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Classroom Fieldwork

Subject: Linguistics. Course: Language, Culture and Society. Study level: BA, 3rd semester. Group size: 35. 

Motivation for the activity

Fieldwork is often seen as a something that has to take place in an exotic setting. In reality fieldwork can be trained in less traditional ways and we have speakers of hundreds of interesting and exotic languages right here in Aarhus. 

Central learning outcomes for the activity

The activity can be used in all courses that work with anthropological linguistics and language description or in courses that use methods such as elicitation, interviewing and other kinds of data collection based on interaction.

The students get a rudimentary insight into the challenges in working with a living person, from who they have to attract information  - in this case about the structure of their language. It will appear much more difficult than imagined.

Description of the activity

I invite a speaker of an exotic language to guest our class and prepare him/her for the role of a consultant. It is important that the consultant knows the purpose of the session and also what is feasible in the time allotted.

The students are asked to prepare questions to ask, to think of ways of how to elicit different sentences and discuss what they imagine they will know about the language when the session is over.

Start the session itself with a presentation of the consultant. The teacher and the students then ask questions and use elicitation techniques to extract words and sentences from the consultant. The lecturer annotates all words on the blackboard, overhead sheet or a screen projecting notes from a computer, using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The session can be divided into three parts:

  • The sociolinguistic aspects of the language, e.g. the consultant's feeling about his/her language or the status of the language in the home land and attitudes towards it.
  • The grammatical features of the language (e.g. word order, plural formation).
  • Phonological skills can be trained with languages with especially interesting speech sounds.

After the session the consultant is thanked and leaves the class. The last part of the class can be used to analyze and discuss the findings about the language, and to evaluate the experience of the session. Much of it can also be done on the spot.

Here the students should discuss the reliability of their findings, evaluate their elicitation methods and the general outcome of the fieldwork.

Extra activity

As a preparation for the fieldwork session the students are asked to do a little bit of fieldwork themselves a week or two before the session. They are asked to contact a person that they do not know (on the street, on the bus) and ask them about their mother tongue:

  • What language is it?
  • Where is it spoken?
  • How do you say: “My name is X”, “I speak X language” and “Hello, nice to meet you”.

Experience shows that not all students will do the exercise, since it makes them uncomfortable to start a conversation with total strangers. The students that do follow through with the exercise will, however, experience that it is not at all difficult or dangerous to talk to strangers and that most people are more than happy to share about their language.

Outcome of the activity

The students train their basic linguistic toolbox, including phonetics, phonology, morphology and syntax on a hands-on. The students will experience the applicability of these tools, and that languages are spoken by individuals with personalities. They also learn that the fieldwork reality is a lot messier than carefully crafted exercises they may be used to from textbooks.

The students learn about data collecting in general and can apply this knowledge to other empirical investigations as well. They learn to interact with others while collecting data and they learn to contact people to do research with.

Even after intensive elicitation in class, there is still very little we can say with confidence about the language. The students learn that elicitation, language description and fieldwork in general are complex and time-consuming tasks. 

Transfer to other disciplines

Indoor fieldwork could be a useful activity not only in the language subjects, but also in other empirical traditions such as anthropology, sociology and some of the aesthetic subjects. People who have grown up far away from Denmark can share their insights with the Danish students in many different contexts. 

Fieldwork sessions make the students learn to interact with people from outside of the university in order to make empirical investigations. It prepares the students for gathering data on their own later on in their studies as well. It also makes them realise that research is partly books and paper, but also work with real humans.

Monolingual fieldwork in the classroom

Linguist Dan Everett provides a demonstration of monolingual fieldwork in the classroom. 



Peter Bakker

Associate professor
H 1485, 619
P +4587162146