Elicitation Methods

Jonathan Schlossberg recaps the April Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Topic: Elicitation Methods

In 2011, LIP ran a discussion on techniques and activities used in the field by linguists to elicit particular grammatical phenomena, compare cognition across languages or simply record naturalistic talk-in-interaction. What is new today? We would like to follow on the same idea and give the opportunity to present activities which were successful or unsuccessful in the field. Of particular interest would be activities using grammaticality judgments or aimed at analysing semantic functions, such as aspect.

A small but dedicated cohort representing linguists from Melbourne’s three linguistics departments showed up at April’s LIP to discuss elicitation methodologies, moderated by Giordana Santosuosso.

Santosuosso opened the discussion by presenting two elicitation methodologies she had trialled in the field, one which had yielded successful results, and the other which had been less successful. The latter, was a narrative elicitation games in which the participants rolled a series of dice with basic images on them, and put the pictures which they rolled in a sequence in order to improvise a narrative based on the images. The goal in this case was to elicit a TAM particle which was hypothesised to have a sequential function. However, some participants had difficulty coming up with stories based on the stimuli, and the ad-hoc nature of the tasks did not facilitate comparative analysis between participants. It was suggested that it might be better to use the same sequence of images for all participants.

The second, more successful task, was a story-board elicitation task in which a series of pictures depicting a story are shown to the participant. The participant is then told the story in English (or presumably, the relevant contact language) and asked to tell the whole story in their language. The target of this particular storyboard was to elicit whether there is a contrast between deontic possibility (permission), circumstantial possibility (ability), and deontic necessity (obligation). As this task provided a much richer prompt for the participants than the story cubes, it was easier for them to formulate a narrative in response. In addition, the homogeneity of the stimuli allowed for both intralinguistic and (potentially) interlinguistic comparison.

From this point, the discussion broadened to discuss the usefulness of elicitation tasks in general. It was pointed out that in addition to being useful for comparative purposes, the tasks produce a known context between speaker and linguist. It was pointed out that the storyboard task contained a significant Eurocentric bias. One participant pointed out that to maximise the participant’s knowledge of the context, it would be ideal to collect images at the field site and use these to create a storyboard individually tailored to the linguistic community one is operating in. While the consensus among the group was that in theory, this would be ideal, in practice it might be difficult and time consuming to do, as well as requiring a return trip to the field site, which is not always practical. Additionally, one participant pointed out that while that would create the most maximally useful data for language description, it removes one of the big advantages of the storyboard task as it stands, namely producing data ideal for cross-linguistic comparison.

An example of the latter scenario is the Frog Story, which has been used by linguists to elicit narratives which have subsequently been used for comparative research in language acquisition (Bamberg 1987) and motion event typology (Slobin 2004). Furthermore, it was pointed out that even an elicitation task tailored to the community may still not yield a narrative identical in structure to that of a spontaneous narrative in an informal setting. For example, Foley (2003) has shown that narratives elicited through use of the frog story were structurally different to spontaneous narratives.

One participant then described an elicitation task which he had recently developed to run at his field site, which had taken advantages of the cultural practices of the speakers to yield as maximally naturalistic data as possible. He showed that there does not always have to be a dichotomy between naturalistic data and elicited data. Another participant said that they did not like the term ‘naturalistic’ when used in reference to elicitation tasks, as the participants are still speaking natural language.

Finally, it was argued that it might not necessarily matter if there are aspects of the data which are not naturalistic, as long as the target of the research is. For example, it might not matter to the researcher if the frog story narratives are not representative of spontaneous narratives in narrative structure, if one is only interested in motion event typology.

We thank all attendees for their enthusiastic participation and valuable contributions, and look forward to the following LIP on May 19 on Literacy in the Field!


Bamberg, M. (1987). The acquisition of narratives: Learning to use language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Foley, William A. 2003. Genre, register and language documentation in literate and pre-literate communities. In Peter Austin (ed.), Language Documentation and Description 1, 85–98. London: Hans Rausing Endangered Language Project, School of Oriental and African Studies.

Slobin, D. (2004). The many ways to search for a frog: Linguistic typology and the expression of motion events. In S. Strömqvist & L. Verhoeven (Eds.), Relating Events in Narrative: Typological and Contextual Perspectives (Vol. 2, pp. 219–257). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

1 thought on “Elicitation Methods”

  1. Thanks for the summary. Interesting discussion! One aspect not really mentioned is the degree to which linguists can allow community members and speakers to control elicitation. I had fantastic experiences with this when documenting the endangered language Marra in NT. A few of the old people were keen to document the language and had worked with me and other linguists quite a bit so would be happy to take the lead during recording sessions. They would lead the discussion and encourage others to take turns telling stories and documenting oral histories. Some of the recordings include lovely narratives interspersed with questions and affirmations from others in the group. Of course, this is only a portion of the documentation I facilitated, as I did a bunch of other recordings that I led myself using various stimuli, similar to what you’ve discussed above.

    Advantages of encouraging community members to lead elicitation might include: documenting highly naturalistic language, including conversational language; documenting narratives and information that is of relevance and/or importance to the speech community; increasing community’s sense of ownership or control over research; and maybe even increasing the potential for creating recordings that are entertaining or memorable and quite nice to listen to again. (We certainly had a few laughs during recordings and subsequent transcription sessions). Disadvantages from this approach might be: not being to able to create comparable recordings with others or in other languages for comparison, and also that a lot of the recordings I made were in small groups with overlapping speech which may not be desirable for some research purposes.

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