Archive for the ‘Experience’ Category.

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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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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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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Transcribing and giving back

There is an interesting post on the That munanga linguist blog about what he calls “slow fieldwork” where community members in the Northern Territory do their own transcriptions of recordings. He relates this to part of the process of “giving back” that has been talked about here and here and here.

Trung-Yiddish translation

As I mentioned in a previous post, recently anthropologists have pointed to the need to highlight issues of concern, especially in the public media. I suggested that linguists are ahead of the game here, and doing fairly well at “express[ing] their views in public forums, including the popular press”.

The media sharing site YouTube is now being used by various language groups, and by researchers, to present materials in, and highlight issues about, endangered languages. Possibly one of the most unusual contributions is a video report produced by Ross (aka. Shmuel) Perlin, who completed the MA in Language Documentation and Description at SOAS in 2006 and is now a PhD student at Leiden University. Ross is doing fieldwork in Yunan province in south-west China on the Trung language, a Tibeto-Burman tongue spoken by a few thousand farmers and related to Rawang and Nu. Ross/Shmuel Perlin’s video describes and illustrates his research and is in Yiddish with English subtitles. One of the most charming sections is his Yiddish (and English) translation of a Trung ghost story.


Amurdak inyman alamuniyi wayunan – the Amurdak language is not dead – Robert Mailhammer

from Robert Mailhammer
14 June 2010
When I started working on Amurdak in 2007, I was told that the last speaker of that language had just passed away. I wasn’t discouraged by that at all, since I had spent virtually all of my previous linguistic life examining ‘real’ dead languages, some of which we don’t even have records of. However, it soon became apparent that it was very frustrating trying to make sense of Amurdak without being able to go to a speaker and ask them about who killed whom in a particular story or what the 2nd person non-singular future tense of a particular verb was, all of which slowed down the investigation of Amurdak considerably.
However, it was known that there was at least one partial speaker of Amurdak, who lived on Croker Island, and who was also an accomplished songman of an Amurdak song series, but I never got a chance to go and work with him.
Then in late 2009, there was some indication that there might be another (partial) speaker of Amurdak in Darwin and there was also some money to go and find out. With the kind and generous help from Bruce Birch, Nick Evans and Sabine Hoeng, supported by the DobeS Iwaidja Documentation Project, plans were made to travel up to Croker Island to firstly help Bruce with some Iwaidja transcriptions and secondly to find out about this ‘new’ speaker, and thirdly see whether I could work with Charlie Mangulda, the Amurdak songman.
When I arrived in Darwin in early May 2010, Bruce and I met up with that potential last speaker and it became quite clear that I wouldn’t get very far. On top of this we received news that Charlie Mangulda wouldn’t be available for consultation, which was particularly disappointing. But we had heard that a relative of one of Bruce’s consultants supposedly could translate the stories from the text collection Rob Handelsmann and I had published a few weeks earlier* and Sabine and Bruce had distributed among the Amurdak-affiliated community into Iwaidja when she listened to the CD. So the plan was at least to see about that.
With Bruce as an extremely generous and kind host and expert mentor I set out on my first fieldtrip…
After the first session with Rae Giribug, the above-mentioned relative, it became obvious that the story was true. Much like a professional interpreter she was translating a 20-year old recording from Amurdak into Iwaidja, one of the local languages. She could say back the words in Amurdak, translate words from Iwaidja into Amurdak and I was even able to ask about specific grammatical forms! So working nearly every day, we managed to transcribe and translate three narratives, which had been previously untouched, and we also filled in some blanks in existing transcriptions. On top of that I started trying out my theoretically and passively acquired Amurdak and by the final day of my stay we had little conversations in a language that I had only known from recordings from last century. We had started the resuscitation of Amurdak as a means of communication!

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One missing slash equals an object lesson in keeping backups

This semester, I have been helping out Jane with her wonderful Field Methods class in technical matters such as recording, uploading files onto the server and allowing students to securely and quickly download both .wav and .mp3 files. I took this course myself some years ago, and it was a great experience for me and the whole class, and many members of that class have continued on in their studies to do field research of their own, and I’m sure the Field Methods class was as much a help to their research as it was to mine.
But this post is not about when I took the class. Instead, it’s about how I almost buggered up this semester’s class in what can best be described as a lesson in keeping backups of your recordings.
(Warning: Some computer nerd stuff follows after the fold.)

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How long is a piece of string?

Last month I received the following email query from a colleague:

“I am currently submitting a grant application for a small grant at the HRELP to document …. One concern I have is how many hours it will realistically take to transcribe one hour of text. I have done fieldwork in the past, but this would be the first time that I will have trained a transcriber who would work (mostly) independently. (The linguists on the project would consult with them.) I would like to give some sort of concrete number of total hours transcribed and translated (in contrast to fully annotated).”

Since this is an issue I have been asked about several times, I present here an elaborated version of what I wrote back to my correspondent (here I am using ‘source language’ to refer to the language of the recording, and ‘target language’ to refer to the language of a translation of the recording. I restrict my remarks to transcription of spoken languages).
I wrote back:
The answer to your questions is kind of like the answer to the question: ‘How long is a piece of string?’
There are so many variables:

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Kioloa Papuanists’ Workshop

Now calling for papers and for registration of participants.
Following the successful recent Papuanists’ Workshops in Sydney, the ANU Papuanists will be hosting a weekend of Papuanist talks at the Kioloa coast campus (c. 3 hours from Canberra and 3.5 hours from Sydney) from 2 pm Friday 30th October to early afternoon Sunday 1st November, with a bushwalk up Pigeon House planned for the Saturday afternoon.
Anyone who has an interest in Papuan languages and linguistics is invited to come and present a paper or just listen to other people’s papers and join in the discussion.

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Do-it-themselves recording

Here’s an article [Thanks Nick!] on Steven Bird’s interesting attempt to increase data on an endangered language (Usarufa, Highlands New Guinea) by giving speakers voice recorders, and training them in documenting their language.