Guiding language consultants’ individual projects: Negotiating organizational issues in the field – a MLIP recap

Rosey Billington recaps the March Linguistics in the Pub (LIP), a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

In Melbourne, the first Linguistics in the Pub (LIP) of 2016 was held on the 23rd March at University Hotel. Our topic was “Guiding language consultants’ individual projects: Negotiating organizational issues in the field”, and the discussion was led by Elena Mihas (James Cook University/U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Linguists involved in language documentation work closely with users of a language to collect data during fieldwork, but there are additional possibilities for engaging in productive work with language consultants, both while the researcher is there, and in between visits. Building on previous LIP discussions of supporting community researchers and models of community engagement, we considered some of the ways scaled-up language documentation work might be implemented, with mutual benefit. Some background information, and links to suggested readings, can be found with the event details.

Elena spoke from her experience working with speakers of three Arawak languages in the foothills of the Andes in Peru, a region she has been visiting since 2008 to engage in language documentation projects. After an introduction to the context and scope of her research, we started with a difficult question: “What is a completed language documentation project?” We wondered what criteria might determine that a language has been sufficiently captured for a documentation project to be considered ‘finished’, or how the success of a project might be measured. This is a question that has been raised before at LIP discussions, and again a satisfactory answer eluded us.

We turned to a discussion of viable projects, with community engagement in mind. While linguists might be interested in grammar-writing, this activity in itself is unlikely to be as interesting to community members, and the end product may not be something they have a use for. However, a grammatical description is dependent on a range of data types, and linguists can find out what sorts of materials a community might have a need for, and incorporate these into work on the language. Materials with pedagogical applications might be of particular interest, for example in contexts with an established bilingual school. As is often the case, resources in the traditional language of the community are likely to be limited. Things like thematic dictionaries, texts collected with elders, bilingual storybooks, recordings of children’s songs, and labelled maps of the local area might be useful things that community members want to contribute to. Preferred projects will of course depend on the local context, and the views of collaborators.

Ideal collaborators will be very motivated, perhaps because the projects align well with their goals – for example, in the case of local teachers. Different people will have different skills and interests, and specific tasks can be allocated accordingly. Tasks might include recording and transcribing texts, drawing illustrations, drawing maps, and taking photos. It was noted that older people may be more interested in some of these things, particularly in situations where the language is not being used much by younger people. However, tasks such as taking photos or assisting with equipment, which are not dependent on language knowledge, are good ways to involve a wider range of community members. Some attendees found that women were less able to be involved in language work due to childcare commitments, but others noted that in the communities they visit, this is easy to work around, and might also work well with their particular research interests, for example child language development.

Involving many people is also part of establishing a system of checks and balances. It was suggested that work such as editing transcripts, or checking examples that might be used in a publication, should involve a team of editors, rather than just individuals. Having multiple eyes in the work is one way to alleviate tensions, and to also ensure the quality and accuracy of the final product. Regular consultations with groups of language consultants, and relevant local authorities, are also important, to report on progress and make plans. Setbacks due to things like ideological conflicts among language consultants are always a possibility, but regular communication can at least ensure that matters are openly discussed, and everyone involved gets to have their say. It is very important for the researcher to maintain good relationships with the community, and this means also being in contact in between visits. In many cases this may be by email, or phone, though some attendees pointed out that limited connectivity in some areas means this is not always possible.

It was agreed that adequate recognition of consultants’ contributions is crucial for maintaining good working relationships. For example, remuneration for their time should be at a rate which is both locally appropriate, but also takes into account the value of their efforts. Local reference points may be available, for example teachers’ salaries. We discussed ways of negotiating financial matters, which can be difficult. It was suggested that there should be precise discussion of the components of a task, and the proposed payment rate, with flexibility to adjust these depending on the consultants’ views. However, it was also noted that in some contexts, it is not culturally appropriate to explicitly discuss these things, and also that other options for remuneration and support could be considered, for example payments in-kind, or exchanges of skills.

There was a general feeling that while consultation, negotiation, and management of many tasks, with many people,  is important for ensuring positive ongoing relationships, it can be emotionally draining at times. But, the advantage is that you will leave a good record of the language – it will be much better-informed, and the community will be more engaged in the outcomes. Returning to our opening question, it was suggested that maybe this is something that can be measured – that the strength of a project could be measured by the strength of the relationships established as part of it. If community members feel positive about the possibility of future work, and would happily participate in a language documentation project again, this is one indicator that a project has gone well.

We concluded by discussing the differences language documentation work might make to a community, and in particular what sorts of goals might be realistic, especially in situations where the language is spoken by very few people. Outcomes focused on achieving widespread use of the language, or a shift in language ideologies, will be obviously challenging and complex. However, in addition to the production of language materials in the course of the project, linguists can contribute in other useful ways, such as increasing visibility of the language, and engaging in advocacy.

These two books may also be of interest – they are by A. Laycock with D. Walker, N. Harrison & J. Brands, and freely available to download as pdf from the Lowitja Institute:

Supporting Indigenous Researchers: A practical guide for supervisors (2009)

Researching Indigenous Health: A practical guide for researchers (2011)


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