Specializations > Typology and Descriptive Linguistics

Is there anyone who have done field research?


Recently I read the book "Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide" about methods of field research and in order to put the advice provided there into practice, I started to learn Kuman by communicating with a boy from Papua New Guinea.
I would like to hear about experiences of a professional linguist, who have done fieldwork. What is the best way to learn how to do this type of research (especially if the region, where I live is not very rich in languages and I don't know anybody whom I can ask for advice or help)?
Is it possible to make fieldwork my main job? Do I need a PhD? What other qualifications are required? Where can I work? I heard only about SIL and Living Tongues Institute.

This is one of those book-length topics; I'll try to keep it shorter than that. The easy answer is, yes you can make doing fieldwork your life, many people have done it, I still do it. You can do Bible translation if you want (that implies a bunch of other specifics that I will ignore for now). Let's assume that you want a different kind of job. Then (I hate to say), the options are seriously narrowed. You can get a job as the local field-worker, if you're good enough and luck enough. However, there could be specific facts about a language or region that justify more (or less) optimism. And there is not one thing wrong with learning the methodology of elicitation and language description, even if you end up carving shoes for a living.

The hard part is Basic Training in theory/language structure. You need a foundation of basic knowledge of grammatical theory, because you need to be able to construct sensible questions like "Is there a passive in this language; how do you distinguish objects and indirect objects; where do you put the negative word" and so on (there are also a ton of questions about phonology and morphology, and underlying any questions about morphology and syntax are questions about semantics). There is a limit to how much you really need to know, so as a phonologist who messes a bit with verb tense systems, I'm maybe a little interested in neo-Reichenbachian accounts of tense and aspect, but mostly it just gets in the way. Rather than spending all of your time learning how some bunch of theories operate, I'd learn some basics and then focus on reading up on how languages operate (consume grammar books and linguistic descriptions).

As soon as it is reasonably possible, it is best to actually start on a language. I recommend starting on a couple of throw-away languages. That is, don't wait until you're ready to for the language that you will commit your life to, start on some language that you don't know and can reasonably work on. I suppose if you live in Belgium and speak Waloon and Vlaams, you'd be somewhat limited, but not very limited because there are at least a few speakers of thousands of languages in Belgium, you just need a contact. (I think I could put you in contact with some folks).

Let us suppose that you've located a Finnish speaker in Belgium, and you don't know any Finnish, so as an exercise you start gathering grammatical information about Finnish. Here's the part where I say "And then a miracle happens..." Now that you have a basic understanding of Finnish structure and have had the experience of eliciting linguistic data (and you learned a bunch of things of the type "I know not to do that again"), you repeat the experience.

You don't need a "qualification" (certificate), you need knowledge of how to do it, which comes mostly by doing and somewhat by reading. The biggest challenge, if you're operating without professional assistance, is that you could be completely deluding yourself. Fieldworking is basically an apprenticeship-type career. It's really just the combination of language description combined with practical methods for handling, evaluating, and eliciting data. What you actually need is the practical-guide book that has not yet been written, but has been started.


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