Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Capturing Oral Texts

The purpose of this blog post is to lay out the steps required to capture an oral text. I keep the commentary on each step brief, but in some cases provide a link to further discussion.

Developing an Idea

This step is the most important step of the entire process. You should try to choose topics that are relevant and interesting to your speakers. You should also be flexible about what you want to record so that the speakers enter into the decision making process.

Prepping the Speakers

Producing an oral text, filmed on video, is not an everyday occurrence for most speakers. The speakers may not know what you are after. Even if they do, they might not know how to produce it. They might also be uncomfortable with the formal setting of a video recording. It helps to talk to them about the contents of the oral text before recording it. You can also do some practicing with them.

Finding a Location

Location is crucial for video quality. In Botswana, village houses are often made with concrete, which gives rise to an echo if you record inside. So, in a Botswana village, it is better to shoot outside if possible. But if you shoot outside, you will have to worry about the blazing sun, wind, and ambient noise (people talking nearby, music playing at a bar, children playing, goats bleating, people with radios, etc.). These factors can sometimes be mitigated by choosing a good location.

Setting Up Scene

How do you want to position your speaker with respect to the camera? Where should they sit or stand? Will they be holding or using something? What do you want showing in the background? If your video has more than one person, you need to figure out how they will be positioned to obtain good sound and video. Where will they sit? How far apart will they be? Will they be sitting on chairs or on the ground? In what direction will they face? Is the sun in the right position (not glaring in the background)?

Setting Up Sound Equipment

There are various ways to set up your sound equipment. You can use lavalier mics (lavs), a camera mounted mic, a mic placed directly in front of the consultant, a mic positioned outside of the scene (hidden from the viewer). These various sound set-ups all have advantages and disadvantages. The one you use depends on your priorities. For example, maybe you do not care if the mic appears in the scene directly in front of the speaker. Other people might find that a visible mic is unacceptable.

More information on sound set-ups is given here:

Setting Up Video Equipment

It is easy to get lost in the moment and forget crucial settings on your video camera. For example, I like to use auto-focus to focus the camera and then to shut off the autofocus just before shooting. I have forgotten both of these steps in the past with negative results. I have also forgotten to check that the camera mounted mic is recording property. It may help to make a checklist of the steps needed to set up the camera for recording.


In linguistic fieldwork, we do not usually have additional people to perform the various tasks that need to be done during a shot. So, the linguist must do them all. When recording your job is to monitor the scene (on the camera screen), and to monitor the sound using both earphones and looking at the levels on the mic. Sometimes it is possible to correct problems that come up as the recording is taking place (e.g., in the recording levels). Sometimes you will have to redo the scene after correcting the problem.

Backing Up the Video and Audio

You need to back up your video and audio files onto two external hard drives. If one hard drive is destroyed or damaged, you will have the other as a backup. If you try to use your computer for back up, its hard drive will fill up quickly. You can also keep copies of the SD cards that you used in the camera and audio recorder as a third back up, but make sure to label them and keep them in a safe place.

Creating Meta-Data

When you start to have a large number of videos (e.g., 10 and over), it will be difficult to remember where they are stored on your hard drives. It is useful to create a sheet of meta-data, recording basic things like the name of the video, the date and place of the recording, the name of the speaker, the language spoken, the duration of the video and perhaps other information (such as the status of processing, e.g., transcribed, transferred to FLEx, etc.). You should plan to update the meta-data sheet whenever you make a new video. The meta-data sheet will come in handy when you are archiving (see below).

Transcribing and Translating

The most time consuming part of the entire process is transcribing and translating. You should use ELAN for this step, since it allows you to integrate the transcription of the sound file with the video file.

Lexical Elicitation

When you record an oral text, there will inevitably be some new vocabulary items in the text that you have never recorded before. In fact, one of the goals of recording oral texts is to help build a dictionary. When transcribing my texts, I find it useful to get a quick transcription and gloss of such new vocabulary items in order to not disrupt the transcription work flow. Then later on, I return to a more systematic investigation where I get all the information needed for the dictionary entry (e.g., recordings of several speakers, phonetic transcription, gloss, definition, grammatical category, example sentence).

Glossing and Integrating into Dictionary

Once you are done transcribing and translating in ELAN, you can transfer the results to FLEx. FLEx will allow you to quickly gloss the entire text. Furthermore, FLEx integrates the dictionary with the oral texts. If a word appears in the oral text that is already in the dictionary, FLEx will automatically gloss it. If a new word appears, you will be able to add the definition to the dictionary.


In the olden days (e.g., the 1990s), I would make recordings on cassettes, and then store them in a box in my file cabinet. There are at least three problems with this approach: First, the cassettes can easily be damaged. Second, cassette technology is out of date, and is rarely used nowadays. Third, the cassettes in the file cabinet are not available for anybody to use. Even the linguist who created them has a hard time accessing them and using them. Nowadays, the standard is to put materials obtained during linguistic fieldwork into an internet-based archive. The archive solves the three problems noted above.

Making Available to Community

Your community will be very interested in the results of your work. You should make them available in some way or the other (depending on the kind of resources available to the community). You can make the oral texts available on an easy to use internet site (which may be different from the archive site). If the members of the community do not have internet access, you should work with them to find other means of making the oral texts available. They helped you to create these texts, and this is a good opportunity to reciprocate.

Using the Results in Your Work

The oral texts you capture yield important insights into the culture and language of your consultants. If you are a syntactician, you can use the texts to help you understand the syntactic system of the language. The examples from the oral text can be used in grammars and syntax papers to illustrate various constructions. They will also contain interesting constructions that give rise to further research questions which you could investigate.

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