‼ A paper on 'A History of Language Documentation' in my area: what would you like to see? ‼

Hi everyone!
A bit more than a year ago, I agreed to write an article outlining the history of language documentation in the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area, with the goal of the publication not only being a useful account of what has happened (who was where when, etc.), but also as a reflection on documentary practices of the past and present, as well as a look at what language documentation can become in the future.
The main way I’ve been going about this project is holding interviews, not only with linguists, but also with members of local speaker communities who were involved in documentary projects. The collection has thus far been a really nice exercise in looking into my own academic heritage in Tanzania’s Rift Valley Area, but with the goal of this being more broadly relevant to language documentarians / linguists who do not work in the Area / Tanzania / Africa, I’d really like to know what would make this kind of article interesting or worth reading to you.
I’d really like this thread to be a place where community members could leave their suggestions for this prospective article. I can then take this feedback on board and build your suggestions into my ongoing research. Here are some starting questions (though feel free to disregard these - respond in whatever way you’d like!):
:large_orange_diamond: What would you like to see in an article like this? What would make it relevant to you?
:large_orange_diamond: What should I avoid in order to stay relevant to non-Africa-based language documentarians in general?
:large_orange_diamond: What would you be interested in learning about this documentary context in particular that could help further our work in the subfield of linguistics?
:large_orange_diamond: What questions should I be asking the linguists that I interview?
:large_orange_diamond: What questions should I be asking the local speakers that I interview?
:large_orange_diamond: Are there any similar articles or helpful readings that I should take on board as I do this?
In the end YOU are all my prime audience here - knowing what you want will help me make this maximally useful to you!

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Hi Andrew, this sounds fantastic! I’ve wanted to write something similar (but rather than for an area for a language family) for a long time… I think the interviews are really great – have you transcribed them? I’ve had a lot of informal conversations but never did official interviews. One project that one may draw inspiration from (although in a completely different area) is Sali Tagliamonte’s Making Waves book.

Full reference:
Tagliamonte, Sali A. 2016. Making Waves: The Story of Variationist Sociolinguistics . Malden/Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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This sounds like an interesting topic, thanks for sharing.

:large_orange_diamond: What should I avoid in order to stay relevant to non-Africa-based language documentarians in general?

The tricky thing of course as you know is that every fieldwork context is unique, and varied interests and goals are in play. I know in the contexts that I have dipped my toes in (nowhere near to the depths that you have gone!), I have always felt like I’m just pulling up the corner of a rug of a very complicated story. It can be very difficult to gain necessary perspective when you’re trying to learn how to be respectful, informed, and productive all at once. There are always legacies of personal relationship — both positive and negative — in the room as documentation is happening.

So it’s of interest, I think, to learn about where documentation in your area succeeded, both in terms of research and community needs. Even context-specific accounts of this kind will be of general interest, I think, because being a respectful as well as productive researcher is a skill that is exercised in the doing. Hearing some details of how others have succeeded in this regard would help to both motivate and inform future work.

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Thanks for pointing this out, @JROSESLA. I was looking at the website of the book and was interested to find an audio archive of clips from the book’s interviews. Neat!

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@pathall she did a great job with that book! The “family trees” at the end of the book are particularly informative in my view.

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Ah! Thanks for recommending Tagliamonte’s book - from what I can see of the Google books preview, it’s really interesting! The narrative format is intriguing - for your planned paper, were you thinking of adopting a chronological narrative format like this?
I don’t (currently) have access to the “family trees”, but I agree that identifying these things is important.
Re: interviews, I haven’t transcribed any yet (I’ve conducted around 5 now, in both Swahili and english), but I do plan to make them openly accessible (maybe archived on Zenodo?) as an appendix to the work.

Thanks Pat - so I’m hearing from this that one of the reasons you would choose to read an article like this would be to identify cases of ‘successful’ documentary efforts (both in terms of academic output as well as of responding to the language community).

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Yes, I think I would follow a chronological narrative and show the development of studies with these languages/people over time, bringing things together at the end. I did this in a way in my dissertation based on having read the work itself but I think the same could be done based on interviews with the people in question. One important caveat is that in some instances, those people have passed away so there’d be gaps…

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I mean, anything about a project like yours is going to interest me to be honest. :rofl:

But yeah, especially the opportunity to hear from community members about which outcomes they thought were good ones, and what characterized good working relationships between them and researchers would be of particular interest.

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Hi all,
I thought I’d add to this thread with some of the basic questions I’ve been using in my interviews. These are quite basic, and I generally adapt these questions, both for interviewing professional linguists, as well as for interviewing local consultants who were involved in the work.
I’d be interested in hearing what you think of these “starter questions”, how they could be improved, or any elements you’d like emphasized or explored further. Contributions of further questions would also be welcome!
A. Eliciting a narrative :books::

  1. Tell us a bit about where you are doing your fieldwork
  2. When did you start? How long was the project?
  3. What is a typical “day in the field” like for you?
    B. On Methods :pencil2::
  4. How did you go about collecting your data?
  5. Who taught you how to do this? How did you learn?
  6. Did you end up doing anything differently from how you were taught? Why?
    C. On Materials :star::
  7. What did you end up recording?
  8. What “came out of” the project? (Grammar? Dictionary? Community materials?)
  9. How have these materials been received or used?
    D. On Motivations :arrow_forward::
  10. How did you start doing this work?
  11. Why was it important to you?
  12. X did work similar to this during the colonial period - how do you see yourself in relation to this tradition? Do you see similarities in any way? Do you see differences?
    E. On the Future :ringer_planet::
  13. If you could give someone advice on doing this work, what would you say?
  14. How would you build on the work you’ve done?
  15. What do you see this kind of work looking like in the future?
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