Tsikewa (2021) - Reimagining the current praxis of field linguistics training: Decolonial considerations

Hi all - Trying out an online asynchronous approach to discussion of a recent paper relevant to language documentation:

Tsikewa (2021) - Reimagining the current praxis of field linguistics training: Decolonial considerations
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/840964 [Let me know if you need a PDF copy]

We’ll be encouraging people to contribute to a discussion of this paper January 10-14 but feel free to join at any time.

To join in, just reply to this message, or reply to other replies! :speech_balloon:

Of particular interest is reflecting on the suggestions in Section 6 of Tsikewa’s paper:

What does it look like for field linguistics training to recognize linguistics as a discipline rooted in colonization? (Section 6.1)

How do we incorporate discussion of language research frameworks in field linguistics training? (Section 6.2)

How do we recognize and valorize indigenous epistemologies in field linguistics training? (Section 6.3)

Or let us know what other thoughts this paper inspires!


Hi all - This is the week we’d like to focus on discussing the state of field linguistics pedagogy in lights of Adrienne Tsikewa’s paper. Feel free to take the discussion in as many directions as appropriate by creating new threads, or you can reply to what others post.

To get things started, I’ll just mention that over the weekend there was an LSA presentation by @cbowern and @rikker on “decolonizing” historical linguistics teaching. It was live-tweeted by an attendee:

And the presenters made their slides available here: Dropbox - Bowern-Dockum-LSA2022.pdf - Simplify your life

I didn’t attend the presentation, but it looks like a lot of the issues apply to field linguistics training as well.


Thanks for sharing our talk, @joeylovestrand! It was utter chaos to present, in ways that are difficult to actually believe if you didn’t see it live, but pleased with how well it was received nonetheless.


Adrienne Tsikewa’s three recommendations for transforming linguistic field methods training have come at the right time to revolutionize, transform or find a balance for the field of linguistics which has been dominated for too long by the Eurocentric approach. For fieldwork and language documentation in Africa, I think we are in a position to go beyond the community-based approach which emphasizes collaborative linguistic work to find ways of actively supporting community development – an issue I am currently exploring and will report on shortly.


Tsikewa’s idea of a “cultural boot-camp” (end of Section 6.2) was concrete and evocative for me.

In her mind, for her community (the Zuni Pueblo), such a “cultural boot-camp” would include the following:

-excursions to:
-the Visitor Centre (to learn about locally relevant (and sacred) places and local artists and how this contributes to the local economy);
-the tribal museum (to learn about creation and migration stories, as well as the clan and kinship system); and
-the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (to learn about all nineteen Pueblo communities in New Mexico and their history, including the Pueblo Revolt of 1680)
-giving a symbolic gift of flour to Pueblo communities

This makes me wonder - what would such a “cultural boot-camp” look like in the contexts of the people with whom I work? (I.e. what would a core of minimal learning required for outsiders to begin to approach these communities from an informed perspective be?)

I’ll give this a think and try and report back tomorrow. In the meantime, I’d like to hear what other people here think such a “cultural boot-camp” would look like in their contexts.


Not really sure what this would look like in Chad where those kind of resources are not available. It would probably need to be a customized experience put together by someone who already knows a more about the context.

This is a bit tangential to your question—but I was thinking about what a “cultural boot-camp” would look like in the Western university context where students often work with members of a diaspora living nearby,

One implication is that it may make sense to prioritize working with language consultants from a larger diasporic group that would be more likely to have cultural events happening in the same city which students could attend.

I’m sure this often happens, but it does potentially go against the inclination to pick less well-studied languages for “field methods” courses, since that would likely correlate with individuals from smaller diasporic communities.


I think I can get the gist of the map exercise from your slides, but would you mind (whenever you have a minute) saying something about what that is? And was that done in Intro to Linguistics? I’m wondering if anything like that would be adaptable for a field methods exercise.

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Thought I’d jump in to share this link to Adrienne’s webinar, via @joeylovestrand on Twitter:


I like the idea/proposal of a “cultural boot camp”. However, I see some potential issues:

  1. Community organization. One of the issues is that many minorized communities faced is the loss of these ‘comunal’ organizations. This happens specially with diaspora communities and highly minorized communities like those speaking critically endangered languages (10% of the world’s languages). Organize, coordinate and promote such a boot camp would be complex in those conditions.
  2. Infrastructure. Not all communities have visitor centers, local museums, or simply a central place where external visitors could go in order to do this kind of activities. Other solutions should have to be implemented.
  3. Multi-ethnic groups. What happens when the language to be documented is spoken in a multi-ethnic community? How the boot camp would work in those conditions? You do one boot camp per culture? You mix them together, considering them like a unit? One language is not necessarily equal to one community.
    Overall I find her proposal interesting and useful, but I feel is very US centric, leaving other areas of the world out of the scope (she acknowledges that). I’d love to see a more diverse study with experiences from the Global South where the decolonial movement and the field of linguistics have different characteristics.

I think that incorporating these really important ideas into field methods training will require abandonment of many of the classic elements of a Field Methods class (at least in the first semester), which personally I would welcome. Currently, grad students might take the class to fulfill a requirement, and in some cases the speaker might be viewed as a temporary means for the students to gain skills to further their career; the framing of the class can be part of the problem. One possibility is for the purpose, terms, and goals of the work to be negotiated from the outset, as part of the class. For example, should all students expect to continue a longer-term engagement with the community? This could be possible if the active linguistic research begins in a second-semester, non-required course (or informal project) that committed students opt-in to, following on from a first-semester, requirement-friendly course that is more focused on methods/theory, including critical examination of research paradigms and other topics discussed in Section 6 of Tsikewa’s paper, and the outcome of the first semester being a vision for the project (both overall goals, and also detail on methods such as how elicitation or other data-gathering sessions could be conducted and how data will be processed/managed) arrived at through discussions with the speaker(s) and after some initial familiarization of students with the social/cultural context. There may be cases where speakers want there to be research “on” the language, but it seems desirable to train students in how to reach this kind of decision.

But I have never taught Field Methods. How do others think a class like this would have gone down, considering the speakers/languages people have worked with in the past? I have some thoughts about how my own fieldwork might have been different if I had had this type of training in advance, but I’ll postpone those for later.


On “cultural boot camp”, I think the issues raised by @JoRangel and the question from @Andrew_Harvey make the point that contextualization of field linguistics training depends (unsurprisingly) on the context. This is probably very obvious for anyone who has done field linguistics of any kind, but might not be so clear for students new to linguistics.

For those who took or taught field methods, I’d be curious to know if the field methods course itself reinforced the importance of understanding the cultural, social and historical context. In my experience, this has normally been addressed in a separate class (which some of Tsikewa’s survey respondents suggested).

Is it sufficient for field linguistics training to require (or assume) a prerequisite of a suitable cultural/anthro class to complement the training in descriptive linguistics? Or, like @yuni suggests, should these be together in one course so that students have to engage with the bigger issues in the first semester before allowing students to do data collection for grammatical analysis in the second semester?

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Thinking about @yuni’s idea that field methods students could establish a “vision for the project… arrived at through discussions with the speaker(s)”.

I’m tempted to try this in my class this semester in at least having the students ask the consultant if there are any questions about her language she would like to explore. Of course, this is not the same thing as working with a language community.

A more radical approach would be to expect MA students to have a semester abroad (like many other courses do) in which they actually have to reach out to a community and put together a (very small) linguistics research project (e.g. collecting an extended wordlist).

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Hello everyone. I am joining this discussion as an Indigenous speaker/learner and scholar in Japan. I found Tsikewa’s suggestion important. I struggle for being a cultural insider in the Ryukyus while Japanese linguists sometimes just see speakers as data provider. If field linguistic course could incorporate discussion on gender and sex, culture shock and emotional reaction.

I wonder if we could maybe do a role playing exercises during a course to show previous researchers’ experiences in the field and ask students to think what kind of reaction is best for their work and their community members.

On 305: Vaux et al. (2007) discuss various ‘delicate matters’ in their introduction, which include awareness of issues surrounding speaker- collaborators’ ethnicity and how these factor into their identity and awareness of cultural differences as well as speaker-consultant collaboration, consultation with speakers before publication, and training community members to carry out their own linguistic research.

I wonder how researchers in other countries in Asia experience this problem. Due to homogenizing ideologies, it becomes difficult to point out cultural differences in Japan, for example. It keeps hurting me/ or making me sad to see how some researchers treat speakers as consultants. How can Indigenous scholars address these issues or “delicate maters” to scholars/researchers who have been doing research with dominant paradigms of research? Some might get offended or feel attacked. Any thoughts on this anyone? Thank you!


Hi @Maddie, welcome to docling!

This strikes me as a great idea.Looking back on my own experiences working with people from communities and languages contexts of various kinds, I can think of many points along the way that now make me think “Ugh, I should have behaved differently.” However, I often still find myself at a loss as to what I should have done, even in hindsight.

Roleplay, or even just a reflective conversation, might be a productive way to share such experiences (in a low-stress, supportive environment). As @JoRangel points out and Tsikewa points out in her paper, every context is different. Roleplaying the difficult questions ahead of time, with others’ experience and positionalities taken into account, could really help to get a feel for the kinds of problems that arise during research, and to begin thinking as soon as possible about good ways to be responsive and reflective.

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I thought this was a great paper. One point I would like to raise for discussion is the second half of this quote:

“Other crucial critiques are the fact that field methods courses do not train their students how to work in communities and establish authentic relationships that emphasize collaboration” (p297)

If we want to change from a linguist-centred model, then we need to know how a student can first set up a project with a community. The pandemic context is also relevant here. There has been a lot of discussion in the last 2 years on how to develop remote working strategies, but these generally rely on pre-existing contacts and research set-ups that are unlikely to be possible for many students. Students also lack the security of those in permanent positions in being able to guarantee continued involvement over multiple years. So I have been wondering how a student set up a more community-oriented project remotely/without contacts - is it possible, and is it even desirable?

This issue is clearest for linguists from outside the community, but the Alonso (2021) paper @pathall linked on the Fieldnotes pod post also makes the point that navigating community trust is crucial for linguists working in their own community, so I think the question of how/whether to do this remotely is relevant there too.


I think @JoRangel’s point here addresses a lot of the thoughts that lay behind my original question here: context is key, and many of the contexts in which we work are different from Tsikewa’s. This really is a reminder of how much further we have to go in my context (white foreign linguist working in black, East African, often marginalised communities) in order to approach the work of decolonisation in an informed way.


This is a really interesting path to go down, @joeylovestrand. I’m also struggling with how this could be implemented in a field methods class in any sort of meaningful way.

In a certain sense, a field methods course is a field methods course: students need a venue to learn how to do elicitation, practice how to interpret the responses of a consultant, appreciate the ambiguities and puzzles of linguistic data. All of these competencies are valid and important, and, in some ways, really enough on their own to occupy a class of students for a full semester.

The other side of this coin is that the competencies highlighted in Tsikewa’s article are also crucial, and implementing them can’t simply be a case of adding a lecture or two, or pretending that a pre-elicitation talk with the consultant will, in any way, prepare students for the work of building long-term community relationships in a real-life field situation. In the same way that I think it’s not appropriate for a field methods class to try and assemble a sketch grammar of their target language in the space of a one semester field methods class, I also think it’d be just as inappropriate to expect a field methods class to engage with a speech community in any sort of meaningful way within the confines of one semester.

I once asked Friederike Lüpke about models of a field methods course which she saw as exciting. She told me that she was planning to conduct a field methods course not with a single speaker, but embed the course within a local diaspora community. I’ve thought about this approach ever since: instead of everything taking place within the classroom, and with one speaker, students would be expected to spend maybe half of their class time actually engaging with a community of speakers (understanding the social realities, learning about the challenges, finding speakers, recording consent, etc.). I feel like this would be ideal in a situation in which a linguistics department had already committed to a long-term relationship with said community (similar to SOAS linguistics’ relationship with the Sylheti community in London). In this way, students would gain first-hand experience working within a long-term project, but would also get a chance to practice things like elicitation, listening to speakers, working with linguistic data.

My final thoughts for the day have to do with accessibility: a linguist working in a real field situation should enter the project assuming that they will, in some way, be connected to the people with whom they work for the rest of their lives. This can take many forms - only some of which being a long-term linguistics project. But - should linguistics students (at least those who are just taking a field methods course) be held to the same standard? How do we make field methods (a course which I believe all linguistics students should take, no matter what subdiscipline they eventually settle into) as easy as possible for students to take, to enjoy, and, ultimately, to want to learn more about?


Liz @ejk asked:

So I have been wondering how a student set up a more community-oriented project remotely/without contacts - is it possible, and is it even desirable?

Karolina Grzech @szarota and Selena Tisalema Shaca did a presentation relevant to this question on establishing new relationships for remote fieldwork: ELDP Remote Fieldwork: Establishing new relationships in online language work – Karolina Grzech & Selena Tisalema Shaca on Vimeo

(That was part of a series of videos about remote fieldwork ELDP organized. Other relevant videos on remote research are a Linguistics in the Pub panel and an Abralin talk.)

There may be contexts in which there are enough established contacts that students can be introduced remotely to people/communities as in Karolina & Selena’s case, but I’m skeptical that this could be consistently done in the context of a class with a short-term timeline, limited time available and inexperienced students just starting in linguistic research.


Following @pathall on @Maddie’s suggestion of role play as a class exercise…

What might this look like? Students in two groups representing the researchers and the language community? I imagine individuals could be given roles that specify areas of concern that they want to see addressed when making a plan for a collaborative linguistic project? (e.g. research output, privacy, benefits, cultural heritage, education, etc.)


I think roleplay is a great idea, but I also agree with @Andrew_Harvey that the skills which make us better and more empathetic researchers in the field cannot be covered in a class or two. If we have students play roles without first reflecting on them in detail, the learning outcomes might not be as thorough as we hoped for.

When I did the SOAS MA on Language Documentation and Description, I remember finding many of the issues I learned about in my previous degree (politics/anthropology) very relevant, but not covered by courses related to language documentation in much detail. I am wondering if field-oriented linguistics degree shouldn’t have more training in anthropology, ethnography etc. as core subjects, and encourage students to take seminars on the political/social/economic situation of the regions where they plan to undertake fieldwork.

During my training 10 years ago I certainly got the impression that knowledge of social issues the community might be facing, their political context etc. were something extra, and not as important as having skills related to elicitation or using recording equipment.