Category Archives: Fieldwork methods and practices

What are linguists good for?

About two weeks ago our entire group attended the Workshop for American Indigenous Languages (WAIL) in Santa Barbara. There are 8 linguists on our team and 4 community language activists, making ‘our entire group’  a rather overwhelming, but nonetheless easy-going crew.

 We gave a group presentation on collaborative linguistics. What our presentation stressed was the necessity of forming a collaborative partnership between academics and communities in efforts to maintain and revitalize endangered languages.

 Our talk was the last one of the session on the last day of the conference. Now of course, the audience was hardly impressed with the linguists on the team, but the community language activists were literally pummeled with questions after the talk was over.

 One woman asked the language activists something like, “What one aspect of linguistics has been crucial to the development of your project?”  She said she wanted to know because she was interested in teaching linguistics to community activists and would like to know where to start. (I know that she was looking for an answer like, ” Oh it was morphology! Once I understood the morphology and how to break words apart into meaningful units everything else made sense!” I know that she really wanted to hear what part of linguistics was actually useful to people doing language work.)

However, the answer she got form our community language activists was not like this at all. Instead they responded by mentioning how enthusiastic the linguists always were about doing language work (they said something like, ” they keep showing up”), and how much they enjoyed meeting with us, and ultimately how much they trusted us. Later on at the party I heard someone fondly summarize their answer as “Trust and love. What are linguists really good for? Trust and love.”

At first, after hearing this, the academic in me was disappointed. There has to be something from my discipline which is more useful to language revitalization, right? I mean, I’ve been studying linguistics for over 5 years … was it all a waste of time? But then I got to thinking about how many negative things linguists have done throughout history … when it comes down to it, I ought to be overjoyed that there is a community that likes me and thinks I’m a trustworthy academic. In fact, in the end, maybe it’s not so bad to be known for that.

But the question still remains: what are linguists good for? I’m interested now to hear from other community language activists. Is the best thing we have going for us not so much our knowledge of language structure, but rather just our enthusiasm for language, and our willingness to assist in some way?

And what do the linguists think? Did you ever think you would be appreciated merely because you showed up? How does this influence the way you work on language projects?

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a few weeks now and I’d really like to hear from everyone.