Taking our show on the road

Last week David Nathan and I ran a Language Documentation Workshop at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies at the invitation of Toshihide (‘Toshi’) Nakayama, Associate Professor at ILCAA, the Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, and author of Nuuchahnulth (Nootka) Morphosyntax among other publications. The workshop was attended by 18 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers from various Japanese universities from Sapporo to Kyoto, most of whom had already done some fieldwork. The attendees were remarkable for several reasons:

  • they all showed an amazing level of commitment to language documentation and fieldwork. Roughly half of them had bought recording equipment (Edirol R-9 was a favourite) with their own money – hard to imagine UK students coughing up the equivalent of 30,000 yen for their own machine. They mostly paid for fieldwork costs themselves;
  • they were working on a wide array of languages, from Alutor (Siberia), to Amdo Tibetan (China) to Bunun (Taiwan) to Dom (Papua New Guinea) to Cherokee (USA), requiring knowledge of contact languages as varied as Russian, Chinese and French (as well as English);
  • many of them endure tough conditions getting to and from the field – one student, for example, works in Siberia and it can take her three weeks to get to her field site. The journey involves three plane trips, and local flights in Russia can only be booked a maximum of three days in advance and are frequently cancelled or rescheduled so for each leg of the journey days of waiting to buy a ticket can be involved;
  • they receive little support and training from their home institutions – almost none had taken a field methods course, and none had received training in research methods, tools or workflows (apart from workshops Toshi has been running recently on software tools like Toolbox). When asked how they selected their field sites, one student told us his professor had said genkisoo ni mieru kara papua nyuuginea ni itte kure “since you look healthy go to Papua New Guinea” – he went to the University of Papua New Guinea, befriended a student from the highlands and ended up working on his language!
  • they willingly shared samples of their data and analysis with us;
  • they were very interested to learn and fully participated in the course until 6pm each day. Exhausting for us but great for them!

Although we have run documentation training workshops in London on a number of occasions, this was the first time David and I attempted to present a ‘roadshow’ covering major issues in the theory and practice of language documentation. Thanks to Toshi’s preparatory work we had an array of equipment to use and all the students had the requisite software installed on their laptops. We brought some equipment from London, including specialist microphones, and amplifier boxes and cables that allow 16 people to listen to sound files together for purposes of evaluation and comparison. Thankfully everything worked perfectly for the four days (after we had worked out some unexpected Japanese keyboard mappings for Toolbox!).
Toshi surveyed the students at the end of the course and the following are the main points that came up in their comments on the various sections of the course:

  1. Defining documentation, the documentation process
    • it was easy to grasp the differences between linguistic description and documentation: the products of linguistic documentation are meant to be utilized by a much wider range of people than professional linguists
    • for many attendees this workshop gave them the first opportunity to learn about the importance and necessity for language documentation research
  2. Corpus creation — it was useful to learn:
    • various methods of data collection with concrete examples.
    • there are various ways to control the content and organization of data collection sessions
  3. Audio principles & audio practical — it was very useful to learn:
    • the importance of monitoring the recording
    • the importance of the choice of microphone
    • the importance of the choice of recording format (e.g., no mp3)
    • that recording quality can be improved by small changes, such as placement of microphones
    • to evaluate actual recordings made at the workshop.
  4. Transcriber
    The attendees were very impressed by how Transcriber can facilitate both listening and transcribing audio recordings. Many of them had never used the software, but would like to learn to use it more in their future research.

  5. Data management & formats, data practical, metadata
    • it was useful to see the actual process of constructing a data model for handling metadata.
    • it was useful to learn about the importance of making the data self-explanatory
    • some attendees wished to learn more about the practical application of XML in their research workflow
  6. Toolbox & Dictionaries (advanced Toolbox & Lexique Pro)
    • it was useful to learn that you can link not only texts and a lexicon but also various databases within Toolbox
  7. Grant writing
    • it was useful to get a reviewer’s viewpoint on grant applications
    • the discussion made the attendees realize the importance of making a realistic and concrete research plan and making the plan understandable to readers
  8. Mobilisation
    • it was useful and inspiring to see the actual (and very attractive) products.
    • the attendees were impressed by the point that speakers get frustrated if they don’t see concrete products from the research
  9. Archiving — it was useful to learn:
    • a backup is not an archive
    • the importance of collecting data with archiving in mind
    • that archive objects are something you have to create carefully rather than something that ‘happens’ simply by accumulating data

We are hoping to have a follow-up ‘advanced level’ workshop in Tokyo at some future date to extend the knowledge and skills developed over these four days. We are also interested in looking at running similar training workshops elsewhere, and collaborating with other trainers on offering similar ‘roadshows’ in the future.


PS This post marks 12 months since I started contributing to the Transient Languages blog at Jane’s invitation. In February 2007 I would never have imagined I’d be writing 30 posts in the coming year, or that I’d discover just how much fun (and how addictive) blogging can be.

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