Technologically-enhanced fieldwork

Last year I wrote about how mobile phones are being used to do “fieldwork at a distance”, checking data with consultants, or collecting text messages of writing in endangered languages.
A recent blog post by ESL educator Tom Leverett alerted me to yet another possible technological aid for linguistic data collection and checking, Skype. Many of us know Skype as a way to make cheap (or even free) voice and video phone calls, but Tom points out another use for the software (in association with audio and video software) — conducting and recording conversations. He reports on an experiment that he carried out with a colleague:

“Thom T., our lab director, who makes it his business to know these things, agreed to place a call, and sure enough, from my office to his, we not only had a call, but also recorded it; furthermore, he bundled up that tiny recording (he had recorded only a few minutes of it – still, he said, it was quite a large bundle) and sent that bundle to me over the text chat function that is right there on Skype … one can send songs, movies, documents, anything, as one would on an IM or another chat function. But, you can do it, and look the other person in the eye as you do it. Look ’em in the videocam eye, anyway”

So, I thought, what about interviewing consultants on Skype and using it to collect material to be added to a documentary corpus, check grammaticality judgements, socialise with the community, get feedback on materials, or indeed, just about anything that involves two-way communication? There are, however, limitations, as Tom points out. Two of these are bandwidth and interference:

“Speaking only of the limitations, the first is broadband; everyone has to have it. We in our building have T1 cable; my picture was smooth, everything went well. However, before I reached Thom T., I accidentally reached his mother-in-law in Maine … her picture was not smooth; every time she moved it took a while for the picture to catch up to her. And, finally, there was some interference … the interference noise was so great and so unpleasant that I had to eventually hang up on her”

A third is the size of the recorded data file, meaning that you need plenty of available disk space to save the recorded file, and some decent editing software:

“even the small two-minute bundle he sent me was quite huge; it took up a lot of space … What was important, he said, was to be able to crop, or cut out only a part of what you had recorded, … most of which you couldn’t even use”

I wonder if any readers have tried this out in their own work.
A second intriguing bit of technology that might, just might, have an application in documentation of endangered languages is Microsoft’s Project Natal addition to the Xbox 360 game player announced on 1st June (there is a video demonstration on YouTube). It uses a 3-D system of motion sensitive cameras to detect a player’s body movements that can then drive a character on the screen. Just imagine if data from such as system could be captured in a usable format and how this might contribute to research on gesture and the use of space by speakers. Probably pie in the sky though, as the aim of the system is to represent motion in a game, so it could be being done in a quite dumb non-representational way that doesn’t serve as a basis for an application to linguistic documentary research. Still, doesn’t hurt you to dream.

4 thoughts on “Technologically-enhanced fieldwork”

  1. A student of mine collected recordings of L2 learners via skype. She was working on a project about Spanish learners of English, and (I believe) Pamela function on skype was used to record the speech.

  2. If you don’t mind voice only, rather than video and voice then both the bandwidth requirements and the size of the recordings can be reduced dramatically. For just voice fast dial up or a 3G mobile connection are sufficient.
    Further, if you use a tool such as Audacity to record the voice then you can export the recording as an MP3 or similar compressed format for quite small file sizes.
    I’ve used Skype and Audacity for recording podcasts on many occasions. While this was on a Macintosh I believe similar free software is available for Windows to perform the same functions.
    // Tony

  3. Via Facebook I have heard from three colleagues that they have used Skype to collect and check language data — if I can get more information I will post it as a comment.

  4. My main consultant in Cairo speaks a slightly different dialect from my main consultants in Sudan so we use Skype to check data whenever there’s a question as to whether a certain word or pronunciation is accepted in the other dialect. I also use Skype to check grammaticality judgements or to get less common lexical items. It’s great to be able to have my consultant in Cairo present while I talk to the consultants in Sudan so that we can all come to an agreement together. Since word got out in the speaking community that I am available on Skype I’ve been contacted by speakers from all over the world! Aside from the obvious community networking benefits it’s especially interesting when they write to me on Skype to see their natural instincts on how to write their language. I haven’t tried recording Skype elicitations since the call quality is not up to our usual recording standards 😉 It’s a good idea though for collecting natural speech data… something to consider in the future.

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