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Learning an Endangered Language (Part 1)

In Maxwell Owusu’s classic article, “Ethnography of Africa: The Usefulness of the Useless” he criticizes anthropologists for ignoring the importance of local languages. A situation which forced many of the most respected anthropologists to rely on interpreter-informants. He argues that this reliance on interpreters has been a source of error and confusion in the field (he then blames the excesses of structuralism on such inattention to details). As I wrote in my dissertation, “language skills are something that Anthropologists rarely discuss in their ethnographies.” One exception is Stevan Harrell who wrote the following in the introduction Ploughshare Village:

For the first six weeks, I employed an interpreter to translate my Mandarin Chinese into the villagers’ Hokkien [Hoklo] and back again, but when he left to go to college, I interviewed and interacted almost exclusively in the Hokkien language, I started out missing things, but learned fast, out of necessity.

Needless to say, I am not the language learner that Stevan Harrell is. I certainly would not have been able to interact exclusively in Hokkien (a.k.a. Hoklo, Southern Min, Taiwanese…, I prefer using Hoklo) after a short six weeks. But then again, I didn’t have to. A generation separates when Harrell was in the field and when I arrived, and during that time families increasingly chose to speak to their children in Mandarin to better improve their chances in school. The result is that most people my age and younger speak Mandarin better than they do Hoklo. This meant that when I was studying Hoklo, my social network in Taipei was of little use to me, but even when I found older man from Southern Taiwan to act as my tutor, my interest flagged. I was having enough trouble with Mandarin and there just wasn’t a strong enough incentive to struggle with learning another language at the same time.

When I did leave Taipei to go to the field, I found myself in a rural community with speakers of three different local languages: Hoklo, Hakka, and Amis so, of course, Mandarin was the lingua franca. My biggest challenge there was not learning the local languages so much learning the local variety of Mandarin, one which was far different from the bookish standard we had learned in my language program. I was reminded of this recently when I spoke to one of my former teachers. She had arranged for me to give a talk back at my old language school, and was admonishing me not to sound so “local” when talking to their students. After three years struggling to teach in Taiwanese Mandarin, I told her I wasn’t sure I could still speak with the Beijing accent they taught me at school. Code switching between different varieties of Mandarin is just not in my repertoire. (And considering how much I had to unlearn what they taught me at that school, I’m not sure I support their goals, even if I do understand them.)

Athough my Mandarin is still far from perfect, I’ve decided to attempt once again to learn a local language. Not Hoklo this time, but Amis, one of Taiwan’s indigenous languages. In fact, a desire to learn at least one Formosan language was one of the major motivating factors in my decision to come to Taiwan to work. This past semester I finally managed to put aside some time to devote myself to this task, and in the weeks ahead I hope to write more about the difficulties of learning an endangered language.

19 thoughts on “Learning an Endangered Language (Part 1)

  1. Good on you, Kerim. A noble effort, indeed.

    Ruth and I are part of that “older generation” to which Stevan Harrell belongs, and we were, to the best of my knowledge, the first non-native anthropologists to do fieldwork in Hoklo instead of Mandarin.

    One of my most vivid memories is attending a meeting of the local Junior Chamber of Commerce in Puli, at which the chair manfully struggled through opening the meeting in Mandarin and then said, in effect, “enough of that” and visibly relaxed into Hoklo. Now, as Kerim points out, it might be the other way around. It is easy to imagine young business people starting out in Hoklo as a sign of respect to any elders present, then switching into Mandarin to talk serious business.

    Then memory points me to Ruth and I, who, while spending a couple of months in Penang in Malaysia, decompressing before returning to the States, were trying to watch a local Chinese TV program. Talk about code-switching! As far as we, with the help of our Chinese landlady could make out, the cast included people speaking Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochiu and slipping from one to the other. A U.S. Peace Corps member whom we met in Penang told us how frustrating it was to try to learn to speak Chinese from a teacher who would say something in one language, then switch to another without, or so it seemed to the Peace Corps member, being aware of the switch.

    Anyway, good luck, Kerim. I look forward to future posts on your experience with Amis.

  2. Thanks John. There are still anthropologists doing fieldwork in Hoklo, but they mostly are folks based in the South-West of the island.

  3. A friend of mine once told me that learning a new martial art was like learning a new language—if you already knew one before you started it was easier and faster to pick up the new one, but that studying more than one at the same time only made a difficult task even harder.

    I really do think that it is easier to learn a minority language “out of necessity” (ie, in a monolingual atmosphere) than in a multi-lingual situation such as you describe. It would help if there was some sort of professional recognition (in the form of funding and “tenure points,” as it were) of the need for some anthropologists to become comfortable with multiple languages for multiple purposes. I think of a fellow I met who worked in North Africa who had learned French for historical documents and contemporary academic publications, Arabic as a contact language, and a Berber language for his fieldwork.

    I was not aware of the Owusu article prior to reading your post. It was a good read (as well as readable). The two articles below might be worth reading for someone particularly interested in this sort of issue.

    Everett, Daniel L. 2001. Monolingual fieldwork. In _Linguistic fieldwork_, ed. Paul Newman and Martha Susan Ratliff, 166–88. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Woodbury, Hanni 1984. Translation glosses and semantic description. In _Extending the rafters: Interdisciplinary approaches to Iroquoian studies_, ed. Michael K. Foster, Jack Campisi, and Marianne Mithun, 209–27. Albany: State University Press of New York.

  4. Hi this is cherry , I have spent a few months building a site to help me and ultimately everyone else learn foreign languages(built for any language). I am trying to find people who would like test out the site (and use it to learn at the same time) and give me feedback on it on how to improve it. Any person who helps out would have a large say in the sites future direction and structure. Would you be interested? The site is called Sanbit : http://sanbit.com .
    Do you know anyone else who might be interested in using the site to help them learn foreign languages?

  5. Compliments to MTBradley and his friend. The martial arts metaphor works really well. Linguistic competence takes lots and lots of practice.

    That said, Kerim’s statement that,

    bq. language skills are something that Anthropologists rarely discuss in their ethnographies”

    points to the elephant in the room of ethnographic research. If ethnography is conceived as penetrating analysis of what people think and feel based on what they tell us, then language mastery is key to how far we can get.

    So far as ethnographic research is focused on limited domains, kinship terms, for example, a combination of everyday fluency with systematic research in that limited domain main suffice. But understanding that is broad as well as deep is not an easy thing.

    Thus it was that, despite having achieved a modest fluency in Hoklo, I focused my dissertation on the symbolism of Daoist magic on visual material, offerings and gestures either photographed or repeatedly noted as I followed my Daoist master around. Did I ever understand how he felt in his heart of hearts about his own practice—let alone the arcane subtleties articulated in the Daoist Canon? The answer I can now say is “Absolutely not.”

    I now make my living as a partner in a translation company that has been in business for 25 years, not quite the 28 years that Ruth and I have been in Japan. We are good at what we do. When it comes to language, experience counts, and for us the Internet has become an invaluable aid, e.g., when a Japanese curator rambles on about Surrealism, citing without a page reference an obscure text whose original is French. Could I say that because my Japanese is fair-to-middling and I know where to look things up that I understand everything that Japanese with whom I converse are saying? Again, “absolutely not.”

    Not even Japanese can say that. Taku Tada, who around 2001 was a wunderkind in Japanese advertising circles and acclaimed for his shrewd insights into how Japanese consumers think and feel, says, “How many of us can understand what even our closest friends or lovers are thinking?” He is making the point that, at the end of the day, the creator falls back on his or her own intuitions and hopes that they will sell.

    So when I read elaborate interpretations of myth or ritual or sexual habits or whatever by people who have, at most, spent only been a year or two with the people whose lives they purport to describe, I cannot help wondering how they learned the language, not just to the level of speaking with basic fluency, but broadly and deeply enough to confidently assert that what they are saying is valid.

  6. I can see that many researchers come to the field for a very short time and language learning is just not part of the funding parcel. I for my part can’t even imagine working through an interpreter. Neither do I have a lot of confidence in any research which is done through an interpreter. There is so much that gets lost in translation, especially between languages that are not related. Without a good knowledge of local words and concepts, skewed results are unavoidable.
    This does not apply to “endangered languages” only. Why did you chose this title?

  7. I spent 2-1/2 years in the field and I learned the language. I made dang sure I learned the language; I moved to a village where there were no English speakers. I thought that this was required. I thought I would be mocked and ostracized if I did anything else. I was wrong?

  8. The post is about situations where there is strong diglossia. “The language” spoken by many anthropologists is often the dominant or official language of the host country: Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian, Classical Arabic, etc. People spend years learning these (second) languages and then go to a field site where the local language is something quite different. While in Owusu’s time one may have needed an interpreter to communicate in the local language, or been able to learn it by necessity, now it is often the case that the local language is endangered and few young people are learning it. This is the situation I will be exploring in this series. Obviously, the situation can be very different depending on the field site.

  9. Zora, may we ask where your village is and how involved the people there are with what, for the sake of a handy phrase, I will call the world system?

    As I ask this question, I imagine two quite different scenarios. In one, the anthropologist’s village is isolated. Yes, from a properly distanced world system perspective we may recognize that the lives led there have been influenced by all sorts of history. To the people who live there, life is, however, pretty much the life their parents lived. Life moves in small, largely predictable cycles. The range of local concerns, whether cattle in East Africa or pigs in Melanesia, is limited. In this small, relatively stable community, Basil Bernstein’s hypothesis holds. People speak a restricted code. Grammatically and phonologically speaking, it shares the openness of all natural languages; an infinite number of new things could be said. But the fact of the matter is that they aren’t. The same topics recur. Vocabulary is limited. Most conversation involves short and syntactically simple structures. In this scenario, the anthropologist’s becoming fluent within a year or two is a reasonable expectation.

    Kerim’s experience and mine reflects a radically different situation. The people we work with are formally educated, at least through elementary and lower secondary grades. They are citizens of nations that teach and celebrate their roots in global as well as local traditions. They watch TV, they go to movies, they read newspapers and magazines, some even books. These days their access to the Internet may be as good or better than ours. Critically for language learning, their societies are complex, with numerous bodies of specialized knowledge and the jargons that go with them. Meanings are always contested. And, local written traditions that stretch back hundreds and thousands of years and exist in literally millions of printed words provide plenty of fuel for debate. Thus, in Grant McCracken’s wonderful phrase, “meaning flows.” In this situation, “learning the local language” is an enterprise for which a lifetime is not enough. Learning enough to converse even semi-intelligently on a limited range of topics is a serious achievement, even for the native speaker.

    These are, of course, ideal types, deliberately polarized models constructed to frame discussion. But where particular research fits between them and the linguistic demands it entails—there’s the rub.

  10. I did fieldwork in Tonga, in the South Pacific — where, luckily for me, a history of British colonialism ensured that the intelligentsia spoke English. I would have been able to coast through fieldwork using only English if I had stayed in the capital and only talked to the intelligentsia.

    That’s why I went to an island in the Ha’apai archipelago. Not all that isolated; kids studied English in school: they went to high school on the main island in the archipelago or in the capital: a number of the men had worked overseas, in New Zealand. Otherwise, they were subsistence farmers and fishers who sold copra to buy things like needles and flour.

    It took me a year and a half (plus some previous language tutoring in the US) to become fairly fluent. I don’t think it’s THAT hard to develop conversational fluency when you’re in a situation where you can’t escape it and you must learn. By the end of my stay in Tonga, I was amused to find that when I interviewed intelligentsia, we were codeswitching. We’d switch back and forth from English to Tongan depending on the topic.

    My main language deficits were in catching meaning in difficult auditory circumstances (church conferences in huge echoing churches) and in the elaborate language used by matapules in ceremonial occasions. I would suppose that the latter is the kind of thing John McCreery is discussing: a cultural or literary tradition that takes even native speakers years to master. Not all of them do. Just so, most Tongans were content to let the matapule learn the special counting words for coconuts and pigs, words only used in ceremonial prestations.

  11. Thanks, Zora. When you write,

    bq. My main language deficits were in catching meaning in difficult auditory circumstances….and in the elaborate language used by matapules in ceremonial occasions.

    I think of what I wrote in my chapter on “Traditional Chinese Religions” in Ray Scupin, ed., _Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus_,

    bq. China is the world’s oldest continuously literate society, and the sheer volume of historical texts is enormous. One source suggests that the 25 imperial histories alone would require 45 million words in English translation. In Chinese the Buddhist Canon is 74 times the length of the Christian Bible, while the Daoist Canon is a library that runs to several thousand pages in its latest edition. In contrast the number of scholars who study these materials is small. In history as well as in archeology, new discoveries continue to appear. Suppressed texts, hidden away sometimes for centuries, surface periodically.

    To which I would add that ritual is not the only locus of ceremonial language. In, for example, our work as translators from Japanese to English we have, just within the last year, encountered the specialized vocabularies of audio engineers (algorithms for reproducing Dolbi 5.1 channel sound through earphones), medical biophysicists (ferrite nanobeads for cancer detection and treatment), architecture and urban planning, performance art, dance, early (pre-silver halide film) forms of photography, _gutai_: an art movement that interacted with the French _informel_, lots of marketing and advertising. We can, moreover, no longer count on our Japanese associates for explanations of pop culture. They, like us, are 50+ and frequently as baffled by allusions to the latest trendy coinages as we are. The good news is that using Google to search for them usually pops them up, with enough context to make a decent stab at how they ought to be rendered.

  12. I don’t get the logic of Jutta’s suggestion that an interpreter makes for bad anthropology. I’m making an effort to learn the language (and I could spot the mistakes Owusu pointed out after my initial 7-week language training before I got to the field, they were pretty glaring), but even if I did have a year to dedicate to language training before really engaging with my research questions, someone still has to translate, me or an interpreter. How does the kind of fluency I can develop in that year always lead to a better translation than the one done for me by someone who has spent their entire life bi-lingual in Twi and English, who has studied both in formal education?

    I definitely use my language skills to monitor the translation, make sure she doesn’t forget to tell me about things I catch, but I have far more information having used an interpreter than I would have otherwise. I suppose time and peer-review will tell whether that information is reliable, but it just seems bizarre to me to write off the use of interpretors entirely, especially in contexts where those interpretors have a far better fluency in English than I could reasonably hope to acquire in a reasonable time in Twi.

  13. Carmen makes some good points here. Could she be helping us to move beyond the binary logic of “interpreter bad” vs. “interpreter OK” to thinking more carefully about this issue. As a copywriter and translator, I am often reminded by my own failings as well as the example of others that “S/he knows the language” is no guarantee of the knowledge or communication skill to convey precisely what someone wants to say in the tone and manner they intend. I have seen professional simultaneous interpreters who are spot on in some situations stumble badly in others; someone, for example, who is very good, indeed, if the topic is finance or politics may make egregious mistakes if the topic is a new technology in a field with which they are unfamiliar. It is not hard to imagine a fieldwork situation in which, another, this time hypothetical, example, the mission-educated interpreter who speaks English knows as little about the esoteric world implicit in a ritual performance as the anthropologist herself—and lacks the comparative perspective of someone who has read a lot of ethnography and has specific questions to ask that might not occur to a native speaker at all.

    I think of ancient debates about the demarcation of the social facts of interest to the anthropologist from individual psychology. The unmentioned elephant in the room was always the fact that a focus on the public and visible substantially reduced the need for linguistic competence. Hut diagrams, census data, kinship terms, lists of political and ritual offices and politics conceived primarily in terms of inheritance and succession to office: relevant data could be collected by someone with rudimentary language skills and commonsense local knowledge. One largely undiscussed implication of the interpretive turn is that sorting out the twitches from the winks, the wink with a grin that shares a joke from the wink that signals time to act, the fictional wink that may mimic any and all of the above, let alone probing deeply into the possibly idiosyncratic perceptions and feelings of individuals, requires much better language and communication skills than more than a handful of linguistically talented anthropologists are likely to acquire in only a year or two.

  14. A couple of things popped into my brain when reading this and the comments.

    Language ability is one of the few methodological issues seen to really count in sociocultural anthropology. Kind of like sieve size or something for archaeologists: “what? you only used 1/4 inch sieves? If only you had used 1/8 inch ones you would have picked up so much more information!”

    In the very, very early days people spent quite some effort devising ways to generate data without knowing the language. Linguistic incompetence was built into the method. WHR Rivers, for example, and his lists of questions for quickly elucidating kinship terms during the few hours he had on the beach while touring the Pacific by boat. Published two volumes out of that stuff. (And of course everyone since has delighted in pointing out how wrong it all is).

    Lastly there is a power dynamic involved in whether you choose to speak the local language, use an interpreter or speak English in those colonially induced multi-option situations. I had about four language options in my PhD field site – and each one felt different. In one I was the embarrassingly bad foreigner who got everything wrong, in another we were all incompetent, in another I was in control (and in the fourth we all felt pretty happy).

  15. Interesting, too, how linguistic competence plays into questions about whether the native anthropologist does real fieldwork. How can it be real fieldwork without the rite of passage of being in a place where, in terms of both language skills and street smarts, you know less than the average two-year old?

  16. John, I think that point about the rite of passage is very important. In my field, European history, you just don’t get taken seriously if you haven’t done at least some research in an archive somewhere in Europe. Even though all the sources for my own work in intellectual history are easily available in the U.S., off I went to Italy (I’m not complaining) to hang out at the Gramsci Institute and read things I could have read here.

    Historians speak in the same hushed, reverent, knowing tones about ‘the archive’ as you lot do about ‘the field’. There must be tales of heroic difficulty and overcoming: the mold to which one is allergic unto death, the bizarre local foods, the grumpy archive director, the grumpy informants. These are the cult mysteries.

    Similarly, historians tend to snob any kind of work in translation, despite the obvious fact that we are nothing if not translators of the past. My Italian is near-native and I certainly did find some errors in the main Gramsci translations, including a couple of pretty substantive ones. But overall, I think the translations are pretty good and allow full access to any intelligent reader. There’s also a lot of fretting in Gramsci studies about how the _Prison Notebooks_ were edited and translated. Yet in my view, some of the best work on/with Gramsci has been done based on these imperfect sources.

    I also got to know Durkheim’s _Elementary Forms_ very, very well while I was working on my dissertation. I worked with the old translation and Karen Fields’ new one, plus I had a copy of the original French to check in with if I had any doubts. I found both translations to be just fine; the new one in general a bit more readable but with some odd gratuitous changes that lost a little compared to the first one. In no case was there a problem big enough to lose the sense in anything but the most decontextualized reading.

    Weber translations are famously worrisome this way. As an example, so much is lost from the German sense of “Herrschaft” by translating it “domination” (just as so much is lost from Marx’s “Aufhebung” by any one-word translation like “overcoming”). So that can be misleading, except that if you read Weber’s typology of legitimate domination even just a little bit carefully, all of those layers of meaning are well-embedded. The same is true of “virtu'” in Machiavelli, a translation-unfriendly piece of polysemia that smoothly finds its meanings in the contexts in which it’s embedded; as do they all, without the rituals of disciplinary purification adding a lick.

  17. actually, i’d not be able to say whether i do fieldwork in hoklo, mandarin, or ‘amis. the reason for this is really one of the first lessons taiwan gave me (and something i later learned to speak about it more technical language when i studied linganth at chicago): “language” might not be a useful category to describe how people actually communicate in taiwan. what i’ve found in lukang and a’tolan–and increasingly in the taipei centered media–are speech communities that employ the resources of several languages simultaneously. obviously on taiwan these resources also include japanese and english. because the use of these languages, particularly among ‘amis, tends toward cross-linguistic puns and types of interference across several codes, it doesn’t even make sense to call these examples of “code switching,” at least not in the typical sense. for the language learner, this employment of several codes is encouraging but also frustrating. at any rate, taiwan is a place that severely challenges the idea of autonomous languages in which one works “purely.” what makes the ‘amis speech community so expressive and interesting from either a pragmatic or aesthetic sense is play across several languages in which one has various levels of competence. my problem as regards the anthropological establishment has been the tendency to edit out this complexity, particularly in peer review

  18. Back in 1971, Ruth and I encountered the same phenomenon in Penang, where we were startled to find ourselves watching TV with actors speaking and code-switching between several Chinese languages: Mandarin, Hoklo, Hakka, Swatow, Cantonese.

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