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Advice to New Fieldworkers

Today on the ELAR blog, nine experienced fieldworkers share what they wish they had known before going into the field. Each fieldworker’s advice is (of course) shaped by their own experiences and field sites.

Involve young community members in the documentation process from the beginning of your project, or, as soon as possible. -Alex Garcia (Northern Alta in the Philippines)

I wish I had had all the vaccines against common tropical diseases. I developed typhoid when I drank some water given by my hosts in the field. Always be equipped with a water filter as in some cultures, the first contact with people means sharing water as a way to mean that you are special. Even if one does not work on sign language, It would be good to distinguish some basic signing patterns. I sometimes got confused when I said the opposite of what I wanted just by making a sign. It is good to offer gifts to people in the field, but money should be given only when it turns out to be the only way of expressing one’ s gratitude. Read books on cross-cultural communications. –Ndokobai Dadak (Maroua in Cameroon)

When it all comes down to it, remember that your role as a linguist comes second to your role as a human being. As much as successful field linguistics is about formulating the perfect elicitation questions, finding the ideal consultants, and keeping tabs on the plethora of research data (all while supplying enough electricity to keep the batteries charged), the whole enterprise is meaningless if we come away without having felt something. So – even if budgets are tight, timelines are compressed, and expectations for corpus word-counts are high – nothing is more important than developing with our field communities relationships of trust, friendship, and shared humanity. -Andrew Harvey (Gorwaa in Tanzania)

Take a diary and make sure you set aside some time each day to write about what you have been up to and how you felt about it. Fieldwork demands the best of you, emotionally and intellectually and it is important to acknowledge these pressures and reflect on them. -William Parker (Cora in Mexico)

For places that are remote or are off the grid:
– bring dry bags for your gear and silica gel packs to add into your dry bags when you are storing the equipment for a while (humidity can damage equipment very easily).
– bring a few large cheap mosquito nets that can be cut to the desired size to screen doors, windows etc.
– large plastic storage boxes for stuff that you don’t want rats to get to (which is all of your stuff).
– head torch for late night loo trips (not good when talking to people though because it blinds them) and enough batteries for it.
-Bring an exercise strap, jumping rope, yoga mat – to keep fit and engage consultants or connect with children
– Bring an inflatable beach ball with the world map on it (there are cheap ones online so it is better to bring a few of them as they don’t tend to last)
– more SD cards and flash drives than you think you will need. I like to use 32 GB SD cards and back up each card to a 32 GB flash drive. A shockproof hard drive for backup additional backups.                                    -Tihomir Rangelov (Ahamb in Vanuatu)

Fieldwork can be exhausting, trying to think of a hundred things while you navigate a culture, environment, and cuisine that can be very different from what you’re used to. I always make sure I have a support of comfort TV and silly novels. I don’t know anymore how I did fieldwork before getting an e-book reader, it’s been more than worth it’s (lack of) weight. I take a bit of a prepare-for-anything and expect-nothing approach to fieldwork – building up relationships with people is really what you’re there for, and that’s so hard to predict. Also, take three times more photographs than you think you’ll want. I always wish I had more photographs. -Lauren Gawne (Kagate and Yolmo in Nepal):

Make sure to have official permissions to reside in the fieldwork area and be prepared for your access to the area to be denied. Be ready to be flexible and think of alternatives to work with the speakers of the language you want to study, such as inviting them to an area where you are allowed to stay. –Katia Chirkova (Xumi, Lizu, Ersu, and Duoxu in China)

Be careful of losing your objectivity when you are on fieldwork. It’s important to recognize any bias you may have based on your relationships with the people you are working with. -Vera Ferreira (Minderico in Portugal)

Avoid the temptation to try to do everything on one field trip. It is so easy to give into the panic of how much work there is to do, especially if you are working with speakers of a very endangered language or very elderly speakers. Focus on your research question when it comes to data collection. Also, try to go to everything you’re invited to (festivals, children’s birthday parties, wedding receptions, etc.) as much as you can. It’s an honor to be included and it’s a great way to meet people and build relationships. -Martha Tsutsui Billins (Southern Amami Oshima in Japan)

Nishikomi Village, Amami Oshima

Thank you to all the linguists who participated in this post! If you have something to add, please let us know in the comments!

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