Why researching languages in the family is complicated and how it can be the most entertaining thing – MLIP blog April 2017

MLIP blog April 2017

Alan Ray recaps the April Melbourne Linguistics in the Pub (MLIP) a monthly discussion group. This month’s MLIP was held in conjunction with Language practices and language policies in multilingual contexts workshop, University of Melbourne 6-7 April 2017

Leading the discussion was Judith Purkarthofer, Multiling: Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan, University of Oslo

She summarised the discussion in the announcement on the RNLD blog as below:
This discussion will start with experiences in researching family languages, policies and practices in a Northern European context. National languages, minority languages and languages of migration are considered a public question, but they are also very much a private question for families and family members.

Then Judith got the discussion started by posing four questions:

1 How should we do linguistic research with families where the age range can be from six months to teenagers as well as adults? How do we make sure that the participants feel comfortable with the researcher, manage talkative participants and silent ones?

2 How do we deal with the family as a unit, including respecting privacy?

3 How do we manage cultural expectations, especially the effect of the researcher on the family?

4 How do we define the researchers role; why are they there? eg. a child asking why a researcher comes in the evenings?

These questions raise a number of points which are listed here, in now particular order:
Families often self-select, especially educated ones as they are interested in seeing how a language community is reflected in their own family. Failing to seek out other class groups may skew results. Be wary of the ‘convenient sample’!

Understanding children’s language is critical for language maintenance. Thus one concern of parents can be what their children are learning and what is happening with their language.

One motivating factor for participation in research is payment, especially in Australian Indigenous language work where payment is mandated.

The researcher can be seen as an ‘expert’ on, for example, bilingual education where the parents may look for guidance from the researcher.

Ethical issues:
What if you find you really dislike one of the family members? And vice versa; what if they just don’t trust you?
– In some jurisdictions (eg Australia) it can be mandatory to report child / other abuse
– on the other hand, is slapping a child a cultural norm from the family’s cultural background, as it was in 60s Australia?

Aim for naturalistic settings; anything too formal or school-like can be a constraint.

Inevitably this type of research involves small samples, especially in remote language communities with few speakers which can skew results.

Anthropology provides techniques that can be useful when looking at socialisation and language acquisition.

Take a child with you; breaks the ice quickly. Obviously not always practical.

The definition of ‘family’ can be highly varied: e.g. traditional Indigenous communities vs ‘nuclear’ family vs intensive day care / kindergarten use.

The optimum number of participants varies depending on the objective; obtaining naturalistic conversation requires multiple participants but too many in the one recording can leads to confusion.

Beware the observer effect; the presence of the researcher will affect behaviours.

Be sure to observe what people do, not just accept what they say they do.

Social media can be a good recruiting tool.

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