2 suggestions to the field was: Re: Fieldwork today or cultural theft

Joseph Tomei jtomei at pop.ilcs.hokudai.ac.jp
Thu Feb 13 00:18:54 UTC 1997

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In the course of trying to post a few times (a problem here and NOT with
the listserv), the temperature of the discussion has climbed considerably.
like to approach things from a different tack and make some suggestions to
the 'field'

I realize that talking about the 'field' of linguistics is an
oversimplification at best, and I realize that at any given time,
individuals show a lot of variation in respect to the norms. However, as a
'field', linguistics is probably about 10-15 years behind anthropology in
terms of dealing with the issues that have come up here in terms of how
fieldwork is approached (for a good read on one of the pivotal events that
forced anthropology to confront these problems, see _Anthropology Goes to
War_ by Eric Wakin, UWis Press)

But facing these issues is not the same as working towards solutions. I'd
like to try to restate some of the positions given (and of course, if I
misrepresent anyone's ideas, please correct me) as a springboard for some

What has been discussed is the idea that there is a financial/prestige
'pie' that is divided up between linguists working on languages and the
communities where the language is spoken. Peter Keegan (who I think is
viewing the total compensation that some academic linguists
receive,including prestige and tenure) argues that the balance is severely
tilted towards linguists and that balance should be redressed. Allan
Wechsler (since he uses the word 'royalties', I take it that his concept of
the 'pie' to be limited to more or less the direct proceeds from the
language) suggests that the rewards are not that large and that the
communities would suffer if they tried to exercise leverage.

Aligned with Allan's view are several who point out the sacrifices made by
fieldworkers and that the rewards are spiritual rather than financial.

A few other people (I won't say names because I may misattribute) have
suggested that the 'pie' is really larger than it appears, saying that
fieldworkers can often bring important recognition to people who have been
marginalized within the community and that well placed academics
sympathetic to the community could help a cause (and I have to note that
isn't always the case. In an infamous court case in the 80's in British
Columbia, the judge ruled that the academics arguing for the indigenous
community were biased because of the process of doing fieldwork!)

Finally, other suggestions have been made that offer to make the 'pie'
bigger, such as a 'secular SIL' or convincing 'the field' that fieldwork is
a good thing.

(Another point, about the inevitable power relationship of any fieldwork
experience,  though important to remember, is something that I'll skip over

I am inclined towards Peter's viewpoint, just so you know where my
sympathies lie, but I have to think that if every linguist working on or
whose advancement was based on work with an endangered language stepped
aside today and let members of that language community step into those
positions, the impact would be, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, 'equal to a very
large pancake dropped from the height of 6 inches.'

The problem is that presenting things as a 'pie' which is divided between
linguists and the communities  makes work with endangered languages seem
like a zero-sum game. What is needed is to come up with ways to break out
of this thinking and make working with endangered languages a win-win
proposition for all involved.

Thinking in this way, I'd like to present two suggestions that would try to
do this. As always, the three C's (comments, corrections and criticism) are
welcome. These suggestions are from a decidedly American point of view, so
I would especially appreciate outside viewpoints.

Suggestion 1: Why don't linguistic departments create TEFL tracks that
require (for a major or final project) a series of graded lessons in an
endangered language, with that material being turned over to the community?
I'm not suggesting that every TEFL graduate should be able to speak and/or
teach an endangered language (but one can dream) or that linguistic
departments unleash hordes of TEFL majors on small language communities.
What I am suggesting is that learning how to make a clear explanation of
how applicatives work in a language, or coming up with exercises that help
someone understand enclitics would, if not make people better teachers,
would certainly make English teaching *seem* a lot easier. Ideally, these
degrees could then be used for the paper qualifications that members of the
native community need to teach their language in formal curriculua.

In the general course of events, one or two linguists work with a
community. If they have a sense of obligation, they will concurrently
develop materials for the community. Unfortunately, these things don't
count for tenure or promotion, so what is suggested is that the researcher
must work 'sacrificially'. While I don't want to discount the goodwill and
efforts of committed researchers, because this work is not part of the
system, it will always be an afterthought. What is necessary is to find a
way so that it can be valued in its own right.

If the one or two researchers do produce materials, they usually represent
only a single approach to learning the language. I think any community
could benefit from having a variety of materials on hand.

Another point about endangered language communities (at least in the US) is
that, because of the strong assimilationist pressure put on the generation
who are now adults, the language transmission has often 'skipped' them, and
they are confronted with having their children learn the language and have
difficulties in helping them. Materials written from the viewpoint of
second language learning would especially help them.

Finally, because of the huge numbers of endangered languages, it is
inevitable that many of them will have to learn the language as a second
language. (I realize that saying this is often an anathema to those
communities, though) It is important for linguists to get a handle on how
to best address the needs of these communities.

Suggestion 2: What about a terminal M.A. which takes as its thesis a
reworking/rewriting of more technical/older materials in the language?
Often the focus of endangered language discussions are on those languages
that are undescribed. Yet many of the communities that need help have
materials on their language, but those materials are in a form that is
accessible only to those with extensive linguistic training. One thrust has
been to identify members of the indigenous community who have the academic
talent for linguistic research who could then (hopefully) take those
materials and 'translate' them for the benefit of their community. I don't
think this is a bad thing, but it seems only logical that there are others
who may not have the time or the desire to deal with the spectrum of
theoretical linguistic research as it exists today. Encouraging them should
also be a priority of the field, not only as a matter of general principle,
but to make systematic the return of knowledge that the field of
linguistics has benefited from.

As Nancy Dorian noted in one of her posts, the responsibility of returning
the fruits of the research has shifted from a question of individual
responsibility to something that the linguistic profession has begun to
confront. Yet many would argue that the graduate student or junior
professor doesn't have the time or resources to do this effectively. Tom
Payne suggested that these people should view their career in stages, and
in their later stages, they can use their stature to help the endangered
language community. Unfortunately, many of the communities at risk now
don't have that kind of time. Degree programs of this sort could not only
be an important source of the paper qualifications that are needed to have
teachers teach the language in local schools, but also provide an entree
and a way to identify  students who don't yet realize their potential in

While I can't imagine that linguistics will suddenly turn all its attention
and resources to the problems of endangered languages, it can begin to come
up with targeted programs that assist these communities. We look on the
work of turn of the century anthropologists, who collected artifacts and
remains from 'backward peoples' for the 'advancement of science', with a
certain amount of disdain and embarassment. 100 years from now, if things
don't change, I can easily see people regarding the field of linguistics in
the same way.

Joseph Tomei
Institute of Language and Culture Studies
Hokkaido University
N17 W8 Kita-ku,  Sapporo 001 JAPAN
(81) (0)11-716-2111 x5387
fax (81) (0)11-736-2861
jtomei at ilcs.hokudai.ac.jp
 'It would be a good idea'
                           Mohandas Gandhi when asked what he thought of
			   Western civilization

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