Episode 13: Jeff Good on Facilitating Language Documentation in Cameroon

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Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and this is the inaugural episode of Season Two. Right now I’m in Seattle, where we are on lockdown due to the COVID-19 crisis, and you might notice that the quality of the recordings in Season Two are going to be a little bit different than Season One due to myself and many of the Field Notes guests not having access to their usual recording setups. But never mind. We’ll work with what we’ve got, and I hope everyone listening is safe, and healthy, and safely isolating, and yeah. We’re going to get through this together.

Today’s interview is with Jeff Good, who is someone I’ve wanted to have on Field Notes for quite a while now. He has a PhD from UC Berkeley, and he is now a professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Buffalo in New York. Jeff is a typologist, and his research mostly focuses on lesser-documented Bantoid languages in the Lower Fungom region of Northwest Cameroon. He has also done work on Saramaccan, an Atlantic creole. If you’re interested in hearing more about creoles, you can check out Season One, Episode Four, with Hugo Cardoso.

Today’s chat mostly focused on just work in Cameroon, and one thing that I really appreciated is his collaborative approach to working with local scholars and how he’s used his access and his privilege to benefit both local and junior scholars. Another thing that really stood out to me is his pragmatic approach to the practicalities of fieldwork, whether that’s planning your fieldwork around your family and home life or thinking about the weather and the climate of your field site. And one thing that he said that really stuck with me is that all of us, the researchers and the speakers, we’re all humans, so the project that you’re working on, the research, it really needs to work for everyone. So on that note, let’s get to the interview.


MTB: Okay, so thank you so much for coming on to Field Notes, Jeff. I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule.

Jeff Good: Yeah, well, thank you for the invitation. It seems like just a great idea to provide this kind of forum, especially maybe for junior scholars who are just starting out, but I’m sure even all of us can learn from each other. Every time I meet a field worker, we’re always exchanging little tips and things, so this seems like a great forum for that.

MTB: Yeah, thanks. Definitely. That’s kind of the whole idea is just to share experiences and get an idea about what other people are doing and what we can learn from each other. So to start, can you tell us a bit about how you got started in field linguistics?

Jeff Good: Yeah, sure. This is something I’ve discussed a lot, I think, with younger linguists who are thinking about doing fieldwork, in part because I think my trajectory was maybe more typical when I started like 20 years ago than it is today. When I was first coming into the field, there wasn’t nearly as much attention on endangered languages as there is now. It was something that people were sort of talking about, but you didn’t get a lot of people who were coming into graduate programs specifically interested in endangered languages. I can think of one, someone, one member of my PhD program who started a few years before me like that, and she said she actually had to explain to people in her early years that she worked on endangered languages and what that meant. So I think these days, you see a lot of students who say, “I want to do a PhD. I want to do language documentation. I want to work on an understudied language.” I came in with more I guess what you might call traditional structural interests, really interested in comparing different related languages to see what kind of grammatical insights you might derive from that and just doing morphological, phonological, syntactic analysis. And what happened is, in large part because I started working with Larry Hyman, I became exposed to just Bantu languages and comparative Bantu linguistics, became quite interested in that. I started to do some what you’d call consultant work, but not really fieldwork. First, I just discovered I really enjoyed working with speakers and just getting to know their language, but I was doing that in a university setting or maybe going to their home in a U.S. urban setting. And I really enjoyed that, but I never really had aspirations to kind of undertake the sort of long-term field trip in a location far from home that is very typical today. So I had this comparative Bantu interest, was doing work, historical reconstruction and also doing more sort of synchronic analytical work on sort of comparative Bantu data.

One year when I was still a graduate student at UC Berkeley, we had the opportunity to work with a speaker of a Nigerian language called Leggbó that was, or is, somewhat distantly related to Bantu languages, and she was the consultant for a field methods class that I attended. And I really enjoyed working with her and getting to see what that language looked like, and I was really fascinated by the ways that it had some correspondence to better-known Bantu grammar like a language like Swahili or something like that, but it had also gone in a very different morphological direction in certain ways, and so it wasn’t as agglutinative, but it had some morphology. And then just a little bit to its west, you’d find languages that were related with almost no morphology, and I realized that the languages I was really interested in were those that had this kind of intermediate morphological type, not the sort of clean agglutinative language or a more prototypical isolating language, but they had this kind of really just interesting intermediate morphology. Right? So I’m giving all this background because my interest even where I work today in Cameroon was very much driven by these concerns of grammar, so I really came at this from this pathway.

And then around sort of 2004 or so, I had the opportunity to take on a postdoctoral fellowship in Leipzig at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, where there was a lot of fieldwork going on. And when I put in my kind of application, I said, “Oh, if I had a postdoc, I’d be excited to use the opportunity to do real fieldwork around the Cameroon–Nigeria border area,” because I realized linguistically that’s where I wanted to work. And then when I was given the postdoc, I actually suddenly had to do it, and I was actually really nervous about it, because I’m not, I don’t think of myself as a particularly adventurous person. I did not have the sort of desire to go to Africa and see the cultures and all these things. Since then, that’s really changed. I mean, maybe I can talk about that later, but my sort of way I interact and understand the way I do linguistics has really been deeply impacted by going to the field, but I was really just kind of nervous about it.

But the thing about being at the Max Planck Institute at that time was that there was absolutely no funding barrier whatsoever to doing the fieldwork. Once I had the fellowship, I could email Bernard Comrie, who just was so willing and supportive of people to do exploratory projects and find new languages to work on and say I kind of… I should dig up this email (I can’t find it) again where I just sent him a very rough budget. I didn’t know what language I was going to work on. I just knew I was going to go to this part of Cameroon and find a language, you know, and he just trusted me to do that. I said “I need,” I don’t know, “Four or five thousand euros,” I estimated. Very rough budget. Two days later, I get an email, or maybe one day, saying, “Approved.” And I was like, “Uh-oh. I got to do this now.” Right? But basically all the barriers were lifted. Right? And so suddenly I could go and do it, so… I think that’s the beginning. Right? So what started really came from this very different path than I think is typical today.

MTB: Yeah. I think it’s really changed a lot, hasn’t it? Because now, you know, there’s — like funding alone is such a big barrier.

Jeff Good: Yeah. Things have, although I will say that if you were to look at my projects, you know, today, and I probably had — I haven’t added the number up recently — maybe like a million dollars in NSF funding, right, to do this. This is US money, which means there’s like a big university tax that gets taken out, so let’s say $750,000 of real money, which is a lot of money. That wouldn’t have been possible without that first investment that Bernard Comrie was willing to make for me to do the pilot work. And what I see the real gap in funding is just those few thousand dollars, maybe, or few thousand euros, or few thousand pounds that are needed to let a promising student go out and just establish their field site. And what I’ve seen as a PhD supervisor now is, that really impacts the students who don’t have relatively wealthy parents or don’t have someone who can just give them that, like, starter loan. And so I really feel like the biggest… To me, one of the biggest gaps in funding now is this, “You seem good. You know, you don’t have a project yet. We’re not going to give you ten thousand dollars, or pounds, or euros, but we’ll give you 3,000, and you find the rest. You’ll find another thousand or two and prove yourself, come back, and then you can go ahead and do it.” So I was incredibly fortunate not to have to worry about that first trip. And then once I could establish myself, find the field site, I could leverage that to get larger-scale external grant.

MTB: Can we shift real quick? So you also teach language documentation at University of Buffalo now, like you’ve mentioned. How is it at University of Buffalo? Do you have a consultant come in? How do you do fieldwork and field methods?

Jeff Good: Yeah, so the way we’ve done it, so there’s an old field methods class that’s been around forever at the university. Right? So like a lot of departments, right, who knows, 20, 30 years, and we still have that class. It gets run maybe every other year or so just because we don’t have enough PhD students, I mean just because of funding constraints. Right? So if you wait a couple years, you get a good group, so we just don’t quite have enough people doing it every year. Also, because traditionally, that was our main methods course, and now a lot of students also specialize in quantitative methods as the field has shifted, so not as many are going into field methods, but we still run that course. I still think it’s an important course in the traditional format, and I’ll kind of get to why. But then also twice — and every, I’d like to do this again in a few years — I’ve run a separate seminar that focuses on language documentation itself as we understand it today in the sense of the endangered language documentation program in the sort of contemporary sense.

The field methods course, I should say, is a one-year course, so it’s two semesters which is a really a long time to work with someone. The seminar has been a one-semester seminar that’s not formalized, but has been probably the most, I’d say, popular seminar I’ve taught. Students really, really have enjoyed it. And I think there are sort of two things going on, and I don’t quite know how they’re resolving it, I think, say, in Hawaii, which probably has one of the most well-developed language documentation curricula (I don’t know how they resolved it at SOAS) where there’s a tremendous amount of linguistic research that relies on data collected by interaction of one linguist with one consultant. Now, it could be that that consultant produced a story, and then you’re analyzing it afterwards. It could be that someone else recorded the story or you have a natural conversation, but then you’re sitting in a room with one person. So even those who do documentation are still relying on this, I think, one-on-one interaction. Right? I think it’s central to the process, and on the one hand, I think students who want to do real fieldwork need a lot of practice with that, and it’s really great to give them an experience to practice in their university setting when they’re not dealing with homesickness, and they’re not dealing with the power going out, and they’re not dealing with all of the other complications that arise when you’re travelling far away, so they can kind of learn who they are, how they interact with another person well to get linguistic data. They can probe their strengths and weaknesses so that when they get to the field, they kind of have that part, they’ve practised that part, and they can hopefully still succeed in that part with all of the other things they have to do in the actual field.

I think it’s also the case that I really like, a lot of the students who take that class aren’t ever planning to do language documentation at Buffalo, but they really like the idea of understanding how to work with a consultant, and I think, “What do I want them to know?” I want them to understand the difficulty and the fragility of that process of getting data from a speaker both so that, just so that they have a better sense of like when they open a grammar, because maybe they’re doing typology, they understand all of the details, all of the sort of problematic steps along the way to produce that grammar, because so many linguists are using the products, the high-level analytical products of documentation. I want them to understand intuitively the messiness of that process, so I think that’s just really good for them to understand how the field collects data of that kind.

So I think there’s still a space for that class, and we do some documentation-like stuff. Okay, we have to record the things on audio or video, and they have to do some metadata, and they’re probably going to see ELAN and do some time-align transcription, but I don’t push that as hard, and instead I push the, “Use this as a practice run for working with a consultant and understanding that.”

Then there’s the seminar where we really try to look at language documentation kind of as a subdiscipline, and there, there’s a set of readings across things like interaction with a community, ethical interaction, you know, how to be ethical. We go a lot more into particular choices of equipment, how you would manage metadata in the field, ethics review board issues, whatever those happen to be in whatever country someone’s research is sort of legally based. I could go through… I have a… I can’t see it in my mind. I have a topical bibliography where we kind of go through these different topics, and so we discuss those conceptually. And then what I do in that course, the sort of, one of the core bits of what you call assessed work, the output is, students are supposed to produce a draft grant application, so we actually… I structure the themes, “Okay, so today you have to write your community section of the grant application. Now you’re going to write your documentary output section. Now, you’re going to talk about, you know, work plan,” so we try to sort of layer in these thematic topics. And there I actually see the applied work as, how do you get that grant? How do you design the… I mean, it’s not just about the grant, but designing the project. How do you actually design a real-world fieldwork project?

I’ve even had some students in who’ve attended that class who aren’t interested in endangered languages, but let’s say sociolinguistic documentation of American English varieties, and they actually share a lot of those same logistical issues. So I just feel like it’s really… I don’t want to lose all of the value you get from practice with a consultant in your university setting, but then there’s also this whole list of logistical aspects of how you manage your documentation project, which is where the seminar’s focused. The nice thing is, the students who take that class really want to know that stuff. Those who are in field methods may just want to understand how you collect primary data in this one-on-one fashion.

MTB: It’s so interesting to see how other universities run their field methods courses, like compared to SOAS and University of Hawaii, and then I didn’t even really have a field methods class when I did my undergrad at Fresno State, so the first time I ever sat down with a consultant was in London at SOAS. You think like, “Oh, okay. We’re just going to sit in this room and have a chat and do some recordings,” and of course, the first time you do it, everything goes wrong. Your recorder doesn’t work. You forgot the batteries. It’s just a nightmare, and that’s in like a safe environment.

Jeff Good: Yeah, exactly, but isn’t it good to practice that sort of thing in the safe environment, because there’ll be a new nightmare, who knows what it is…

MTB: Completely.

Jeff Good: … and then at least you’re like, “Okay, I’ve done this part before.” Right? “I know what to do when this happens.” I think one reason why it’s different here is, I think that other faculty who work on students with language documentation probably have found it valuable that I’ve offered this seminar. And other faculty could offer it; it just hasn’t quite happened. But this is a department that does a lot of fieldwork and documentation, but we have a lot of students doing other things, and so we’re not a narrow document — like we don’t have a degree in documentation, but all faculty value the field methods class, and a lot of them want their students to have that experience. And so what we want to do is set up a track that says, “Well, what do you do with someone who’s really going to be a psycholinguist working on English but still wants to know this stuff? What’s the right experience for them?” I don’t think it’s all that helpful for them to know like IMDI versus OLAC metadata. Is that really what we want them to know? Probably not. We want them to understand how much work’s involved and have some rough sense of the nature of the work, and so then we can sort of divide up the curriculum across those who are really going to do this against those who just want to understand what it’s like.

MTB: Yeah. That’s a good point. So going back to your own fieldwork, can you talk a little bit about the community that you’ve, or the communities that you’ve worked with in Cameroon?

Jeff Good: Yeah, so I want to start by saying that we’re in this very unfortunate moment where there’s some communities who I’ve gotten to know and I’ve worked with who have been really tragically impacted by a kind of civil war. It’s not getting a lot of attention in the Western press. Every few months an article pops up, but what happened is, like so many things, the conflict started, and it got some articles and attention, and now it’s just in its long phase of instability and imbalance in part of Cameroon. It’s the so-called anglophone parts, so if you saw an article in the Western press or even the Cameroonian press, they’re going to talk about anglophone separatism against the francophone portion of Cameroon. Cameroon had been a German colony before World War I. It got divided partly between the UK and France, and then in kind of a messy political process, it was sort of reunified a bit, but there was always a lot of tension. The so-called anglophone part which had been under UK political authority, kind of connected to Nigeria, wasn’t quite happy about being merged back with the francophone part. I don’t have a full mastery of all that history, but there’s a history there.

One problem there that I think will be very clear to listeners of this podcast is. this anglophone-francophone divide is just not a great way of seeing it if you realize there’s 250 local languages of Cameroon. This is not Canada, where really the francophones are primarily francophones and the anglophones are primarily anglophones, plus various other languages. This is “anglophone” and “francophone” as a shorthand for a whole cluster of other identity concepts and work going on. And so most, a lot of the anglophone parts are very unsafe to work in, and especially my field, sort of so-called “field site”, quote-unquote, of Lower Fungom, and that’s a very dangerous area now, because while the unrest had originally been in the cities, it’s now shifted to… Like as the separatists got pushed out of the cities, they fled to more remote areas, and what made Lower Fungom such an interesting field site was that there was all this linguistic diversity there. It was a little bit sort of off the beaten path socioeconomically. That’s also made it an area where the separatists have sort of fled to, so it’s a very unsteady space.

So I just want to make that clear. So a lot of what I’m saying really reflects the situation of two or three years ago. We don’t even really know what the situation is on the ground right now, and we’ve been working lately with internally displaced people in safe parts of the country, and I’ll talk about that as well and how we’re trying to manage that. But the communities, what happened is, if you remember from the beginning, I kind of said I didn’t go with this desire to see some quote-unquote “exotic” place. Right? Obviously, it’s not exotic to the people who live there, but I didn’t have this. I have to go and see this location. I really knew I wanted to work in the Northwest region of Cameroon because lots of languages, it was at the time a very stable area. It was known to be a good place to do work; lots of work needed to be done. It’s also somewhat higher in elevation, and I’ll just be honest, I don’t work well in high-humidity environments. I would just not function well. So it gets hot there, but it’s kind of like, I don’t know, Los Angeles hot rather than Houston hot or something. I hope that means something to all the listeners, but it’s not very humid and sort of pleasant, so I thought, “Okay, this is good. Lots of work to be done, and I think I can manage here.” I can be there for a while and do some work.

When I first got to Cameroon, I went to the sort of SIL headquarters there (SIL is very large and active and well-liked in Cameroon) and talked to some of the people working there, and they had their map of the Northwest Province of Cameroon with all the languages, and then… Well, they had a map of Cameroon, and then the map of Cameroon needed an inset for the Northwest Province because the language density was so high, so in order to capture it. I thought, “Okay. That’s neat. That’s a good place to go. Lots of languages. That’s — right place to go.” And then inside of this inset, there was another region that needed an inset, so it was the inset of the inset. So as you can see, I’m really doing this just by looking at documents. I’m not really like… I don’t know what’s happening in reality, but I thought, “Hey, there’s an inset of an inset.” I’ve always loved maps. I’ve always liked to look at maps, language maps, political maps, anything, from when I was just five or six years old, and so I just have this attraction. I want to go to the inset of the inset. That’s really kind of what struck me.

At the same time, SIL is very active in that area, but because it’s the inset of the inset, so many small languages put together, it had not been a priority area for them because they’re choosing the higher-population languages first for translation priorities. So there was this great complementarity. I’m coming from this endangered language sort of I guess movement or whatever you want to call it, or paradigm, that says I should go for the most endangered languages, the ones that are getting the least attention. SIL is going from this paradigm of, “We should focus with the ones with the highest population first,” so I thought this is the right — they were happy for me to go there. While I do cooperate with them, I didn’t really want to be linked to any of their projects in any direct way. I don’t have any particular — I don’t have any religious affiliation myself and I didn’t really care to, so I’m happy to work with them and exchange information, but I didn’t… I liked the idea of being sort of distant, and they liked the idea of someone else looking at these groups. And so took a trip, but went to this area that had, by SIL’s count at the time, about five or six languages in a very compact space. It’s about 10 kilometres north-south, 10 kilometres east-west. This region’s called Lower Fungom. Not a well-known area outside of Cameroon at all — not even a well-known area inside of Cameroon. I mean, you’d have to get very close to it before you find people who know about it. And by our current counts, you have seven to nine languages, depending on how you do the count, across thirteen villages, and I just thought, “This is great. There’s just so much work that needs to be done, and sort of no one’s doing it.” So when you talk about the community, well, on the one hand, you have all of these speaker communities and these language communities. There is a local sense of identity. The people of Lower Fungom call themselves Lower Fungom. They know they are Lower Fungom, so they also recognize that higher level of identity. So we work with them both at that level, also at the level of individual villages. Each village understands itself to be speaking its own language, even if a linguist would categorize it differently, so we have to really do a lot of stuff at the village level, and so it’s sort of a super community with lots of interesting communities kind of underneath it. They’re relatively socioeconomically marginalized and poor subsistence farmers, but very happy for outside researchers to come in. We have to deal with the jealousies that come in any context when someone’s coming with money and other resources, but generally speaking, it’s quite, it’s been a place that’s been quite welcoming.

MTB: Yeah. No, that’s great. I think you point out something really interesting, though, when you were talking about humidity and knowing yourself, because I also have this issue where I do research in Japan in Amami on the Ryukyu Islands. It’s very humid, like Texas humid, in the summertime, so I’ve just decided I will not go do fieldwork in the summer.

Jeff Good: Yeah, I get that. I don’t think that… This doesn’t come up in the standard curricula, right, that we are people, right, and we’re humans, and of course the consultant — I mean, or whatever you want to — the speakers — or the language users, too, if you’re in a sign language community — they’re all humans, and this has to work for everybody. Right? You got to find a way that works for you. I think that it reminds me, too, of something that I don’t see discussed much, but I think it should be a more active part of discussion, is aligning these kinds of projects with your own family sort of life cycle. Right? So maybe in your PhD period, you can be away for a long time, and that’s okay, but then there may be parts of your life where you can’t get away, and how do you kind of… Then there may be other parts where you can get away again and you can sort of do this travel, so how do you kind of not just in terms of your tolerance of heat or cold or whatever those things are, but also, how do you align this with the fact that, for most of us, our fieldwork cannot be, it can be a very important part of our life, but it’s not the only part of our life, and those are very hard things to align. I don’t know how many people I sort of say, “Hey, you’re going to the field again. How’s that working out for you? Like how does your family feel?” And they say, “Oh, my spouse hates it,” or, “I had to,” or, “They really don’t want me to be…” Like I don’t know how many people I’ve heard — my own wife doesn’t like it when I’m there, and it seems like everyone has this tension, right, and especially when you’ve gotten to know your community and you feel bad being away for a long time, but then you also have the people at home who worry when you’re away or all those other things, so it’s just, I don’t know, something that probably should be talked about more. Especially maybe the more senior people should be talking about what they did, right, to manage that.

MTB: Yes. Definitely. I’m actually really looking for people to speak more about this, because I think it is something that younger scholars are thinking about and, “Oh, well, how am I going to balance my family life and my field work?” You hit the nail on the head. Once you’ve connected with a community, you can’t just ditch them for five to ten years to have some kids, so how can you maintain that connection and keep working with them in a collaborative way while maybe you can’t physically go to the field or can’t go as much?

Jeff Good: I can say how I responded to that myself. I was sort of lucky in some ways, but I think if you look at the structure of my current projects, it reflects two things that kind of aligned. I think I would have gone this way, but I did it sooner because of family balance issues, so there was a time probably seven or eight years ago where, for a mix, probably professional but I’d say more personal, family, my children were younger, my wife was having some health issues, and it just wasn’t… Nothing so serious that life couldn’t go on as normal in Buffalo, but stuff that the idea of me being gone for, say, four or five weeks or even three weeks was just going to be really hard on everyone. Right? And so it just didn’t seem feasible.

I was fortunate at that time to have developed a really strong relationship with Pierpaolo Di Carlo, who sort of works effectively as a co-PI in a lot of the projects I work on. He’s been able to travel, so he could be and help manage it, but also what I’d realized is, at that time and still, the Cameroonian linguistic community of, the scholars, scholarly linguistic community, was quite strong for that part of the world, and also had itself independently really, there had been a few linguists who were moving into doing language documentation work themselves, and so what I sort of decided to try to do, and I think I would have done this anyway, but I did it probably three or four years earlier than I was, in my mind, sort of going through from a pure research perspective, really try to flip the model where the work would go on, but I would try, instead of having a grant where I fund one US PhD student to go and do some work for six months and come back, and then go back and forth, can we develop the right training model to get Cameroonian Master’s and PhD students engaged in the work and get their faculty engaged in the work and really basically sort of create this kind of training model in-country? We spent — we’re still working on it. It took a long time. I mean, the goodwill was there. The skill set was there. The people were there, and so it became a matter of logistics and management, understanding everyone’s academic cultures, how to align things right. How to get the money there at the right time is a very central problem that took us a long time to work out. We’re still working on it. Right? But sort of how I managed it was by sort of shifting to this role where essentially a lot of my time is spent managing the project, often from afar — I haven’t had a chance to go back to Cameroon for too long now; I really want to go back — getting the grants coming in, managing the finances, keeping things together. We’d run workshops where I might go to Cameroon for a short time or people come to Buffalo, or we’ve met in Europe and we just sort of keep the project going that way.

I think on the one hand, I have to say part of me really just, it’s really boring. I mean like, I did this because I wanted to actually do the work. Right? I wanted to be with, in the communities, getting recordings, analyzing them. I enjoy that part of the work, but on the flip side, what I can say is, I can use my own affiliations and my own institutional affiliations to help fund very promising, especially junior, Cameroonian scholars who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity through their own sort of government funding organization. So when I’ve spent a few hours trying to get paperwork done to get reimbursements in place and I’m kind of annoyed by it, I just remember that we actually have really gotten to know just some wonderful, a lot of these just Cameroonian junior linguists who otherwise wouldn’t have interacted with in the same way.

MTB: Yeah. That, what you just said actually feeds into the next thing I wanted to talk about, which is, how can we decolonize linguistics and make it more collaborative? Sounds like you found like a good solution for your own research and for the communities you work with.

Jeff Good: Yeah. I think what’s a little different about the way I’ve — and I’m not saying — and other linguists do this. I’ve seen other linguists, especially, who work in similar parts of Africa who do this, but I think that usually, or very often, especially like in a North American setting or Australian setting, it’s framed as decolonizing at the level of whatever language user community you’re working with, right, so speaker community, or if it’s sign language, sign, the user community. And I think that the structure I have is somewhat different, and it’s not that — because we’re working basically with the local scholarly community (and I’ll come back to that in a second) — it’s not that we wouldn’t want to do the same with the speaker community, but these speaker communities are very marginalized and very poor, and what they need right now, they don’t really need dictionaries or language development. They need healthcare, schools, and roads. This is what they articulate their needs are. Before this crisis, we were actually trying to give sort of community-level compensation to help schools. We had projects involved in this, but it was the idea of sort of decolonizing the linguistic research at the community level was a little difficult because the communities themselves really had other priorities. Quite sensibly. I think their priorities were all exactly where they needed to be. And occasionally, you might, if you met someone from those communities who was really linguistically gifted, they were probably gifted in all kinds of ways and were really needed by their community to do other things, other higher-priority things.

So instead, the sort of the site, if you want to use this term “decolonization” — which is certainly not a term I was thinking about when I started graduate school; I mean, you can see my trajectory was very different, but I do think about how to do — the site of that was more at the kind of university level, which I think is still a good site, and understanding that, for good or bad, scholars in countries, in developing countries, are often taking many of their cues about what’s important from scholars in the developed countries. Right? I would say sometimes that makes sense, and sometimes it means we’re losing really interesting insights that would emerge from these other scholars, and so now we really try to, you’d have to interview or do a podcast with one of the Cameroonians I worked with to see if it’s been successful. Who am I to judge this? Right? But we really tried hard to not be a purely top-down project. I do have to articulate that the funding I have is contingent on achieving certain outcomes, and I want to make sure the team understands that, but we also try to, where possible, let them also propose research subprojects and go in directions that we might not have otherwise. I’m trying to think if I have some, I think, examples. Certainly, there’s much more interest in applied aspects of linguistics among the Cameroonian linguistics community than most of the sort of theoretical linguistic community in North America. Some of the students have been interested in those domains. If they produce a good research proposal, we’ll say, “Go ahead. Try that. You can kind of… We’ll support that.” And we’ve also tried to bring on local anthropologists and local geographers to try to help create these spaces of interdisciplinary discourse. Have we been successful in decolonizing? I don’t know, but I do really at least try to take seriously the idea that we want the whole team to shape the project.

MTB: I know you said your equipment isn’t very exciting, but I think it’s good to illustrate the full range. Can we talk a little bit about the equipment you use?

Jeff Good: Yeah, so let me think about this on some level. So you’ve already heard the beginning where a lot of my time now is just, I actually have bought a lot of nice equipment. I just haven’t used it. I just buy it, get it packaged, get some suitcases, we fill them up, we send them to Cameroon, and then they get divided up. And I will say for a project like what we’re doing, we do sometimes use good equipment that’s a little cheaper, because we’d rather have more recorders than one nice… We do often have — we do have at least one nice thing, but also, if we want to enable more students to do this work, we need lots of them, and we need to know some will break, and we need to live with that. It’s just part of this process. The one piece of equipment that I lent out a while ago I haven’t gotten back, I do love the Rode NTG2, if you know the… A lot of people like this microphone, but…

MTB: Yeah. Yeah.

Jeff Good: If I think about, I just… I like it because it’s not very intrusive. When you don’t want to do a lapel, it’s just a regular shotgun mic, but it just does a great job of getting a really sharp recording of what you want to hear and backgrounding what you don’t want to hear, like the roosters making their noise all over the place all the time. And you still hear it, but it doesn’t distract you the way it would be with another microphone, so that’s just that… I know there are… Everyone has their own preferences for microphones, but that’s just one I really love. I have my old Marantz recorder that I still use sometimes, but that’s a little outdated. Obviously, if I was in Cameroon now, I’d pick up one of the Zooms we have there and use it, but I guess it’s generally true, now that I think through it, one of the things I’ve really learned to think about more, having, and I think a lot of people who have more experience in the field know this, is, like often the microphone is just much more important than you — like people want to get the high-end audio recorder. I really feel like most of them are just fine now. Oh, you can tweak this setting or that setting, but if you don’t have a good mic setup, if you don’t have the best microphone setup for your setting, that’s a problem. So that’s really where I thought, and I haven’t used them, but I would love to get these nice wireless lapel mic systems where people doing walks and all of these kind of things.

Video, everyone does video now and should be doing video now as much as possible. Right? That’s a big shift maybe in the last eight years or so, and I have to say I haven’t done as much of the on-the-ground fieldwork since then, so I can say what we’ve been trying to do. We had video cameras. I think for the Cameroonian team, we were using Zoom Q8s because it just, it was a good sweet spot of price and recording quality. We had some nicer cameras, but a lot of what we’re thinking is, do we want one really high-quality professional piece, or do we want, for the same price, five good pieces of equipment? Right? And the current project, we will veer towards rather have five perfectly good pieces of equipment than one really nice piece of equipment. More people can use it, more work gets done.

One thing, because we’re working with geographers and trying to look at like language and space relationships, we also have some GPS devices that pick things up. Those are just the most important thing there is, they should run a long time on batteries. Right? Because power is an issue. There is a camera, and we haven’t had a chance to use it much yet, largely because of this crisis called Garmin VIRB, V-I-R-B, and it’s kind of like a GoPro. I learned about it from Niclas Burenhult, who does a lot of interesting sort of walking spatial analysis of language himself, and the nice thing about the Garmin VIRB in comparison to the GoPro is that there are GoPros that will record location data, GPS data, but apparently (I haven’t tried it myself) the format is not like the standard format, whereas the Garmin VIRB uses the exact same format as all the Garmin GPS devices, so it’s just easier to work with that sort of dump coming out, and so we were really just excited about this idea of being able to get video that was also linked to space as we went along it. What Niclas Burenhult told us he did, which we didn’t get a change to try, was actually have two of these on two speakers talking to each other while walking, so you would have the perspective of each member of the conversational pair, but you’d also be able to track where they were at each time. So to me, that’s like just a really exciting kind of video to use, because we can get all of this extra information at one time.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s so cool. So finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to do fieldwork in the Lower Fungom region?

Jeff Good: Yeah. Well, unfortunately, the advice right now is: wait for it to become safe. But actually, there are places nearby in the so-called francophone parts of Cameroon that are quite culturally and linguistically similar where you can go, so let’s just think about that. Let’s just assume it’s feasible. I mean, you could work with internally displaced people, but that brings up other… That would be a whole discussion in its own right, and I think a worthwhile discussion for the field to have, but one of the most important things I learned by being in the field, like being there and also working with an anthropologist, Pierpaolo Di Carlo, was, how much about my perception of the way the work should be structured and the way to analyze and the way to sort of go about interacting with people had been shaped by sort of language ideologies I had picked up from… I mean, I was born in the US, most of my life there, and actually I spent, if I wasn’t… I spent some years in Germany, but either way, these are very linguistically similar spaces, ideologically, this idea that people have a single mother tongue, right, that they have one language that’s their language, that we define communities sort of ethnolinguistically, that ethnicity and language come together.

And so I came in with this idea that language documentation is about working on a language, and you find a speaker of the language, and you run the language through its paces with a speaker, and that if you go into a village, that village has a language of that village. And what I learned by interacting, and this is one of these things that happened when I first did survey work in Lower Fungom, this other question lit up in my mind is, “How are these people maintaining all of these languages in this small space? Like what are they doing?” And then working with the anthropologists, we realized that if we were to document just the languages and ignore people’s multilingualism, we actually would have not captured the area at all. We would have produced this documentary record that would have been highly colonial, because it was the colonial — the colonialists who came in and say, “Oh, you’re a tribe. Tribes have languages. Who is your chief?” And locally, people were always multilingual. They had multiple affiliations, but that didn’t fit well with the colonial mindset where everybody had to be a miniature nation-state. Right? “So we might be England, and you all, well, you’re not as civilized as we are, but you’re a miniature England on some level, and once we civilize you, you will…” That was the sort of mindset, so everybody had to be partitioned. Not only were you partitioning Africa into zones of political control, you had a partition inside each place everybody had to be, a folk or a person or whatever.

And so this may not sound like the usual kind of advice. It’s not, “Bring a good microphone,” but you should do that. Right? So think about your microphones, right, and all that sort of stuff. Think about redundancy because something will go wrong, but anyone can say this. I would actually say, read the local ethnographies if you can find them. Get to understand the people, because your linguistic training doesn’t push you in that direction. Your linguistic training gets you to understand what a phoneme is and what past tense is and all of these kinds of things, and what a passive construction is, but it doesn’t really help you understand the sort of lived experiences of the people you’re working with, and we really need to know, if you’re going to do good linguistic work, how do they understand their relationship to language and culture?

And so almost anywhere in Cameroon, you really need to understand that people are multilingual. They’ve been multilingual for a long time, for millennia, and this is a key part of their linguistic lives and that… I first learned this little trick or this little problem from Friederike Lüpke, who is at SOAS for some time now, in Helsinki. If you ask, like, an African, “What’s your mother tongue?” they don’t hear “first language”. They hear “the language of my mother”. And that actually, the closest analogue to their mother tongue is more likely to be the language of their father in most of these societies, but they just don’t even see the world that way. Right? It’s just a very different space and that you need to understand that, because otherwise, you’re going to go in and you’re going to say to a speaker or language user like, “Well, what’s your language?” Well, they’re going to offer their first language, but you’re going to miss out on the fact that there’s actually five more languages they speak. Right? And that sometimes they even speak a language that’s not catalogued because they don’t think you care about it. It’s not a secret. They just won’t even think to answer it.

I think in broad strokes, that advice applies to other parts of the world. The way the ideology you bring with you and the local ideology are all going to have their spaces, they’re going to interact in different ways, and so you need to understand that, but I understand how it actually led me astray in Cameroon early on, and it will lead you astray in a different way somewhere else, but I would just think like, try to find out just what you can about how the sociolinguistic situation works before you get there and watch it while you’re there and just try to learn that. And then let your project — be willing to change your project goals a little bit in response to what you see.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. That’s really good advice. Thank you, Jeff. Okay, so thank you again so much for coming on Field Notes. Where can our listeners learn more about your work?

Jeff Good: I think, because I have a general — probably just best to look at web pages, I have a general personal web page. If you type “Jeff Good linguistics” into Google, it should find me, but there’s also a website we have specific to the project hosted at Buffalo. I can send you that link. We use this acronym for the project sort of to unify the work we’re doing. It’s KPAAM-CAM. That’s K-P-A-A-M hyphen C-A-M. It’s kind of a mouthful, but if you type that in, it’s Google-searchable. Nothing else looks anything like it. It’s Key Pluridisciplinary Advances in African Multilingualism – CAMeroon. I know it’s a mouthful, but you know, acronyms are helpful. It’s part of the local culture to have one. And the “Key Pluridisciplinary” part sounds a little funny, but we actually wanted the acronym to start with a labial velar because it’s very typical of that part of the world and we wanted to signal — that was our way of signalling like… We didn’t want the acronym to be a good acronym for an English speaker or a French speaker. We wanted the acronym to look like it was an African project, and so we thought, “Hey, let’s use kp.” If we had a good “gb” words instead of “kp” words, maybe we could have gone that way, but I think it was Pierpaolo Di Carlo. Well, someone came up with “Key Pluridisciplinary” as opposed to multidisciplinary, and that gave us our labial velar, so KPAAM-CAM, and I don’t think anyone else has tried to occupy that string yet, so it should be pretty safe for this project.

MTB: Awesome. Yeah. I’ll link that as well in the show notes so people can find it.

Jeff Good: That’s good, so that’s probably where to find out. We try to put our papers and updates there, and always happy for people to just inquire about it, ask me questions. If someone else in the project can answer better than me, I’m happy to refer them to that person.

MTB: Okay. Awesome. Thank you so much, Jeff.

Jeff Good: Thank you. It was great to have this opportunity to just, I guess, share these experiences. I hope they’re helpful to some of the listeners.

You’ve been listening to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

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