Linguists’ roles in communities

One of the many things I’m doing at the moment is writing a paper on doing experimental work in collaborative fieldwork communities. I wasn’t at the Hawaii endangered language conference but I’ve been hearing rumours that there was a lot of talk which could be said to boil down to “linguists shouldn’t do anything in a community unless they’re invited to”. I’d be interested to hear if that corresponds to other people’s impressions of the sentiment of the meeting, especially if anyone put something like it in a handout.

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5 responses to “Linguists’ roles in communities

  1. I guess the general sentiment expressed in Hawaii, at least in the conferences which I saw, was pretty obvious: researchers shouldn’t be working in communities in which they are not wanted and that linguists have a certain obligation to reciprocate, i.e. by providing something that the community wants, be it a dictionary, didactic materials, etc. I know of a few linguists who presented in Hawaii (myself included) who were never “invited” to do work in the area, their presentations were not criticized.

  2. if even it became convention for linguists to go to communities only on invitation, it would become messy deciding what constitutes said invitation. In the two communities I’ve done most of my work in, I guess I was technically invited, but that didn’t necessarily mean I was going to work ethically.

    In the first case, I was ‘invited’ by an elder who said, probably in a fairly off the cuff way, ‘you’re welcome to come back and learn my language’. there are lots of elders/language speakers who are ultra-generous in their desire to share their language. So I got an invitation that led to me spending two months there. The rest of the community could have been unhappy with that but fortunately that wasn’t the case (as far as i know!).

    In the second case, I took up a full-time community-based linguist position, working for an Indigenous organisation. However the committee and decision-makers that hired me weren’t from the community I was stationed in. So technically, I was invited to work there in an ethical way (I was employed under Aboriginal control) but the individual community didn’t actually have much say in the linguist they got.

    So while I think it’s preferable for linguists to be invited, an invitation isn’t a magic solution that would render it impossible for linguist to behave in less-than-best-practice ways.

  3. Not all communities want a linguist or want to do language work in the first place. Other communities really do want some kind of linguistic assistance. Since there are a finite number of linguists to begin with I don’t suppose there ought to be too many cases of linguists working where they’re not wanted.
    Maybe this is simply something for students to consider when ‘picking’ a language for fieldwork.

  4. Another twist I’ve both heard of and encountered (fleetingly) is where a given community has multiple sources of authority, which may not always agree on (for example) what sort of language documentation or revitalization work should be done, or if it should be done at all. E.g., in the U.S. working on Indian reservations where you might have the ‘modern’ (elected) tribal government on one hand and a ‘traditional’ leadership (elders/chiefs) on the other. Without naming names, they don’t necessarily agree on the hows, whys, and whos of linguistics projects; and the outside fieldworker can end up really struggling to not antagonize/disappoint both factions.

  5. Curran Dillman

    It seems to me that our knowledge should be exploited to the Universe. Who ever needs to pickup, will pickup. That is the way in which their knowledge grattifies them. If we are to make an influence, then we should do it anyhow, just in hopes of it coming to be for those that are in the same wave. And let us hope that the next wave will crush the shore.

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