Accessing a Language Community

Clifton Pye

Email: pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

Initiating research in an indigenous community is by far the hardest step in cross-linguistic research. Outsiders must be aware of the reasons why indigenous communities have a marginal economic and political status in most countries. Their marginal status makes them suspicious of any outsiders who come into the community. Past encounters with outsiders may have resulted in the loss of land and/or life. The history of aboriginal communities in Australia are not atypical (c.f. Dixon 1984). Norvin Richards noted that Australian aboriginal language Lardil "was deliberately destroyed" through a program of assimilation and relocation (Wright, 2003). Mayan communities in Guatemala have lynched outsiders who they thought were kidnapping their children.

The process can be made much easier by seeking the help of experts who work with the community, who can identify the conditions for doing research in the community, who can introduce the researcher to community members who can aid in the research, and who can vouch for the integrity of the researcher. These intermediaries can be linguists or healthcare workers or ideally members of the community themselves such as college students or schoolteachers. These intermediaries can be of enormous help in explaining the research objectives to the local authorities as well as introduce the researcher to community members who might help record and transcribe the children. Contacts with local intermediaries should be the main consideration when starting a language documentation project. Having an intermediary can speed up the research by six months to a year.

There is no substitute for someone who can show the researcher how to set up living quarters for their time in the field. An ideal place to stay in a community is in a rented room in one of the homes in the community. Living with a local family plunges the researcher immediately into the local culture. The family can advise the researcher on upcoming community events and help the researcher figure out how to do their laundry. A real advantage of living with a family is that the researcher will be able to eat with the family. There is every chance that the researcher will be able to sample local delicacies that cannot be found anywhere else. It is also generally healthier to eat with a family rather than eating in restaurants because the family has had a lot of practice in preparing food. Also remember to help out regularly by supplementing the household food supply.

One major consideration when setting up a place to live in the community is electricity. The room where you sleep will probably be the room where you work so the availability of electricity is a paramount concern when you consider that you will be using a computer extensively as well as recharging batteries for recorders. It really helps to bring rechargeable batteries and a recharger that can accommodate multiple types of batteries at the same time. The electric supply probably won't be dependable so you should have an extra supply of batteries for recorders and the computer, if that is possible. A table and chairs help considerably in working on a computer, so be prepared to find out how to acquire them. They can be a gift to the family when it comes time to leave.

Anthropologists are trained to anticipate some culture shock when living in a foreign environment. A researcher must learn how to set aside their favorite foods or the usual manner of bathing and adapt to local customs. It helps if the researcher can understand the value of the local traditions and treat them with respect. These traditions have long histories and have enabled the languages to be passed on through many generations. You will become more attuned to the family and local traditions by staying with the family for several months. Late evenings are often the best times for hearing adults discourse in the language as they relate stories about the past or joke about some incident that occurred earlier. Strangers will be the targets of local drunks or children begging for sweets, which is why it is important to be on good terms with families who can help sort out any difficulties.

Language acquisition researchers will need to seek permission from the families and language community to conduct their research. This is a delicate process that is difficult to do without a deep understanding of the community and its language situation. A very real hazard in work with indigenous communities is that an outside investigator will unknowingly stumble into a situation that leads to malign rumors about the purposes of the research. Many indigenous communities have good reason to be suspicious of outsiders because of their experiences with strangers taking their resources or their children (Nolan, 2020).

Working with small children will likely attract attention from the community as well as institutional review boards. It is essential to provide children and their families with information about the purpose of language documentation, and how their identities will be protected. They should also be informed about the significance of their contributions. It is of utmost importance to protect the children and their families from harm so it may be necessary to use audio-recorders rather than video cameras in order to protect family identities while making the recordings available on a community language archive. This is not a problem that can be taken lightly, and must be tailored to the needs of the individual families and communities.


Dixon, R. M. W. (1984). Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. The University of Chicago Press.

Nolan, R. (2020). Language barrier: For indigenous people who cross the border, a translation crisis follows. The New Yorker, January 6, 2020, 26-31.

Wright, S. H. (2003). Professor brings Aboriginal languages to life. In MIT News, 22 October 2003.

Page last modified 6/10/20
Copyright © 2020 Clifton Pye

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike