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Reasons you should use video in language documentation

At CoLang this year I was invited to come and talk with the group in the Recording and using video in language documentation class. I shared some of my favourite reasons why I always try to use video in a language documentation project, which gave me a chance to mention some of my favourite research on gesture, and talk to people about their experiences with filming. I thought I’d write up four of my favourite reasons for filming video in this post. If you’re thinking of doing a language documentation project I’ve also written a paragraph at the end of this that you can use in the first draft of a grant application.

Gesture is an important part of communication

Gesture and speech work together. It’s often much easier to understand the size or shape of an object if someone is gesturing while talking about it. You also don’t want to spend hours listening to people saying ‘when you weave this bit goes around that bit and then these are connected’. You know that those gestures are illustrating the point being made, but without seeing them you’re loosing all the important information.

Gesture is an important part of cognition

Psycholinguists will tell you that gesture and speech are deeply integrated in your brain. We know this because sometimes the speech and the gesture refer to the same thing, or reflect different perspectives on the one topic. Other times, gestures will give us an insight into someone’s thoughts even though there is no linguistic evidence for what is happening. Next time you watch an English speaker talking about things coming up in the next few days, look at what they are doing with their hands. If they’re gesturing, It’s likely they are ordering those events with the soonest on their left and the later events on their right. That’s because English speakers tend to order events from left to right, which is a reflection of our writing system. Even though there’s no spoken evidence for this cognitive habit, there is gestural evidence. Other languages may have other metaphors for how they order time or events, which might influence the gestures that they use. Aymara (South America) speakers, for example, gesture with the future behind them.

Gesture is an important part of culture

All humans gesture, but different cultures gesture differently. I’ve written about the nose-tap gesture, which is common to the UK, Italy and France. Similarly,  recognising the ‘up yours’ gesture as offensive depends on whether you’re from the USA or the UK. It’s not just these symbolic gestures that are culturally acquired. The shape of your hand when you point at things, varies across cultures. Some cultures don’t point with the left hand, and others don’t even point with the hand at all; Nick Enfield showed for Lao that pointing with the lips is a common strategy.


It’s not that we can’t point with our lips – maybe you do when your hands are full – but it’s not common.

People like to look at things

As a selfish reason to collect video, it makes transcription much easier, because you have additional visual cues, and all that additional content (see point one). Video also contains a lot of incidental information about how people dress, and what their daily environment is like. It also means when it comes time to share materials with participants and community organisations, you can share videos, which are far more interesting than just audio files. I had always thought this was good, but I got confirmation on my most recent visit to Nepal. On the day we were recording with Norpu, the village Shaman, he told us he was so pleased we were recording people and making a visual record. He regrets that he does not have a single photograph of his mother, who died 20 years ago.

Let me preempt some problems with video

All of this presumes that you’re working in a community where people are ok with digital representations of their images and voices. It also presumes that you’re working in genres that are appropriate to film, and have met basic IRB/ethics requirements. I also presume you’ve discussed sharing and permissions with the community, and the individuals you are recording with. This may restrict some of the genres or topics that can be recorded with video, or different videos may have different ‘access permissions’ (e.g. some videos may be open to any audience, while only the community members and researchers may be able to access others). I know some people who say that if you’re not given the right to film video then a project is not worth the time. I don’t entirely agree with that, but it will be a diminished set of outputs with only audio.

Some people don’t like to work with video because it takes more effort to set up than just an audio mic. That’s true – but an audio mic takes more effort to set up than just sitting at home, and when you’ve already driven through 8 hours of desert, or flown to another country, it’s not *that* much more effort. Other people find video too obtrusive. My feeling is that setting up any recording situation is obtrusive (provided it meets ethical requirements and you’ve discussed it with participants). I find that being comfortable with your equipment and making people feel comfortable with your presence mitigates many of those problems. Practice setting up as many times as you can before you begin the project. Record your friends and family. I now know my gear well enough now to continue chatting throughout the setup. I’ve also had a lot of luck training a younger member of the Syuba community to help me with these sessions, which puts people at ease (particularly me).

Some people will worry that video takes up too much storage space. Make sure you test how much space that video takes up, and budget for a situation where you record even more than you expect, as people can get enthusiastic once you’re on a roll. Talking to archives early in the project planning to establish what they can take will also help you avoid problems down the line.

Here’s a project paragraph for you

This project uses both video and audio recording. This is to ensure that the data is the most useful it can be in the long term for both linguistic analysis and community sharing. Having video as well as audio makes transcription easier, and ensures that the elements of discourse that are not in the spoken channel are still collected. Both the audio and video equipment record in high-quality lossless formats suitable for archiving. I have budgeted for archiving as quoted by <insert archive name> and ensured that I have sufficient local storage for adequate backup.

By Lauren Gawne

This content originally appeared on Superlinguo at http://www.superlinguo.com/post/148949834781/reasons-you-should-use-video-in-language