Lessons from the field

Published on 06 December 2019 Go back to The ACU Review
Lessons from the field RESIZED v2

In the study and documentation of endangered languages, classrooms are often the communities in which a language is spoken and sung.

By Andrew Harvey, Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholar

When a language is facing endangerment – the imminent possibility of no longer being spoken – one of the very first priorities is to ensure that a record of it is made: for linguists to study it, for language revitalisationists to use in their efforts to rekindle it, and for descendants of the speakers to connect with their heritage. This work is called language documentation, and with over half the world’s languages currently under threat of extinction, documenting endangered languages is one of the great challenges of our time.

Since taking up a Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship in 2011, documenting endangered languages has been the most important part of my work: specifically, the languages of the Tanzanian Rift Valley area. It is often argued that it is here, in the dancing shadows of fire-lit caves and on the hunting plains of central Tanzania, that humans became humans – undergoing a first enlightenment of spirituality. Even today, after thousands of years of human migration and local dynamism, this isn't hard to believe: the area is animated by a modern, heady mix of cultures, languages, and ways of life. This, for almost a decade now, has been my classroom. It is where I have learned the art of piecing together historical epics from the tongues of bards, taking tea with rainmakers, and digging medicine from the earth of sacred dark forests – all relevant to documenting languages in this part of the world.

Every language documentation project will be different, guided by different goals, constraints, and realities. Because of this, I would like to simply offer seven lessons: things I have learned during my time in the field and find myself coming back to again and again. It is my hope that they will help the would-be documentarian as they attempt, in their own way, to address the threat of language endangerment.

1. Prepare

The first day you arrive in the field is never the first day of documentation: instead, it should be viewed as the end point of a period of detailed preparation.

Many endangered languages are undocumented, but this does not mean they are entirely unknown. Before beginning any sort of documentary work, read as much of what has already been written about the language and its speakers as possible. Word lists compiled by missionaries, ethnographic accounts, reports from past administrations: many of these can provide clues on what a language is like, and give a major head-start in understanding what is important – both grammatically and culturally – to include in your documentation.

If you haven’t already, visit the area where you will be conducting fieldwork. Don’t go as a linguist, but simply as a visitor. Go on a hike, visit a town, arrange a home-stay. Physically being in the place before you begin work will answer many of the questions you may have, especially practical concerns such as living arrangements and transport. You may even make a friend. The first Gorwaa speaker I ever worked with, I met during a visit to a cattle auction. We have been good companions ever since.

Finally, prepare yourself: why is this important to you? For each day you spend with people, learning about a culture, you will easily spend an equal or greater number of days staring into a computer screen on your own, struggling with culture shock or homesickness, or simply unable to understand the complexities of a new grammar or sound system.

If you are documenting an endangered language, many of which exist in the developing world or in marginalised communities of the developed world, these challenges are often compounded by attitudes that the culture or language is somehow inferior. Such attitudes may come from within the language community or, perhaps, from powerful individuals outside the community. The director of an international NGO operating in the area in which I work once made it very clear to me that she thought I was being self-indulgent by spending my time collecting stories and going on walks with healers in the forests, when I should really be building a school to teach local children English. On days like that, it was important that I could remind myself why I was doing this work: to honour the local culture and the local people, to create a repository for their descendants, and to safeguard the language and heritage for humanity at large.

Conducting an interview with consummate singer Bu’ú Saqwaré Lessons from the field | The author conducting an interview with consummate singer Bu’ú Saqwaré

2. Living is learning

Given the pressures of documenting and learning a language, taking part in the unfamiliar patterns of day-to-day life may seem an unnecessary distraction to your work. It is, however, the most direct way to build an understanding of, and empathy with, the people with whom you live. During my first years of fieldwork, a family generously offered me space in their mud-brick house as a bedroom and office. My bed and board were paid in physical labour: I herded cows, harvested beans, fetched water from the well. Conducting these chores not only helped me learn the language, but also to understand how people lived and why life was structured in the way it was. Hearing poets compare their lover to a newborn calf is no longer so mysterious when one spends so much time nurturing and protecting them.

3. Language and culture are intertwined

Documenting a language means documenting a culture. Collecting lists of words and sentences, no matter how extensive, will never convey how a child is supposed to speak to their grandfather or how one tells a joke. Part of this involves understanding how culture shapes language: in a culture where sharing is obligatory, such as that of the Hadzabe, it is not surprising that the equivalents of ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ do not exist. Another part involves capturing language in as broad a context as possible – I travel with both a voice recorder and video camera, animating the voices of storytellers with their gestures and facial expressions, or showing how speakers might sit or stand to express deference or respect.

In a culture where sharing is obligatory, such as that of the Hadzabe, it is not surprising that the equivalents of ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ do not exist.

4. No one person holds everything, and that everyone is a holder of something

Every speaker uses their language in a slightly different way. This becomes especially clear in endangered language contexts, where speaker communities are smaller and knowledge of the language becomes scattered among individuals. To arrive at a documentation that represents the language in all its breadth and depth is therefore to work with as many speakers as possible, and never to assume what they may or may not know. One Ihanzu-speaker I work with has seemingly endless talent (and patience) for collecting words. This same speaker, however, can sing virtually none of the traditional Ihanzu songs. To collect Ihanzu songs – some of which are mind-bogglingly complex and full of figurative language – requires a visit to a gentleman on the other side of town, who, conversely, detests collecting individual words. This extends to groups of individuals as well: words, stories, or particular ways of speaking may be used only by women, and certain activities (especially games and certain forms of wordplay) are undertaken only by children.

5. The community is central

Just as you are encouraged to take part in the daily life of the community, it is important that communities become your partners in language documentation. This is especially important in an endangered language context, where attitudes about the language may not be positive and young people are not as familiar with the language and culture as in the past. Share your material by holding screenings from your computer or from a big screen. Discuss patterns you’ve identified or things that have stood out to you in your work. If you have developed a writing system for the language, share it with its speakers, and show them how to use it. Much of the Gorwaa language documentation I now conduct is led by Gorwaa speakers themselves – four of whom have become local researchers in their own right, visiting their communities and exploring what they find interesting or special about their culture and language. The materials they collect are usually richer, more extensive, and vastly more meaningful than anything I could collect on my own.

Young Gorwaa speakers listen to traditional stories as read by their grandparents Lessons from the field | CAPTION: Young Gorwaa speakers listen to traditional stories as read by their grandparents

6. Archive your materials

If a language is endangered, the materials you collect may well be the first and last record ever to be made. It is therefore imperative to ensure that the sound recordings, videos, photos, and fieldnotes created during your work are deposited in a recognised archive, where they will be safely stored for the future and made available to communities of speakers. This is usually not as simple as mailing materials to the archive and letting them do all the work. Instead, you will typically be expected to organise, label, and deposit your material yourself – a considerable task, but essential if others (including descendants of the speakers) are to understand and use what you have collected in years to come. As such, for every month you intend to spend collecting data, plan at least one week dedicated to archiving afterwards.

7. And finally…

When it all comes down to it, remember that your role as a linguist comes second to your role as a human being. As much as successful field linguistics is about formulating the perfect elicitation questions, finding the ideal consultants, and keeping tabs on the plethora of research data (all while supplying enough electricity to keep the batteries charged), the whole enterprise is meaningless if we come away without having felt something. So – even if budgets are tight, timelines are compressed, and expectations are high – nothing is more important than building relationships of trust, friendship, and shared humanity.


Andrew Harvey is a Commonwealth Scholar from Canada. In 2011, a Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship enabled him to undertake an MA in linguistics at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Andrew is currently a research fellow at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics where he continues to research the languages of the Tanzanian Rift Valley.

Find out more about the Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarships