Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



The Haydom Language Documentation Training Workshop

By Andrew Harvey and Richard Griscom

Of the services that the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) provides, their Documentation Trainings have to be one of the most valuable. Intensive, practically-oriented crash-courses, trainees often begin the events with little or no knowledge of how to document a language, and will, after many days of hard work and trial-and-error, finish the events with the acumen and confidence necessary to engage in the (often challenging, but critically important) work of creating a lasting, multipurpose record of a language.

Typically, Documentation Trainings take place in large cities (London, Berlin, Ranchi, Rabat), and target individuals associated with academic institutions (University-level students, researchers, etc.). But what would a Documentation Training look like if it took place in a small town with limited electricity and Internet, and targeted farmers, herders, hunter-gatherers, and people who had never used a computer before? The Haydom Language Documentation Training Workshop (“the Haydom Workshop”), named after the town in central Tanzania in which it took place, was an exercise in finding out.

Trainees Musa (left) and Naftali practice obtaining verbal consent to make recordings (Photo credit: Nadia Jassim)

As part of our our ELDP projects (Richard: ELDP IPF0304 “Documenting Hadza: language contact and variation” and Andrew ELDP IPF0285 “Gorwaa, Hadza, and Ihanzu: grammatical inquiries in the Tanzanian Rift Valley Area”), we proposed to train native speakers of these languages to work in pairs, to conduct audiovisual language documentation in their own speech communities. Teams would be spread throughout the research area (a primarily rural area roughly a quarter the size of Belgium) to include as diverse a collection of speakers as possible. Also, in order to collect high-quality materials reflective of inside perspectives, teams would include members of the same communities with which they would work. At the beginning of the project, we had to visit these communities and identify and recruit individuals to take part. Now, much of our work is associated with supporting these individuals in their daily research. For more on those parts of the project, see a recent presentation given by Richard at the Rift Valley Webinar Series. The intermediate step: training native speakers to become local researchers, was the focus of the Haydom Workshop.

The workshop took place between the 14th and 18th of January 2020, and featured training in practical skills such as working with audiovisual equipment, making and managing data and metadata, and using working orthographies of the languages. Additional focus was on how to conduct research: who to work with, why community secrets shouldn’t be recorded, and how to be reflexive. Most days revolved around practice: using equipment to make recordings, moving files to the computers, logging metadata, creating ELAN files, and backing everything up. Groups would receive feedback on their recordings, and would then work on improving the following day. Crucially, we relied on other Tanzanian experts as heavily as possible: four Gorwaa speakers who had worked on a similar project with Andrew were employed as teachers, and colleagues from the University of Dar es Salaam were invited to play support roles.

Attendees of the Haydom Workshop (l-r: Richard, Soya, Sumaye, Michael, Musa, Betina, Nange, Elisabeth, Augustino, Mariamu, Angela, Christina, Sara, Maarten, Endeko, Naftali, Samweli, Stephano, Basilisa, Andrew, and Festo; Photo credit: Nadia Jassim)

We have written a detailed report of the workshop, which we hope will help other linguists interested in applying a local researcher model to their documentary work. Below are some highlights and takeaways, especially as they pertain to adapting the Documentation Trainings to a low-resource environment like central Tanzania.

The concept of research, and seeing oneself as a researcher

Typical Documentation Trainings are for linguists or individuals in adjacent fields, so virtually everybody will be familiar with the concept of research, and feel empowered to conduct research. Very few of our participants had pursued higher education, and most attendees’ concept of a researcher was of a highly-educated foreigner who visits for a short time, undertakes mysterious work on an obscure topic, and then leaves. A portion of the Haydom Training Workshop had to be dedicated to expanding trainees’ concept of what research could be, and making them feel capable of it. Encouraging trainees to think about questions they would like to answer, or things they would like to learn more about in their communities were powerful ways to start discussions about what research can look like, and to convince attendees that they were capable of creating meaning and searching for patterns in this way within their own communities.

“What I learned during the workshop is […] to see myself as a researcher – to approach my work more broadly. Before the workshop I was just collecting stories – now, I collect lots of different Iraqw cultural material.”

– Iraqw trainee Basilia Hhao

Photo credit: Nadia Jassim

Technological literacy

Documentation Trainings are often opportunities for trainees to learn about documentation software in-depth. None of the trainees at the Haydom workshop owned a computer, and some had never used one before. Instead of teaching software for a deep level of understanding, the focus had to be on familiarising trainees with the operating system, the computer keyboard and trackpad, and pre-formatted ELAN templates and how to use them, as well as how to take care of their new machines.

“Regarding the technology, I would like to learn a lot more.”

– Hadza trainee (Domanga) Nange Chaka

The role of teachers

Documentation Trainings are often taught by the highly-skilled personnel at ELAR. In our case, though we led some of the discussions, most sessions were taught by the four members of the Gorwaa-language documentation team, whom Andrew had trained 18 months prior and who had been conducting independent language documentation since then. In many ways, this was a critical part of the Haydom workshop. Not only had the Gorwaa teachers been conducting documentation in conditions somewhat similar to many of the trainees, their mastery allowed the new trainees to see that it was possible for them to master this work. Overall, this was a great exercise in empowerment and solidarity-building. 

“[…] from my perspective as one of the teachers that participated in [the workshop], one of the things that seemed difficult was the prospect of teaching a person who had never before held a computer to use ELAN, to write words, to listen to audio and to examine video, and, on top of that, to translate it into Swahili. But after this experience, I learned that, to take heart and believe in the ability of a person to understand something and then do it, is really the secret of success in everything. So, even though while I was teaching I had fears about whether they would understand, through the learning and cooperation that was going on during the lessons, we arrived at the understandings we had planned.”

– Teacher Stephano Edward

Gorwaa local researcher Festo explaining the components of the video recorder (Photo credit: Nadia Jassim)

In the end, we both strongly believe that, given the proper training, a community member can do essentially anything that a linguist can do: collect data, collect metadata, transcribe and translate recordings, as well as decide what to record and how to record it. This radically inclusive view of documentation opens up exciting new possibilities, but also new challenges for the linguist-as-facilitator. The Haydom Workshop has proven that modified, non-specialist-centred Documentation Trainings are possible, but is just one way that these can be designed. We look forward to implementing more of these trainings for other communities in Tanzania, as well as seeing what our colleagues in other contexts come up with.

Thanks Richard & Andrew!

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