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February 2008

[ from our roadie, Peter K. Austin, Linguistics Department, SOAS
23rd February 2008

Last week David Nathan and I ran a Language Documentation Workshop at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies at the invitation of Toshihide (“Toshi”) Nakayama, Associate Professor at ILCAA, the Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, and author of Nuuchahnulth (Nootka) Morphosyntax among other publications. The workshop was attended by 18 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers from various Japanese universities from Sapporo to Kyoto, most of whom had already done some fieldwork. The attendees were remarkable for several reasons:

  • they all showed an amazing level of commitment to language documentation and fieldwork. Roughly half of them had bought recording equipment (Edirol R-9 was a favourite) with their own money – hard to imagine UK students coughing up the equivalent of 30,000 yen for their own machine. They mostly paid for fieldwork costs themselves;
  • they were working on a wide array of languages, from Alutor (Siberia), to Amdo Tibetan (China) to Bunun (Taiwan) to Dom (Papua New Guinea) to Cherokee (USA), requiring knowledge of contact languages as varied as Russian, Chinese and French (as well as English);
  • many of them endure tough conditions getting to and from the field – one student, for example, works in Siberia and it can take her three weeks to get to her field site. The journey involves three plane trips, and local flights in Russia can only be booked a maximum of three days in advance and are frequently cancelled or rescheduled so for each leg of the journey days of waiting to buy a ticket can be involved;
  • they receive little support and training from their home institutions – almost none had taken a field methods course, and none had received training in research methods, tools or workflows (apart from workshops Toshi has been running recently on software tools like Toolbox). When asked how they selected their field sites, one student told us his professor had said genkisoo ni mieru kara papua nyuuginea ni itte kure “Since you look healthy go to Papua New Guinea” – he went to the University of Papua New Guinea, befriended a student from the highlands and ended up working on his language!
  • they willingly shared samples of their data and analysis with us;
  • they were very interested to learn and fully participated in the course until 6pm each day. Exhausting for us but great for them!


A blog reader writes:

I am continuing at a painfully slow pace to try to organize old field notes on Language L. [..] I have recordings [from the 1960s]. Some are just word lists of no great significance now. However, others are stories of various kinds and I wonder about reproducing them at least in printed form. My question is about the need to obtain permission from the speaker. I know some speakers have died; some are still alive; others I have no idea about and making contact will be difficult. [But someone is hopefully willing to help]. I have read about the general question of rights but am not sure what is generally considered best practice.

So, at least for people I know are alive and I think I can contact and get a response from, is there a form you can recommend which I could use to obtain permission to reproduce in print the stories they recorded? Does your department have guidelines for this sort of thing?

The only people I am likely to be able to contact have sufficiently good English to know what they are signing. However, for some of the people I recorded a Language L version would be more appropriate, which then brings up the problem of creating such a document in L.

Few speakers currently have web access, although that could change quickly. For example, the number of mobile phones in villages was generally fairly limited until a few months ago. Now it seems that, due to a new phone company arriving in PNG, many people in the village of 3,000 plus people have them. And the phones are used a lot for intra-village communication. It would only take a drop in the current high price of internet access and the arrival of cheaper computers for a similar big change to occur.

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13 Feb


and hear it here.


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