Monday, 13 October 2014

Lessons Learnt from St. Elizabeth

Two weeks ago, I visited the Deaf community in South St. Elizabeth for the second time to conduct some linguistic research. I was there for two days. And what an experience it was!
Up until I started visiting the South St. Elizabeth community in August this year, my experiences doing field research came primarily from my being an undergraduate linguistics student. My first such trip was to Moore Town, a Maroon community in the Cockpit Country. The trip was part of the Creole Linguistics course. At the graduate level, I had to go to Linstead, St. Catherine, for an Advanced Phonology (ugh!) course. The aim of the trip was to determine whether or not Jamaican Creole is a stress, tonal or pitch accent language. Ambitious, ikr!!!   

Each of my prior field research trip lasted for only a few hours - five (5) the most. Also, for these trips, I was with other students. So, if anything went wrong, we had each other's shoulders to lean on and, most importantly, we had people with whom to share the blame!  Naturally, then, my field research experience, up until now, has been pretty limited. The trips I had, however, made it easier to me to launch out on my own for hours upon hours in the field.  

Here are eleven (11) lessons I learnt on my last research trip to St. Elizabeth:

1.   Do not underestimate the amount of work you can cover during on a given trip. I'm not sure what led me to believe I could have gone through 90 minutes of data in two days! A file may be short, but very complex; a file may be long, but pretty simple!

2.   Ensure you have all your equipment before leaving for your trip. Forgetting my laptop charger cost me valuable time and money. 

3.   It's best to maintain a balance between not overestimating and not underestimating your language helpers' eyes. They do not always see everything you see as a linguist! Remain skeptical until proven wrong/right, and do so without giving the impression your language helpers don't know their language! The data quality and or their eyes may not be as good. You may also be seeing more than is actually there. Well, something may be there, but of no linguistic significance! 

4.   The people whose language you are researching may be less hard on you than the people who write all that field research ethics stuff you may have read in books that are aimed at helping you on the field. Country Signers gave me that "stop-being-worried-we-are-fine-with-you-taking-pictures-and-so-on" look. In fact, on my first trip, several come to me asking for my camera and teaching me Country Sign! Still follow the rules and don't exploit your assistants.   

5.   Remember you can have an influence on how subsequent researchers are accepted/treated by members of the speech community. Country Signers spoke of how many people from Jamaica and elsewhere have visited them. It was obvious Country Signers haven't been turned off by prior researchers.  

6.   "Si an blind, hear an deaf!" Some of the things you see are best ignored.  Do nothing to jeaprodise your relationship with members of the speech community. Sometimes this means you have to keep your eyes and hands shut. Like you, your language consultants aren't angels!

7.   Language helpers work best when you express genuine interest in them. Get to know them. Establish friendships. Live with them, if you can. Avoid staying at guest houses and hotels, only visiting when you need to work on your data. Don't be in a hurry to get your recorder or computer.

8.   If you are working with data that someone else annotated, keep in mind the annotator is only human. They may have left out something. They may have gotten something wrong. Do not begin your analysis until you are confident in the accuracy of the annotation(s).

9.   Be perceptive/sensitive. Some language helpers are too nice to tell you they are tired. If you have to return to the community some other time, do so. Don't allow your helpers to suffer from your unrealistic goals.

10.   The Deaf are usually concerned about being away from home after a certain time in the evenings/at nights. If your language helpers do not live close to where they meet with you, they may be able to spend more time with you if they don't have to worry about how they will get home. So, if can help them get home, offer your assistance. It works wonders!

11.  Language data is usually "messy." There are many "imperfections" -  interruptions, partially produced constructions, corrections, etc. Don't be deceived by the perfectly formed constructions you see in linguistic books, journals, etc!  
So, these were the things that stood out to me during my last visit. They remind me of a saying I heard from a preacher a few years ago, "Experience is the best teacher, but the school fee is high." 

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