Saturday, October 19, 2019

Basic Consultant Skills for Linguistic Fieldwork


I have recently had the pleasure of working with a number of new consultants. I took the opportunity to jot down some of the basic skills that they needed to learn in my sessions with them.

This post will cover basic skills needed for recording and lexical elicitation. I will leave the skills needed for investigating grammar, including the sentence translation task, the acceptability judgment task, the truth value judgment task, and tasks specific to the transcription of oral texts for later blog posts.

People often take these basic skills for granted (and may consider the skills to be too obvious to mention), but in dealing with highly endangered languages often spoken by elderly and illiterate people, it becomes clear that these skills should be treated seriously, and that one should take the time to train the consultants to use them. Some of these are fairly easy to learn, but others involve considerable meta-linguistic awareness and are difficult to learn. In a later blog post, I will define meta-linguistic awareness.

If you know of other basic skills that are useful for a consultant to have, let me know, and I will test them out and perhaps add them to the list.

1.         Speaking at the right distance from the mic
Indicate the desired distance between the speaker’s mouth and the mic (assuming you use a stand-alone mic, like the ZoomH4n). The distance should be as close as possible without causing distortion. Can the speaker adhere to this distance consistently? Also, the speaker should not bob their head as they speak, but try to maintain a constant distance during the pronunciation of the word.

2.         Speaking at the right loudness level, neither too softly nor too loudly
Try to get speaker to speak in natural voice, not too loudly not too softly. If they speak too loudly, sometimes the sound will be distorted. If they speak too softly, the signal to noise ratio is lower. You and your consultants need to find the sweet spot and stick to it. This may involve changing the recording level of the Zoom H4n. I usually have mine at around 75, but I adjust it if needed.

3.         Being silent when somebody else is being recorded
Suppose you are working with two consultants. Silence is not really the natural inclination of two friends sitting together. They tend to help each other by interjecting or even speaking at the same time, and they do not hesitate to sigh, yawn, cough, clear their throat, get up or move around. Of course, when recording a word or phrase, you need complete silence in order to get a high quality recording.

4.         Speaking when the linguist gives the signal
In my preferred elicitation scheme, I record individual words and sentences (not whole sessions), see the URL below. But then the speaker needs to know when the recording has started. I usually give the signal with my finger. If they speak too soon, the waveform will be clipped, and you will have to repeat the recording. It takes a bit of practice to settle into the rhythm of this method of recording.

5.         Saying X one time (two times, three times…)
I usually want three repetitions of a lexical item. This gives a nice range of pronunciations when it comes time to analyze them. But when the speakers produce a sentence, I only ask for one repetition (since the sentence is long).

6.         Saying only X, not X and other words
If you ask the consultant to pronounce a verb, they will often want to put it in a sentence with a subject and a TMA marker (and object if it is transitive). This is useful information, which I am happy to record. But for lexical transcription, one wants three repetitions of a single word. Teaching the consultants to produce just the single word, with no additional surrounding words can be challenging, since it is not a task that they are familiar with from everyday life.

7.         Saying X slowly
This is one of the most useful skills a consultant can have. It can be used for words or phrases. The consultant pronounces the word at a much slower rate, but at the same loudness. The natural inclination is for the speaker to speak slowly and softly (decreasing the signal to noise ratio), so it takes a bit of training to get them to say it slowly at the same loudness.

For words, the technique can help clear up tricky phonetic issues (Is that an [o] or a [u]? Does the click have aspiration? Is there aspiration or delayed aspiration?). For sentences, it can help with the transcription of quickly pronounced function words that might otherwise blend in (contract, delete, be phonetically reduced) with the adjacent words.

8.         Evaluating the pronunciation of the linguist
Some speakers are natural teachers, correcting you on your pronunciation and even indicating what you did wrong. Some speakers do not do this, and are always positive and encouraging no matter how you pronounce the word. This may not be a teachable skill, but it is useful to find out if your consultant can do it.

9.         Translating word X from L1 into L2
If your language of communication with the consultant is Setswana (L1), you might want them to translate “dog” from Setswana to Sasi (L2).

Especially for endangered languages, where the consultants are elderly and may not have used the language on a day-to-day basis for decades, it may difficult to recall certain words. You should be patient with the consultants, and tell them that if they cannot think of the word, there is no problem. Then later on you can revisit the word. Sometimes they will even come back later on telling you that they have remembered the word.

You can help jog their memory by using visual aids. For example, if you want the name of an object (artifact, tree, animal, etc.), you can show them a picture or the actual physical object, if it is available. Another strategy is to work in small groups of two to four people (or even more). Often the consultants can jog each other’s memories in interesting ways.

10.       Translating word Y from L2 to L1
Given a word in the target language L2 (e.g., Sasi), you ask the consultant to translate back into the language of communication L1 (e.g., Setswana). You can either pronounce the word yourself, or use a recording as a prompt.

In essence, this task uncovers the gloss of a particular word. The task can be used as a control for the translation task. Once X has been translated from L1 to Y in L2, later on you can get the translation of Y back into L1.

The result of the translation task in (9) and the back-translation task in (10) should definitely not be considered the meaning of the word. Other tasks need to be done to articulate the meaning, including grammatical elicitation (using the word in various syntactic contexts), truth value judgment tasks and collecting oral texts.

11.       Judging whether Y is a word of L2
This task is a variant of (10). But in this case, you do not know if Y is actually a word or not of L2, but you might have some reason to suspect it is from other sources (e.g., other dictionaries). You pronounce the word Y, and ask the consultant if it is a word in their language, and if so, to translate it into the language of communication. This task is a good way of finding new words.

Under no circumstances should you elicit a word in the following way: pronounce the putative word Y from the target language, provide the gloss, and ask the consultant if it is a word in their language. This method will lead to disaster and lots of imaginary words. Consultants may accept the word simply to please the linguist.

12.       Coming up with another way to say it
Once the consultant has translated X into the target language (e.g., Sasi), you can ask if there are any other ways to say it. Are there other words that would also be good translations of X?

13.       Using word X in a short sentence
Suppose the consultant has pronounced the word X, and now you want to hear it in a short sentence to see what its morphological and syntactic properties are. For example, if the word is “dog”, your consultant might produce the sentence: “The dog is barking.” Speakers can be trained to produce such sentences, but it takes a bit of time. Such information is especially useful for verbs. These example sentences can sometimes be used as examples in dictionary entries.

14.       Choosing the right finger (pronunciation)
Over the years, this task has allowed me to clear up many issues in phonetic transcription. If I am unclear about the transcription of a word, I pronounce each of the alternatives, and ask the consultant to choose one. This task works best if you hold up your hands, raising your index finger on each hand. Then as you give the alternative pronunciations, you nod to the fingers with your forehead. At this point, the consultant chooses one of the fingers by pointing to it. You can repeat the test, switching the fingers to make sure the first time was not a fluke. You can also reverse the process and have the consultant make you choose one of two pronunciations.

15.       Matching Tone
Matching tone is an advanced skill. Suppose you are working on a tonal language, and have figured out the basic tonal contours. Suppose that there are 6 tonal contours (e.g., HH, HM, HL, MM, LL, LM). Now if you elicit a new word, you can ask your consultant to match it to one of the existing classes (actually to exemplars from one of the existing classes). So here is the exact sequence: (a) Consultant pronounces X, and you record it. (b) You ask the consultant what X is equivalent to. (c) The consultant produces one of the exemplars from the established classes. (d) On the basis of the chosen class, you transcribe the tone of X. If you practice this enough, you can even suggest exemplars to the consultant, who will then agree or disagree with them.

Once you have taught your consultant this skill, your tonal transcriptions should be 100% accurate, which is a great source of happiness when working with a tonal language.

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