Fieldwork in multilingual communities: A LIPIL discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub in London (LIPIL), a monthly informal gathering of linguists to discuss topical areas in our field.

Our first LIPIL was well attended, with participants from the African Multilingualism conference and ELDP training joining London locals. In keeping with the theme of the conference, we discussed language documentation in multilingual contexts. The conversation involved a number of researchers who focus on documenting language use in multilingual communities. Members of the Crossroads project at SOAS and Pierpaolo Di Carlo from SUNY Buffalo shared their experiences in an African context, and Ruth Singer from Melbourne University shared her experience in Australia.

Many of those present at LIPIL who now work with multilingualism started out documenting a particular variety of a language of the area, often the ‘ancestral code’. The move to thinking about multiple languages often came about in an attempt to better capture the daily communicative realities of individuals. This is a major research transition if the attempt is to be done well.

Discussions of documentation of multilingualism often mention ‘interdisciplinary’ research (see the African Multilingualism conference description, and the recommended reading for this LIPIL). Researchers present suggested that perhaps ‘intradisciplinary’ is probably a better description, as they now work more closely with sociolinguists and psycholinguists. Anthropology, musicology and educational linguistics are disciplines that also have much to contribute to the projects discussed. With such a wide range of skills needed to successfully approach this type of research, it is perhaps unsurprising that multilingual documentation projects often end up being collaborative and group projects.

This kind of research involves formalising research practices that field linguists may already do. Instead of thinking of time spent with the community as ‘just’ hanging out, this is important time for making ethnographic observation (and indeed, there is a large body of anthropological, educational and linguistic research that formalises this practice). This type of observation is important in multilingual communities to better understand which languages community members use in particular contexts or with particular people, reducing the likelihood your recorded data will skew abnormally compared to usual contexts.

Understanding local language ideologies is another feature of fieldwork that needs to be made more prominent in the multilingual context. This kind of information cannot always be accessed by survey or interview, and requires spending time with communities. Community attitudes may not be in favour of a multilingual focus, where one language or variety may have more community prestige than another, or common code-switching may not be seen as a worthy target of documentation. Understanding community attitudes, and the variety within them, is an important part of teasing out how language is used.

Many of the LIPIL participants are working on projects that target a single variety, even in a multilingual context. This kind of work is still necessary before understanding how these different languages are used in the community, and allows researchers to build relationships in an area. There are things that can be done to ensure this work is not harmfully reductionist. The first is to keep an open mind about the language-scape when arriving in a community (we only briefly touched on the fact that research tradition and funding bodies often still focus on the prestige of a single ancestral code). The second is to build a collection of ethnographic notes on language use and ideology in the area. The third is to not completely exclude multilingual data from the collection process, even though it may not be central to the transcription and analysis workflow.

The study of multilingual communities is putting the aim of documenting language use into practice. It requires a range of research methods and the skills of multiple people, but ultimately gives a more realistic understanding of communities and their languages.

The success of the first LIPIL means this will become an ongoing series. LIPIL will be held Monday evenings, approximately once a month. Announcements will be made on the RNLD mailing list and LIPIL Facebook page. If you have a topic for discussion, or would like to write future LIPIL summaries, contact Lauren.  

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