When we can't visit

What do we language workers do when we can’t sit with the people who teach us about the languages we are learning, trying to describe and trying to teach? What do we do when we miss those sunlit kitchen tables and that sturdy coffee and those deep, solid and often surprising answers to our never-perfect questions?

At any time, there may be multiple reasons why we can’t see these people. For me, since I have a lot of admin work to do, it’s mostly that I can’t get away to do sessions very often. Always, any slight sign of illness in myself is a cue to cancel a session or avoid going to an event where the elders are. Some of us live far from those we learn from, and travel is required to reach them. So now, what about that! All of the above seem to be applying at once. Not because we’re sick or went traveling, but because any of us could cause illness.

What should we be doing? The first answer is always to finish the things we started. I know a few people who always finish transcriptions in good time, organize all the files with good filenames, keep a metadata spreadsheet in good order and archive everything immediately. But we’re not all like that, and that first transcription and organization is far from being the whole story. What about going back to the data?

Language work can lie waiting for political and academic reasons, but emotional reasons can be powerful too. Some of the people I have worked with are not with us anymore. It’s both delightful and deeply sad to listen to their voices. And of course it’s always horrifying to listen to my own voice on a recording. That revolting effect never goes away. But there’s also work that has been “finished” in the sense of finishing a project, but which could be productive of something quite new and interesting that I could share.

I hear people saying that a prolonged period of isolation might make it possible to complete various kinds of projects - home improvements or repairs or self-help. And it is a thought. Although many of us are still ridiculously busy dealing with the day-to-day of adapting to new normals, we might be able to defeat some of our loneliness by working with what needs to be finished, improved, repurposed or newly shared. I know this is especially hard for students who have ongoing field projects with deadlines. You can do it, though. You students are adaptable and strong and smart.

Language workers, both inside and outside of language communities, have an obligation to transmit what we have learned. Sometimes we differ in our judgments on methods of transmission: academic writing, teaching, creation of teaching documents, are all extremely valuable, though we vary in our ability to carry out all these forms of transmission well. It’s always worth going back into the recordings again. If I close my eyes and wear my old moccasins with their leathery smell, I can imagine the kitchen table and the coffee.


I’ve been doing Facebook and phone. My buddy that I’m writing a grammar with moved back home a couple years ago so we’ve been using Facebook for everything. My language teacher doesn’t like Facebook so we’ve been talking on the phone. Another friend isn’t very literate so we use voice recordings over Facebook Messenger. It is definitely harder than sitting in a Starbucks and just pounding through a few hours. I feel like less gets done but it also means I’m being more resourceful because I look for the answers rather than just asking question after question.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It seems to be the best time to get things finished. Tha’ts what I initially thought. But for some reasons that does not work out too well for me I must admit.
First of all, because I worry about my family’s well-being, and the well-being of the people I have stayed with in Papua New Guinea, Guatemala, Bolivia, Georgia who took care of me, guaranteed my safety in all these years. In all of these countries, except for Georgia, I feel, it is close to take impossible to take the suggested actions: washing hands and one has to fetch water by going to the mountain spring 30 minutes away, Warm water would need to be warmed on the fire, which means extra firewood, social distancing when physical closenss is a cultural thing, gloves, masks are not available and would have to be hand-made. Realizing how hard it is for these people to protect themselves makes me worry even more. I read an article on the spread of the virus among the Yanomani people and know if there are confirmed cases in the communities I work in, that is desastrous. In actual fact, my friends in Patzún, Guatemala are very badly affected (https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-patzun-during-covid19-lockdown?utm_source=customer&utm_medium=copy_link&utm_campaign=m_pd+share-sheet&fbclid=IwAR3P4M4SBL0esd6adWDgXBnybnJ6-7KemuWYNgmjZmHFrzvVhkHrH9h5Y2o)

In my country there are no masks available, so people including me sew provisionary masks. I have some elderly neighbours for who I have to go shopping (That’s more difficult than you think!).

The governments usually run campaigns educating people. The Mayan communities have come up with videos in their respective languages. So instead of doing what I should have already done, I keep in touch with the Bena Bena people working on a video/brochure in Bena Bena. I guess I am learning how indigenous concepts of disease mingle with the Western beliefs. Ideally, the corona virus is supposed to teach us solidarity, but I also see how hatred against the other is growing. A very sad side effect.