Native Speaker Pay

T.Matthew Ciolek tmciolek at
Tue Mar 19 02:41:10 UTC 1996

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Date: Sun, 17 Mar 1996 18:52:46 -0500
To: endangered-languages-l at
From: jbobalj at (jonathan david bobaljik)

I'm afraid I'm probably a little bit late in posting this, but the original
posting came while, coincidentally, I was off doing field work.  Exactly
this issue came up while I was working, but with a twist.

(Warning: the following note is a little rambly - I haven't bothered to
edit it, but would greatly appreciate thoughts/comments/suggestions)

In particular, though I believe fully that linguists should strive to be of
some benefit to the community they work with (there are some elegant quotes
from Emmon Bach or Ken Hale, for example), I am concerned about the idea of
setting an (inter)national standard for paying field work.  There are two
main reasons for this:

1.      $10 is pennies to some, and a month's salary to others
2.      Money is not always an appropriate compensation.

I'm basing this on my experiences 1993-94 and again over the last 6 weeks
in a village on the Kamchatka peninsula, Russian Far North-East (yes, it
was *very* cold). The population is <500 and the economy is heavily

For starters, I had budgeted about $10/hour (U.S.) based mostly on what I'd
been able to get permission for for various small projects while still a
grad student.

It is worth pointing out that this is a very significant amount of money
for people there.  Most of the remaining speakers are retired, and live on
pensions which range from $60-$120 /month.  The flip side is that many
things (such as food) actually cost as much as or more than food here in
real dollar terms, making simple exchange-rate comparison quite difficult.
However, I felt (perhaps wrongly), that offering more than $10/hour would
be embarassingly, and perhaps offensively, generous.

In any event, the question of amount was moot.  As I had somewhat
anticipated, the offer of any money at all ranged from quite embarassing to
downright insulting.  A person I stayed with for two weeks refused to take
any money for groceries, although I explained that my university was paying
- so why should either she or I pay?

This is difficult for some of us who have grown up in the capitalist world
to fully comprehend, but I am reasonably confident that this is an accurate
characterisation of the community involved.  Some of the reasons for this
scenario include (there are numerous others):

-All of the speakers have spent the bulk of their lives in the Soviet
Union, many born around the revolution.  A large number of Russians today
still see taking money from a friend as an insult.  This includes for work
for which they would otherwise be paid (e.g., if your friend's a mechanic,
they won't take any pay for repairing your car).  [aside - This alone has
created great social tension even within families, as the reforms are
pushed forward] The older Russians fall heavily into this class, and most
of the native speakers are on friendly terms with me (many enjoy the chance
to have an eager ear over tea, and to find someone for whatever reason
interested in what they have to say).

-For others, accepting money without working for it is to admit poverty.
Most of the elders do not see speaking or recording as work.  Many don't
even see sitting with me and glossing earlier recordings as work.

In order to avoid the possible insult, I had hoped to be able to use the
budgetted amount of money to bring gifts, which are usually acceptable.
This included food, reading glasses, and more frivolous items such as
chocolates, whatever I felt was most appropriate to a given situation.  In
some cases, I felt that a gift of a toy to a grandchild was more
appreciated than any gift to the informant.  For one consultant, I spent an
afternoon taking portrait photos of her family - she has none of her
younger grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  In other cases, the
consultant does not know they were compensated: I gave food to their
(adult) children, explaining why.

Predictably, and especially since I was often working with groups at a
time, with people wandering in and out, and staying for different lengths
of time, this made for a rather uneven distribution.  (I couldn't very well
say "X - you've ben here for 26 minutes, so here's 2/3 of a kilo of
tomatoes, but Y - you've been here 32 minutes, so you get an extra
tomato"). [This will create a nightmare on my grant report..., though this
is the least of my concerns].  In some cases, the inequalities were
reasonably substantial.

The concern I have is that I made many of these decisions unilaterally.  I
feel I did the best I could, but would like to know what others have done
in similar situations.  In particular, if I were to force an elder to
accept 50,000 roubles for an hour of talking over tea, I would risk not
being welcomed back into their house for a subsequent session.  More
importantly, should I succeed in convincing the speakers that $10/hour is
the going rate for consultant work, I will create a potentially disastrous
situation for Russian linguists attempting to do field work as they will be
unlikely to be able to pay anything near that percentage of their monthly
salary for recording.

To wrap up, I think setting a standard is going to be useful in some cases
(working in US universities and paying informants who happen to live in the
city), but beyond this, a lot of economic and more importantly cultural
factors are going to come into play.  I have described what I have done in
the last six weeks, and I think it was a reasonably appropriate response to
the situation.  I do feel that it could well be improved upon, and would
very much welcome suggestions as to how it may be improved upon.

Thanks in advance,

I hope these thoughts might have been of interest to someone...


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