Urban fieldwork: LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last night’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

The topic for the final Linguistics In the Pub in Melbourne for 2012 was ‘urban fieldwork’, lead by Rosey Billington. Rosey is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne working on the phonetics of Lopit, a previously undescribed language of South Sudan. Rosey is doing her fieldwork with Lopit speakers who migrated to Melbourne as refugees.

The definition of urban fieldwork was something that emerged from the discussion throughout the evening. The general consensus was that urban fieldwork in general occurs when a linguist works with speakers of a minority language in an urban centre away from the traditional homelands or villages in which the language is spoken. There are some variations on this. Some languages may become the minority language of an urban centre that is the traditional place that language is spoken, and therefore the speakers are not a migrant community. There was also a distinction made between situations where the diaspora live in the urban setting (some times for many generations) and other situations where speakers come in from their villages to work with linguists for a period of time. There is also a difference between urban fieldwork which is in the home country, or a neighbouring country, of the speakers, and those situations where the speakers of a language have migrated to an urban location in the country of residence of the linguist. There are some fringe examples as well, such as a linguist in their own city consulting with a speaker via phone or email. While all of these situations share the geographic feature of existing in an urban environment, there are unique challenges and rewards in each of these different situations.

There were many positive aspects of urban fieldwork that we discussed. There is the possibility to work on languages that may be otherwise inaccessible to most linguists due to political instability or remoteness. It also means that the type of linguistic work can be broadened beyond that which we can take equipment for, such as high quality recordings in studios for phonetic analysis. This type of work can possibly lead to future fieldwork in home towns or villages of the language. It also means that language documentation work can be done by people who may not wish to travel outside of urban centres for reasons of health, family or personal dispreference. In this way, it helps to break down the traditional model of ‘linguist as rugged adventurer.’ Urban field settings also mean that a linguist has access to things that they may not have access to in places that the language is traditionally spoken. This could be anything from electricity, to personal autonomy or the ability to consult with other linguists. There is also the opportunity to come in contact with many languages at once. This is useful when doing survey style work, or if complementing existing fieldwork on a single language with a brief look at neighbouring languages. After all, if a language is un(der)described then it’s likely that neighbouring or related languages are similarly lacking in description.

Urban fieldwork is an opportunistic activity, as one is making the most of the convenience of having speakers of minority languages nearby, who may otherwise not have had a chance to share their knowledge. Luise Hercus often made the most of this opportunism by visiting speakers of indigenous south-eastern Australian languages in prison. There is also the successful Saturday school model at the University of Hawaii where keen students improve their linguistic skills working with volunteer speakers of minority languages in a city that is vibrantly multicultural. There are existing networks for minority languages in many cities, through community organisations (libraries were also suggested as a good go-to), but there is also the opportunity to help set up language networks for migrants keen to maintain their traditional language. Migrants who move to urban centres tend to be more literate, and can often be more interested in maintaining their language in the face of more dominant ones (although this should not be presumed to be the case). There is the potential to help the more enthusiastic participants to get linguistic training. These speakers may also be more likely to interact with social media, and projects like Language Landscape that beautifully capture the spread of linguistic diversity and the fact that languages aren’t constrained to the geographic boundaries we often talk about.

Like with any type of documentation work, there are also many challenges with an urban fieldwork project. Many of the challenges are shared by all language documentation projects, but some are unique to urban fieldwork situations. It should be noted though that no one at the LIP discussion thought that any of these were deal-breakers when it came to doing this kind of work.

People who live in urban centres tend to lead urban lives, and this counts for linguists as much as the people they work with. There is the pressure of regular work, and other commitments that people in villages or towns may more flexible about. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t enthusiastic about the work, but it can be harder to pin them down.

It may be also difficult to get University fieldwork funding for this kind of documentation as it is not occuring in an ‘exotic’ location (and can often be happening at the university itself). This, coupled with the fact that if an urban centre is in the linguist’s own country the cost of fairly paying people for their time can be a lot more expensive than if working in the speaker’s home country, means that the expenses for this kind of fieldwork can be a strain. Also, when working in a country like Australia, the university may be reluctant about paying participants in cash, which can lead to more administrative work for the linguist, and undue stress for the speakers, for whom officially recognised payments may interfere with their wages or pensions.

There is also a problem of time with urban fieldwork, in that there in an abundance of it. Because the linguist is not bounded by the need to return home if they are already working in their own city, then plans can be constantly put off. There is no novelty of being the returned visitor to motivate people to work with you.

One topic that we kept returning to throughout the night is that speakers in urban centres are often a diaspora community, and there has traditionally been an idea that speakers in the diaspora do not truly represent the linguistic situation in the homelands. It is true that working with urban groups may limit access to knowledge about traditional practices, festivals and some genres of speech.

When the speakers are diffused within an urban environment it can be harder to define the community you are working with. A great deal of care needs to be taken in doing socio-linguistic background interviews to ensure that all speakers are from the same area, and the same dialect. With a diaspora you may also find you have a limited number of speakers of the target dialect, and these will always be a non-representative demographic – usually younger and more literate. They may also be more multilingual, or have influences that don’t exist in the traditional areas, such as English, Arabic, a new religion or tertiary education. Nick Thieberger framed this within the debate around ‘authenticity’ in language documentation. We need tor realise that language documentation occurs in an increasingly globally mobile environment, and that this type of fieldwork is as valuable as any other. The ability to audio-record sessions can negate the idea that this type of work is less authentic, as it is then possible to compare the data from the urban diaspora with that from the original homelands at a later time. We talked about the need to acknowledge the community that you’re working with, but that always labeling your work as “Melbourne Lopit” etc. devalues the kind of work done on urban fieldwork projects.

In multicultural and linguistically rich cities like Melbourne there is potential for some great work to be done. It seems that many linguists are keen, and the speakers are keen, and so now we need to help universities and funding bodies also see the value of this work.

This was the last LIP in Melbourne for 2012. In December we will be bringing LIP to ALS as Linguistics by the river, returning to the topic of language variation and documentation. LIP will be back in Melbourne early in 2013, topic suggestions are welcome.


  1. Peter Austin says:

    Thanks for a great report, Lauren.

    There is another context in which this kind of work can get carried out which you don’t mention, and that is where members of an urban community approach linguists to help them document and support their languages. This is how Gerrit Dimmendaal’s Tima project in Khartoum got started (expanded with a DoBeS grant later) and how we started the Sylheti Documentation Project at SOAS this year. This project involves students enrolled in the MA in Language Documentation and Description and is a response to a call in early 2012 from Dr Mukid Chowdury of the Surma Community Centre (the Bengali Workers’ Association) in Camden, London, to document the Sylheti language (a minority language of Bangladesh) as it is spoken by the users of the Centre, particularly the language of the elderly people which is only partially learnt by the younger generations. This will be an opportunity for the students to gain first-hand experience in all aspects of language documentation and description, from project design to using technology, as well as being actively involved with the community. The project is led by teaching fellows Michael Franjieh (Fieldmethods), Candide Simard and Simone Mauri (Applied Language Documentation and Description), Stephen Leonard and Karolina Grzech (Language Support and Revitalization). It is also supported by ELAR staff members Tom Castle and Kakia Chatsiou. We are concentrating on Sylheti in the MA Fieldmethods course this year and the project team is also going to the community centre to work on applied documentation aspects.

    Mention should also be made of the more established and truly impressive Multilingual Manchester project that, according to their website “includes online documentation of language use in Manchester communities, studies of language policy, exhibitions and social networking surrounding the theme of languages, and surveys of language needs … bring[ing] together university students, experienced researchers of international repute, community representatives, and members of local services. We are interested in contacts, offer for collaboration, and requests for information, from school, local authorities and local services, businesses, media, related research projects, and students wishing to carry out research on one of Manchester’s many community languages, or on language policy and community multilingualism.”

  2. Lauren Gawne says:

    They’re excellent examples, thanks for sharing them.

    The interesting thing about talking about urban fieldwork on the night is that many of us engage in urban fieldwork at some point in our work, we just don’t always reflect on it as being a specific type of work with its own benefits and difficulties. It’s been great to talk about the similarities and differences in these kinds of projects because, as you showed, there is definitely scope for some really interesting projects.

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