I have been thinking a bit about fieldwork methodologies (see my post on CDFM and the places where we can do fieldwork, such as London). It turns out I am not alone in this. In a recent discussion with David Nathan, Geoff Haig made the following points (thanks Geoff for allowing me to quote from your email exchange):
The dominant paradigm for field-work / documentation still seems to be based on something like an “exotic village”-setting, where the fieldworker comes from outside into a very different culture, adapts, observes as much as possible “in situ” what is going on, and then leaves. But there is a vast potential for documentation among diaspora communities, that is, communities who have more or less permanently left (or been forced to leave) their traditional settlements for (mostly) urban environments in the west; such communities may well attempt to preserve their language/culture in the new environment. This kind of context actually demands a rather different approach from the investigator, because the respective roles of the investigator and the community are quite different – but it also opens up a host of quite interesting perspectives on how documentation can be done. One can of course bemoan the lack of “pristine authenticity” of such contexts, but with migration on a global scale increasing steadily, it seems to me that much language/cultural documentation in the future is simply going to have to take such mixed contexts seriously, and develop its methodology accordingly.
Some commentators are dead opposed to this view. Perhaps the most vocal is Sasha Aikhenvald.
In the introduction (.doc file) to a recent STUF volume, she distinguishes between ‘immersion fieldwork’ (good) and ‘interview fieldwork’ (bad). Immersion fieldwork:
involves observing the language as it is used, becoming a member of a community, and often being adopted into the kinship system. One records texts, working one’s way through them, and at the same time learns to speak the language and observes how it is used by native speakers – ideally – of all age, and social, groups.
Interview fieldwork, by contrast, is working with rememberers (partial speakers) of moribund languages where participant observation is not possible and thus is only capable of generating partial language descriptions.
A stark contrast, but is the world of language documentation quite so black-and-white or cut-and-dried? Can’t we imagine other models, or even combinations of them? I think that a rather more subtle approach to theorising linguistic research and fieldwork methodologies is called for, as Geoff also said.
Aikhenvald claims that CDFM is the only way to do ‘immersion fieldwork’, and paints a crippled alternative:
some researchers opt to concentrate on interview fieldwork with a few speakers conveniently placed in a city or in a township. A grammar of a language spoken by a few million people which is based on the work with one consultant in an urban environment could be interesting, but is unlikely to be comprehensive and fully reliable … Working with immigrant communities – if a language is well spoken in a home country – is also hardly advisable: many grammatical features are extremely prone to contact induced change and are likely to shift under the impact of introducing new – and losing old – cultural practices. Opting to study Burmese, Hmong, or Serbian – each spoken in their home countries – within the comfort zone of Greater Melbourne, London or Los Angeles may be good for understanding the subtle influence of the Anglophone environment on a smaller language. But it is bound to give a skewed picture of the language’s structure.
Umm, hang on. Isn’t this a bit of a straw man argument? There are clearly other options that linguists can and do adopt in working on languages in a migration setting, like working with multiple speakers, participating in educational or cultural activities carried out in the language in the diaspora (London has dozens of these events going on throughout the year), or drawing upon local community connections with the home country speaker communities. It also seriously underestimates the strength of language maintenance among some immigrant communities. As for language contact, that even happens in places like the Amazon, so we need to be aware of it and take it into account wherever we do fieldwork and documentation, even for CDFM.
So yes, you can catch the subway (or tube) to the field and find yourself immersed in a minority language context where rich linguistic work can be undertaken. Let’s recognise and validate this in our discussions of language documentation methodologies.