Teaching field linguistics techniques

Date: 22 May, 2009
Location: Room 4421, Fourth floor, Main Building, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
Event type: Workshop

Programme | Event report

students in class

Past event summary

This event will be of interested to anyone who is interested in the following topics:

  • why and how linguists do fieldwork – how fieldwork linguists collect data, and what they do with it
  • fieldwork in remote locations – examples from the Pacific and Africa
  • fieldwork "at home" – research with communities in the UK
  • ethical issues in doing linguistic fieldwork
  • "giving back" – reciprocity in linguistic fieldwork and how researchers can support communities and languages
  • incorporating field methods and fieldwork into the university linguistics curriculum
  • student experiences of fieldwork

There will be a display of fieldwork kit during the lunch break and staff and graduate students will be available to discuss it.

Learning outcomes

  • Understanding of the main principles and practices involved in linguistics fieldwork
  • Insights into the place of field work techniques in the university linguistics curriculum
  • Awareness of the student experience of field linguistics

Workshop fee

There is no charge to attend for employees and postgraduate students of publicly funded UK educational institutions. The fee for employees and postgraduate students of private institutions/organisations and non-UK institutions is £40.
Lunch will be provided. We reserve the right to charge a £50.00 non-attendance fee.

Travel bursary

A travel bursary is available for this event.

Programme for 22 May 2009
Time Session
10.00 - 10.30 Registration and coffee
10.30 - 11.00 Topic 1 – How and why
Prof Peter Austin, SOAS
11.00 - 11.30 Topic 2 – Remote location fieldwork
Dr Oliver Bond, SOAS
11.30 - 11.45 Tea / Coffee break
11.45 - 12.15 Topic 3 – At home fieldwork
Dr Devyani Sharma, QMU
12.15 - 12.45 Topic 4 – Ethical issues
Dr Yuni Kim, Manchester
12.45 - 14.00 Lunch and equipment
ELAR staff
14.00 - 14.30 Topic 5 – Fieldwork and communities
David Nathan, SOAS
14.30 - 15.00 Topic 6 – Curriculum issues
Dr Friederike Luepke, SOAS
15.00 - 15.30 Tea and coffee
15.30 - 16.15 Round table discussion and wrap up
MA, PhD students

The Powerpoint presentations and Handouts for the Fieldwork event are all now linked to the following page set up on:


Materials can be downloaded by clicking on the links.

Event report: Teaching field linguistics techniques

By Clement Kwamina Insaidoo Appah


Professor Peter Austin set the tone for the day. He outlined the following as what the event intended to cover.

  • Introduction to what we mean by “linguistic fieldwork”
  • Why, how and where do linguists do fieldwork?
  • Some examples: fieldwork in remote locations and fieldwork “at home”
  • Ethical issues
  • Communities and reciprocity
  • Fieldwork in the linguistics curriculum
  • Student experiences – SOAS MA and PhD students

Field Linguistics – Peter Austin

This lecture covered the definition of ‘linguistic fieldwork’ which following Bowers (2008) was said to be about collecting data in its natural environment. It involves the collection of accurate data in an ethical manner and producing a result which both the community and the linguist approve off. The lecture also traced the history of fieldwork from the 19th century when linguist anthropologists collected data on languages from the Americas, Asia and Australia-Pacific region. Later, in the 20th century, the UK came on board with fieldwork being an essential part of the research at SOAS. As he put it, ‘fieldwork all but died out between 1970’s and 2000 as Chomskian linguistics dominated’. The situation has changed since 2000 with more and more linguists becoming interested in fieldwork.

Now technology has made it possible for data to be captured in the way it is spoken right where it is spoken. Again, the involvement of native speakers makes the task of fieldwork a shared responsibility between the linguist and the community of speakers.

Prof. Austin’s lecture set the stage for subsequent lectures as it inadvertently introduced each of them.

Fieldwork in remote locations – Oliver Bond

Oliver Bond’s lecture underscored the fact that languages in need of Documentation are usually spoken in remote locations and so may involved long distance travel that will require elaborate preparation and planning. He listed some of the features of a remote location as:

  • Geographical distance
  • Lack of transportation
  • Inhospitable climate
  • Cultural extremes
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of resources

These required planning as well as the ability to adapt or act spontaneously or improvise. He noted that integrating into the society makes it easier to cope with the remote fieldwork conditions.

Fieldwork “at home” – Devyani Shama

Devyani Shama’s lecture showed that fieldwork need not be done at a remote location. Fieldwork can be done in a selected speech community that is close by (at home). She showed that the same set of questions engage the mind of the researcher doing the fieldwork at home as the person doing it in a remote location. Though the location may be well known to the linguist, nothing can be taken for granted and thus advance preparation is very crucial.

Ethical Issues – Yuni Kim

Yuni Kim’s lecture on ethical issues dealt with the stages and the ‘dos and don’ts’. It begins with passing ethical review, though some do not consider it necessary because they reckon they are not dealing with human subjects. Dr. Kim Agreed on the inappropriateness of the term “human subject” and noted that they are consultants. She outlined the following as some basic principles:

  • Don’t do anything against someone’s will
  • Don’t inconvenience people or do things that will make them regret working with you
  • Reciprocity
  • Do be sensitive to local culture and community dynamics, and your place in it
  • Be respectful and keep an open mind
  • Concrete ways of following these principles may be highly situation-specific

These called for obtaining the consent of the persons involved, whether written or oral, granting their wish where possible such as granting them anonymity when they ask for it and compensating them for the time and energy expended in working with you.

Reciprocity and Fieldwork – Mary Chambers and David Nathan

This lecture was a natural follow up to that of Dr. Kim’s. Knowing what the society wants and giving it back is an ethical issue. These two extracts from the lecture sum it all up:
What communities want:

  • outsiders to come back, to show interest
  • talismans – dictionaries
  • the sound of spoken language: accessible audio 
  • variety of cultural and learning resources, incl. useful, everyday expressions
  • payment, gifts, equipment
  • help with local services or problems

also what they don't want
    there is no formula

On giving and receiving

  • Cultures/communities may already have ways of relating to outsiders
  • What did you actually get? (What others see may be different; whose view?)
    • Priceless data, ultimate cultural tourism? Friendship? Life-changing perspective? Malaria?
  • What can you give?
    • let people know what you’ve got
    • find out what they need and can use
    • find out who to serve, e.g. maybe better help local education authority than have a vanity cultural experience
    • you can exclude doing things that you feel are adverse to your safety or morality, but you can’t exclude doing things that are outside your normal style or values, e.g. spend money
    • use your judgement, be circumspect about making marginal contributions, e.g. “new words” workshops

The other presentations basically had to do with the sharing of experiences from the field. This is particularly significant because the presenters spoke from their own experience and not from what other people had reported.

The event was very useful for two main reasons. One, on a personal level, it gave me the opportunity to learn about issues in field linguistics that I would otherwise not have been able to learn because my institution does not offer a course in field linguistics. Two, as a lecturer in linguistics (University of Ghana), I have been encouraged to get my students to go into language description and documentation.