ED: So what does fieldwork look like for you when you’re on site?
ER: Because I’m working on two different sites, it looks very different when I’m on the island compared to when I’m working with the urban community. So when I’m on the island it’s maybe more what people expect when you say ‘fieldwork’. I’m staying with a host family who are wonderful. Well two host families. I live with Madleen and Simeon in Moru and their kids, and they’re brilliant. They also do transcription work and organize sessions for me. They provide lots of their expertise as well as their hospitality. There what normally happens is that Simeon organizes for me to visit different villages, so I got recordings in every village that Vatlongos is spoken in in South East Ambrym. Simeon was organizing that for me, and arranging things in advance. He made sure that announcements were made in advance. A typical day would be, get up, have breakfast, set off to do some recordings, arrive in the village, make sure everyone knows we’re there, they come and share their stories. Certainly, that’s what it was like in the first fieldtrip, and increasingly I was also asking more guided elicitation questions about things that I wanted to see if they varied in different villages. Then we would go back home and I would upload my recordings in the evenings. The evening would also be used for some transcription work. I’m quite pleased about how the transcription worked.

ED: Yeah?
ER: Because we were moving between two communities I wanted to make sure we had independent transcription so that I didn’t need to be there in order for transcription to be taking place. Because it just wouldn’t be very efficient. So what I did was use the auto-segment feature in SayMore to automatically segment, which saves a lot of time. If you’ve ever used ELAN to segment manually you’ll know that. Then I use that to generate mp3s that Madleen and Simeon had on their mobile phones. They could then listen to each track, each track had a code and a number, and that meant that they were writing it up down in their books and I could type it up so that it was all time-aligned. So that’s often how we spent the evenings which is fun, and we would have lots of discussions about things that come up.

ED: Yeah, sounds fun, and that reminds me that you were really good about uploading things to Language Landscape for one, but also keeping really on top of technologies and social media while you were in the field.
ER: Yes, I was good at that wasn’t I?
ED: You were excellent.
ER: Especially during my second fieldtrip and after that. I wanted to do some awareness raising. I’m lucky and it’s a thing about a lot of communities in Vanuatu are very open, certainly in the Vatlongos community, people are just really keen to share their stories. Often when you’re doing fieldwork you have to think very carefully about anonymity. Sometimes there are restrictions on who is allowed to hear certain stories and that sort of thing. In the community I’m in, people really want their stories to be shared and they want their authorship to be acknowledged while doing that. I put a lot of videos up on YouTube with people’s permission and people were really keen for that. It worked really well for getting some enthusiasm for the project in the urban Mele Maat community where people have more internet access. Especially with young people in Mele Maat who are less likely to speak the language. This was a way of getting them really engaged with the project so that worked really well. Increasingly I’m aiming to archive and I’m hoping that will be the means to spread it from now on, but that’s been a fairly slow process. It’s increasingly happening. I have a project up with Pangloss and I’m working with ELAR to get stuff up on ELAR as well as the moment. Sharing stuff on YouTube is very effective though and I was able to produce subtitles very quickly because of that transcription process.

ED: So you would say that definitely using the more up-to-date software like SayMore streamlined the whole process more?
ER: Definitely, it was just really time saving. It meant I could produce subtitles really easily. I could have subtitles that were both the language and English, or the language and Bislama. We were also using Bislama, the national language, for transcription as well. Especially for semi-speakers in Mele Maat, it’s really useful to show the worth of the language but also make it accessible for people who maybe don’t understand straight away.

ED: Yeah, so just a recap on the languages…you have Bislama…
ER: Yeah, Bislama is the national language. It’s a pidgin English. Nearly everyone in Vanuatu speaks Bislama. That’s a really good way to get recordings accessible to the entire community and also semi-speakers of other languages of Vanuatu who would be interested in the stories. Maybe family and friends as well. Then you have English and French which are both languages of education in Vanuatu but in the Vatlongos speaker community, nearly everyone speaks English as their language of education. Practically everyone.

ED: And when you’re there what languages are you using?
ER: Because I already spoke Bislama, I spoke Bislama as the language of communication when I first arrived. Increasingly I speak Vatlongos. On the second trip and last August I was mostly speaking Vatlongos with the people who wanted to. Sometimes in Mele Maat though, if people are not confident in speaking Vatlongos you can sometimes put them on the spot. So it’s good to speak Bislama anyway.

ED: So for the people who are quite comfortable speaking Vatlongos, does you speaking it change your interaction at all?
ER: Generally people are really really enthusiastic if I’m speaking Vatlongos, but there’s also that feeling about Bislama as well. I think if people are used to dealing with outsiders, especially white outsiders, they’ll often start in English and that can be kind of nerve racking for people and also they really appreciate that you’ve made the effort to learn the language of Vanuatu. Even more so when it’s the local language.

ED: And what about meeting people? You said people are quite keen to share their stories, is it easy to make friends and approach people?
ER: Yes, definitely. Vanuatu is a really great place for that. Everyone wants to know what you’re up to. Everyone is really keen to talk about what they’re doing. It’s really easy to meet people as long as you’ve got a language which you can have those conversations in. People are really keen to discuss those things, and there’s a lot of pride in the culture. A lot of pride in local stories, local crafts and those types of things. It’s great, it’s very easy for me. I don’t have to do much persuading or too much work to show why the language is worth recording. People absolutely believe it already. There’s never any kind of queries of “But why are you interested in that?” The worth of the language is really self-evident to people which is great.

ED: That is really great.
ER: I know!
ED: Yeah, that’s not always the case.
ER: Exactly, and I so feel for people who have to do more work than I do on that.
ED: But you just have to run with it. That’s why you can do such great documentation.
ER: It does mean that the whole process has been much quicker and I have pretty sizeable corpus for the amount of time that I’ve been spending on it for that reason. Also because of how amazing Madleen, Simeon and Bell have been on transcription.

ED: So going back to the technology theme, obviously tech is constantly evolving. What are some things that could come up in the future that you would want to work with to improve the fieldwork process?
ER: I’m really interested in some of the projects that are coming up where people are working with automatic transcription based on a test area. I want to speak to some of the projects that are working on that like ELPIS and PERSEPHONE. This is a process that is getting more and more efficient all the time and there are a few groups that have different ways of implementing it. Basically, you have to do transcription and transcribe these languages up to a certain point, and then with a certain number of hours of recording you would then be able to train software for that to happen automatically. Then you would be able to record. It’s never going to be perfect, but you can use that as a base and then tidy it up. So then if it’s getting, I think some of the figures I’ve heard is 80% right, and then you can just go through and tidy them up. That would be hugely time saving. Interesting in itself, I think it would help you spot things that you might not spot otherwise, which would be cool.
ED: There’s a guy in Germany who has been working on the software to do that with Uralic languages.
ER: Yeah and there are some people in Australia who have been working on it. There are lots of people working on that and I think it would be amazing. It would mean that any documentation project would immediately have transcripts. It would make those first 8 hours of transcription even more important and you could then expand and be able to access all of these other things that people produce themselves. You would be able to access data more easily. It would no longer be the case that you would have to make do with quite small corpora either. You could end up with big corpora and you could ask the types of questions we ask of larger languages which I think would be great.

ED: Yeah, and obviously time is a critical issue for these smaller languages. Is the technology in any way accessible to speakers? Or how accessible is it?
ER: You mean the technology I’m using now? SayMore?
ED: Yeah.
ER: At the moment this will vary depending on where people are working and the access they have to computing and power. Many people have laptops. Some of these programs are quite power and memory hungry though so that doesn’t always work that well. ELAN is not very easy to access. There is a very steep learning curve with that. Whereas SayMore is much easier I think. I did take a laptop out with me that people are using for other things. It wasn’t really powerful enough to use SayMore and it wasn’t immediately obvious to people what it was useful for, so they weren’t that keen to learn. That’s why we kept to pen and paper most of the time for transcription. I can see that there would be situations where people would want to do that for themselves. Especially for subtitles and things. That would be clear what the use is in that instance. Mostly if you have some really enthusiastic people who are interested in the linguistics of the project and how that works, I think these are really amazing tools for teaching that. Things like FLeX like I’ve been using, which is a lexical database software, is brilliant for teaching those types of things. Unfortunately, I haven’t had anyone on the project who has wanted to take it to that level, but I would be really keen to take that on if anyone was keen. What it does instead is make it really easy to generate outputs that are accessible to the community. One thing that I’ve had success with which I was sharing when I was out in August was a dictionary app that you can generate automatically from FLeX, and that was something that when I was on the previous fieldtrip, a lot of teachers had been asking for because we had been trying to implement vernacular education for years 1-3. We now have the materials which is fantastic, but a lot of the teachers are not very confident with the spelling system, and they’re not very confident with their own reading and writing in Vatlongos. That was something they were asking for, a dictionary and in particular anything on a computer or a mobile phone. Many more people have mobile phones than have laptops, so anything on a mobile app is much more useful. That’s been really well received and is something I want to work on further to develop proper definitions and add photos and more of that sort of thing.

ED: So there are things like electricity and basic commodities?
ER: It’s all via solar power so you do have electricity. It’s improved drastically in the few years that I’ve been going out there. The first time I was out there were two stores that I knew of where I could take my laptop and get it charged, maybe in a few days. At the time I wasn’t able to upload everything straight away from the recording. Increasingly individual families have solar panels and car batteries for charging things. That’s also something that because my host family refused to accept any rent, I’ve been trying to give gifts of suitable value to show my gratitude. That is what I did on the second trip. I managed to get solar panels that were cheap enough that it was within the right bracket. Now Madleen and Simeon have solar panels and that’s worked really well and has made it much easier for me. It’s really useful for them as well.

ED: What about things like internet and communication?
ER: That is also something that has improved vastly since I first went there. The first time I went there was no internet access at all. Mobile phones worked which was good, but you would have patchy reception. They built a new communication tower recently between my two fieldsites which has been really good. During the second fieldtrip I could get mild 3G network which was really awesome. Especially because my dad got married and I was able to receive some photos of his wedding which was great.
ED: That’s lovely!
ER: Yeah! It makes a big difference to how connected you feel.

ED: Which is important when you’re doing fieldwork.
ER: Yeah, definitely, definitely. Because I’m moving between two communities, I haven’t found that too challenging because I’m not really on the island for more than 2-3 weeks. I’m on the island and then I’m back in town and the cycle repeats so I’m never that isolated. When I’m in Mele Maat, I stay in town in a guest house. Actually, last time I was out I was able to stay with a friend who was renting a house just by Mele Maat which was incredible good fortune. It was a bit harder to do some of the spontaneous recordings that I do when I’m staying on the island. Also, in Mele Maat lots of people have 9-5 jobs which makes it harder to pin people down. I found that I had to spend twice as much time in Mele Maat or Port Vila compared to the island and I still had far fewer recordings there than I had on the island. It’s just that it’s harder to make progress. It took a bit more effort and planning to get stuff done there.
ED: Yeah, it’s not about the amount of time you spend in a certain place, and more about the connections you make with people.
ER: Yeah exactly. There’s also limitation on things like, I can’t travel at night. I would need to have a car to be able to do that confidently because the buses are a bit dangerous at night. So that’s a big restriction because I know that I need to leave at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I can’t spontaneously follow up on those connections so building those connections takes longer on Mele Maat than on the island as well.

ED: I think we’re going to wrap things up now. Is there anything you else you would like to share along the same theme of technology and communication?
ER: I think it’s been really interesting to see how those technologies have been embraced, or not, and be able to see it within two communities at the same time. One that has had internet access for quite a while now and where Facebook is hugely popular now, and another where that’s just starting. It’s been good to see how that works with people and how it shapes the way people use language in terms of the language they choose to do Facebook status updates in Bislama or English, but then maybe the comments will be in smaller languages. It’s really fascinating. Also seeing how those platforms can serve as opportunities to use and support more language groups has been very interesting.

ED: Have you seen any age-related patterns within social media platforms?
ER: Yeah, I know lots of older people who are using facebook and who really love it, but it’s particularly popular amongst younger people in the urban areas. You also see a lot of people talking about how it’s really popular among young people in urban areas. There are plenty of joke posts and memes about people staying up late.

ED: Ah, they’re creating memes as well?
ER: Yeah yeah, there are Vanuatu memes. I’ve even seen things about specific people. The other thing that is great which wasn’t a thing when I first started, is that I now get updates when I’m not in the field about how people are doing and what is happening. The only time that I’ve seen Vatlongos used is after people have died, so I get to hear about those things, which is upsetting but also helps me feel more part of the community. People will do pictures of people with kin terms on them in Vatlongos, and certainly Bislama is used everywhere.

ED: Yea, it’s good that you’re able to feel connected even at a distance, just like we are able to do this interview at a distance! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat about your fieldwork experience. It’s been a real treat.
ER: Anytime! It’s been great to talk about my experiences!

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Glossary:
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.

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.

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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.

 

Glossary:

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!

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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.

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