Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Getting Oral Texts: Problems and Solutions

In this blog post, I will outline some problems that the field linguist working on highly endangered languages may encounter in trying to collect oral texts, and some possible ways around those problems.

 I assume that it is important to collect oral texts when doing syntactic fieldwork. In working with a completely undocumented language, oral texts are a rich source of syntactic (and other kinds of) information. Linguists who have never worked on a completely undocumented language may have a hard time appreciating the value of this kind of language documentation. In English, for example, there are plenty of accessible texts, where one can get example sentences easily (using Google or other database searches). In Sasi, there are no such texts, except the ones I have transcribed. I have discussed this extensively in another post, so I will not go into it further here.

But what happens when it is difficult to get these oral texts. I will outline some problems that I have faced in my work, in particular in working on highly endangered languages with only a few remaining speakers. Then, I will outline some possible ways around those problems.


Number of People
In working with highly endangered languages, there are usually only a handful of remaining speakers. The consequence for collecting oral texts is that the linguist does not have that many options. For a healthy language, there may be over a million speakers, of various ages and occupations, all of whom are perfectly fluent in their language. Some speakers may be known as particularly gifted in telling stories or relating history. But when there are only a handful of elderly speakers, options are limited.

Limited Language Use
A major problem in working with highly endangered languages is that people do not really use their language any more. They use the lingua franca. For example, in Botswana, the lingua franca is Setswana. The vast majority of speakers of Khoisan languages are fluent in Setswana plus their mother tongue. In the Northern Cape of South Africa, the lingua franca is Afrikaans. In the case of Sasi, the children and grandchildren no longer speak their language, and so even if an elder encounters another speaker, they most likely will use the lingua franca so that others can understand. People have switched almost completely to the lingua franca. In this scenario, typically one is dealing with a few scattered individuals (perhaps scattered throughout several villages).

Since people mostly do not use their language in day to day life, there are no impromptu conversations, or other kinds of spontaneous speech to record. There are no speeches, or court proceedings, or cultural events, or public ceremonies where the language can be recorded. A language like this is at the furthest end of language endangerment, at the brink of extinction.

Some people are less loquacious than others. For example, when asked how to make something many people will reply with the shortest possible answer, just a few sentences long. Similarly, when asked about a life experience, those same people might reply with a one paragraph answer, whereas you might be looking for an answer that is several minutes long, rich with linguistic and cultural detail.

In part, the problem here is that speaking in monologues is an unnatural activity. People usually speak to other people, where there is an exchange of information. So when faced with producing a monologue, many people are lost and say a just few sentences before saying “I am finished.” Another aspect of the problem may be that for some highly endangered languages, the speakers no longer really use the language on a day to day basis and so are out of practice.

Lack of Folktales
Potentially related to language death, is the lack of folktales and other culturally specific material. Folktales are a rich source of oral texts. Typically for a given African language there will be many standard folktales that people love to tell. But for some languages, people do not know any folktales at all. In the case of Sasi, out of around 15 people that I have worked with (the total number of native speakers), only two people have ever volunteered folktales. Most of the others stated clearly that they did not know any. Similarly, I have only found one consultant who knows a traditional song, and that song does not have any words.

The lack of folktales and other culturally specific material may be the result of language death. As people lose the language, they also lose the culture that that language embeds. If they do not use the language, and the children do not speak it, then they will not tell folktales in that language to their children.


Here are some strategies I have discovered for circumventing these problems listed above.

Be Flexible.
Do not just stick to the beaten track of folktales and how-to texts. There are many kinds of oral texts that you can record. Here is a partial list: traditional folklore, how-to (e.g., skinning and cutting up an animal, tending cattle, making traditional beer, cutting grass, building and thatching a hut), greetings, recipes, personal anecdotes (e.g., seeing a lion), descriptions (e.g., of landmarks, the weather, plants and animals), descriptions of ceremonies (e.g., marriage, funerals, bereavement, bringing a child out of the house), life history (e.g., working in mines in SA), village history, tribal history, historical figures, songs, children’s games, conversations (lots of different topics to explore), bartering, descriptions of family (father, mother, children, ancestors), personal problems (e.g., getting a house, moving to another village), etc.

What is Important?
Find out what the speakers want to talk about and go with that. People will be more inclined to talk about topics that are important to them. For example, my consultants had traditional farmland that was being encroached upon by an outsider. They were very interested in that, and wanted to talk about it. As another example, from talking to my consultants, I found out about an interesting historical episode involving the Ndbele (a notoriously fierce tribe that raided Botswana tribes). That story makes a great oral text.

Play Back Oral Texts.
People love listening to their language. If you can successfully record one or two oral texts, you can play them back to other consultants. You can play them back on the computer, on the video camera or using a portable wall projector. Doing so will help people think of ideas for further recordings. It will also give them the confidence and motivation to speak. As you gather more and more oral texts, you will have a library to choose from on any particular occasion.

If you are just starting out, and have not recorded any oral texts, you can try to play an oral text from another language (including the lingua franca). This will give the consultants some idea of what you are looking for.

Also, if you record an oral text, make sure to play it back for the consultant right away, and to talk to them about it (why you like it, what you like, why it is important). This will give them motivation for producing further oral texts.

Rehearsal Helps.
It is possible to rehearse an oral text with the speaker. In fact, the oral text could be rehearsed several times. As you are rehearsing with the speaker, you can give them feedback and suggestions for elaborating the theme. My translator/assistant has even started to write down the rehearsals in a notebook in Setswana. This allows both of us to easily see what the speaker has said, and to make suggestions for additions.

Rehearsing in this way can turn a painfully short oral text (e.g., two sentences long), into an oral text that is rich with cultural and linguistic information.

Designate a Questioner.
For some topics, it might be possible to designate a questioner. The questioner will then lead the discussion by asking a series of questions about the topic. For example, suppose that you want to ask a consultant to tell their life story. Such a life story might include where they were born, where they have lived and what kinds of jobs they have had. The questioner can make sure that all the basic questions are asked, and follow up on certain points as the story unfolds.

It is far more natural for people to speak to each other in conversations than to speak in a monologue. So designating a questioner can help.

Set up Conversations.
Some consultants respond to setting up conversational topics. For example, suppose that one of the consultants is having some kind of problem (and they are willing to talk about it and have it recorded). You can ask two consultants to have a conversation about that problem.

It can help to set up the conversation as a kind of skit or play. That adds to the fun. For example, I asked one consultant to pretend to buy a chicken from another, but to offer a low price. The consultants understood the imaginary nature of the scenario and got into their roles.

Set up demonstrations.
Instead of asking a consultant to describe how something is done (e.g., making bread or making traditional beer), ask them to show you how it is done with real materials. For example, in making bojalwa, go to the place where the bojalwa is made and record the process as it occurs. Ask the consultant to narrate what they are doing.

Work in a Group.
If you have group of two or more people, they will get ideas from one another. By working in a group, I found one of the speakers of Sasi who knows folktales. Working in a group is also more enjoyable and natural for the speakers.

Speakers Differ in their Strengths.
A recurring theme in linguistic fieldwork is that different speakers have different skills, and part of your job is to identify strengths (and to help consultants work on their skills). In the domain of oral texts, one speaker might be good at telling folktales, another may be good at relating family or village history, yet another might be good at saying how something is made. Some people might be good questioners for interviews. Look for different skills in different people.

Embrace Repetition.
If a person hears an oral text, they might want to give their own version. That new version might have lots of valuable syntactic information in it. It might also differ from the original version in interesting ways. Getting an oral text twice from the same person (e.g., a folktale) might reveal interesting new phrases. Plus, the new version might be more polished than the original. Also, rerecording will allow you to address any technical issues that came up in the first recording (e.g., mic placement).

Be Patient.
It might take the consultants a little while to understand what you are after. Give them time, and keep working with them (filming and transcribing). Eventually, they will understand what you are looking for and be able to help you better.

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