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Things you can do with outputs from language documentation projects: A 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.

Our first Melbourne LIP for the year at our regular venue got off to a rocky start when the function room was usurped by the local Touch Football team. Fortunately, we had such an excellent turn out – especially of local honours and PhD students – that we were able to make do in the general area by breaking up into smaller groups to discuss this month’s topic.

Most of the points discussed below are from either the discussion I participated in, and the general summary discussion we had at the end. This means ideas and discussion points may not be attributed to the correct people, but you’re welcome to add clarifying remarks in the comments below.
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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.

Technology and language documentation: 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.

This week at Linguistics in the Pub it was all about technology, and how it impacts on our practices. The announcement for the session briefly outlined some of the ways technology has shaped expectations for language documentation:

The continual developments in technology that we currently enjoy are inextricably connected to the development of our field. Most would agree that technology has changed language documentation for the better. But while nobody is advocating a return to paper and pen, most would concur that technology has changed the way we work in unexpected ways. The focus is usually on the materials we produce such as video, audio and annotation files as well as particular types of computer-aided analysis. In a recent ELAC post, ‘Hammers and nails‘ Peter Austin claims that metadata is not what it was, in the days of good old reel-to-reel tape recorders. The volume of comments suggests that this topic is ripe for discussion. This session of Linguistics in the Pub will give us a chance to reflect on how our practices change with advances in technology. 

There are a (very) few linguists who advocate that researchers should go to the field with nothing beyond a spiral-bound notebook and a pen, though no one at the table was quite willing to go that far; all of us, it seems, go to the field with a good quality audio recorder at the very least. Without the additional recordings (be they audio or video) the only output of the research becomes the final papers written by the linguist, which are in no way verifiable. The recording of verifiable data, and the slowly increasing practice of including audio recordings in the final research output are allowing us to further stake our claim as an empirical and verifiable field of scientific inquiry. Many of us shared stories of how listening back to a recording that we had made enriched the written records that we have, or allow us to focus on something that wasn’t the target of our inquiry at the time of the initial recording. The task of trying to do the level of analysis that is now expected for even the lowliest sketch grammar is almost impossible without the aid of recordings, let alone trying to capture the subtleties present in naturalistic narrative or conversation. Continue reading ‘Technology and language documentation: LIP discussion’ »

Best and worst practice in language documentation: LIP discussion

Ruth Singer recaps some of the interesting points of last night’s Linguistics in the Pub, an informal gathering of linguists and language activists that is held monthly in Melbourne

The announcement for this month’s Linguistics in the Pub outlined the topic as follows:

“There is much discussion of best practice in language documentation but as we all know, no language documentation project is perfect: each is the result of collaboration between researchers and a community with restrictions on time, money and many unforeseen circumstances. There is always a gap between what we achieve and the most wonderful project of our dreams.

Come and tell us about your experiences. What aspects of your language documentation work are you most proud of? What will you do differently next time? And what are some of the great things you have planned that you just couldn’t get off the ground?”

The idea behind this discussion topic is that language documentation projects tend to aim high and this can result in those leading language documentation projects feeling disappointed. Spurred on by hearing about innovative projects, egged on by others in the language documentation field to follow best practice in an increasingly multiplying number of areas we sit at our computer concocting new language documentation projects that will create years of recordings, miles of transcripts and beautiful metadata as well as lovely outputs that suit the needs of the language speaker community. In the process we will develop wondrous collaborations with language speakers supporting them to develop the capacity to carry out language documentation work themselves and also meaningful collaborations with other academics such as musicologists, anthropologists and ethnobiologists.

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Making old dictionaries new again

Today’s post is something of a recipe for making old dictionaries new again. I’ll explain how a 35 year old old, single-copy typewritten dictionary is living a new life as a digital database.

The language of this dictionary is Kagate – A Tibeto-Burman language of the Central Bodic branch, spoken in Nepal. I met some speakers of this language a number of years ago, as I’m working on a dialect of Yolmo, which is closely related. There was some documentation of Kagate in the mid-1970s although most of the material output was liturgical instead of linguistic.

As well as the two publications on Kagate mentioned on the Ethnologue site Monika Höhlig and Anna Maria Hari also created a typewritten Kagate-Nepali-English-German dictionary. A copy of this dictionary has remained with their primary consultant, and although it is well looked after and still useable it is also the only copy they have access to. It is also only in Latin script instead of the Devanagari script they have developed for their language.

On a previous visit the Kagate speakers were kind enough to allow me and my colleague Amos Teo to scan the pages of the dictionary. At this point we also made them another paper copy of the dictionary, but obviously this is an unsustainable process in the long term. As you can see, the dictionary is already becoming discoloured and faded:

Amos took the scans and used the optical character recognition (OCR) software that comes with Adobe Acrobat 9. Even with such faded font the OCR was effective at recognising the characters. As is to be expected with this kind of process though there was still a fair bit of cleaning up to do at this point. There were some alignment issues and some irregular characters. Also, some entries would copy strangely, with a row of 5-7 lexical items and then the corresponding definitions all in the lone below.

From here the data needed to be massaged so that the appropriate headers were present for Toolbox to read. With the data that we had we needed, at a minimum, to create these headers:

\lx – the Kagate word
\ps – part of speech
\de – an English definition
\dn – a Nepali definition
\xv – an example sentence

Using the find and replace function in an .RTF file Amos was able to create these using the formatting of the original document to his benefit. For example, all of the Nepali definitions start with Np: so we replaced “Np:” with “\gn.” Also all of the colons are at the start of the English definition, so Amos just selected “find : ” and “replace \de.” Of course Amos careful to do this in a set order – doing these two the other way around would have lead to more confusion. Of course, using Regular Expressions is a more efficient way of doing this task – but even if you don’t know how to use RegEx (yet) it won’t stop you from doing this kind of work.

Once the file was made ready to open in Toolbox it still required a little bit of cleaning up. There were a few instances where the letter ‘l’ had been read as the number  ‘1’ and some reduplicated entries – but going through each entry and cleaning up these kinds of problems is still much more efficient than retyping out the whole thing again.

The great thing about now having a database to work with instead of a photocopy is that it was the work of an hour to create this:

It’s still exactly the same data as above – but it is much easier to manipulate into different forms. For example I could have just created a list of nouns, or only included the Nepali definitions. This database is also the start of a project to create a new dictionary. While the owner of this dictionary is proud of it, there are many limitations. The first is that it is all written in Latin script, and there is now a fully functional Devanagari script for Kagate, as well of course for Nepali. There are also few example sentences, and some items are missing – such as the number eleven. But of course the most pressing issue with the current dictionary is that there is only one copy. By working in a database we’ll be able to make as many copies as we like at the end, and use the information in other ways too. But that’s all a story for another post.

Child language documentation: a 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.

This month we were joined by Barbara Kelly (The University of Melbourne), who has extensive experience in the fields of language documentation and child language acquisition for a discussion into the why and how of documenting child language. Barb started the discussion by mentioning that many people who work in language documentation have the perception that child language is not relevant to them – but child data is relevant to anyone. Although the general fieldwork model of only working with adult native speakers is the current general practise it is only one way to document a language and documenting child language can also provide useful data.

Child language acquisition data is important for a number of reasons, and the discussion only touched upon a few of the most pressing. One of the most pressing is that language doesn’t occur in a vacuum, to get a full understanding of how the language works and is used it is insufficient to just record adults talking with adults. In language communities adults spend a lot of time interacting with children and so how they talk, and are talked to by the children, are important. It’s also important to understand how the language is acquired. Granted, it’s not possible for a single researcher to work on ever angle, but to even collect data while on fieldwork gives someone else the opportunity to investigate potentially interesting acquisition patterns. We might have a good idea of how English language features develop, but for grammatical features outside of English such as evidential or highly polysynthetic languages there are still some very basic questions that need to be addressed. Also, in terms of language maintenance and revival working with children is paramount. By asking them to share their language with you there’s the potential to help them understand what is special or important about their language, and in reclamation projects the easiest way to figure out materials to teach a child is to listen to what a child sounded like. Finally, working with children can be fun and challenging. It’s an opportunity to throw out the last shred of control you thought you had over a fieldwork situation and just see where a session takes you.

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Linguistics in the popular media: a 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.

This month’s Linguistics in the Pub meet-up in Melbourne focused on a topic relevant not only to those involved in language documentation but to all linguists – How can we engage the general public in what we do. Although the discussion was ostensibly lead by Ruth Singer and myself, everyone was able to bring their experiences to the discussion and this summary includes the wisdom of all those who attended, and even someone who didn’t.

We started out by looking at communicating with the public using the blogosphere. Blogging has been a useful tool for academics looking to reach a broader audience due to the relatively small overhead compared to other forms of media and the general voraciousness of the internet-reading public. We started off by discussing the more general linguistics blogs out there. While those such as Language Log and Johnson have large readerships they do focus heavily on English, and largely on debates around English usage and pedantry. Fully (Sic) in Australia has a much broader and inclusive focus and should be used more by linguists who wish to share their work in a way that is inclusive, accessible but not ‘dumbed down.’

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Using video in language documentation: a LIP discussion

This is a recap of Linguistics in the Pub held at Prince Alfred Hotel, Carlton on Tuesday the 6th of September written by Lauren Gawne. From now on this will be a regular feature here at Endangered Languages and Cultures.

For the topic of video in language documentation we were lucky to be joined by Joe Blythe (Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen) and Jenny Green (ELDP funded Postdoc at The University of Melbourne), who have both worked extensively with video and both recently returned from fieldwork. Joe started off the session by talking us through some of his data. Joe has just returned from a field trip in Wadeye where he is continuing to collect conversational data. On this trip Joe tried working with some new speakers and some of his regular speakers but in different environments. He found it interesting that a shift in location for people he worked with regularly, for example into a house instead of out bush, would lead to very different behaviour towards the camera. He was very kind to show us not only some of his excellent (and often quite scenic) data but also some of these less successful attempts. Even less successful recordings are interesting in their own way.

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