Episode 5: Khairunnisa on Insider Researcher Language Documentation on Sasak

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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 today’s interview is with Khairunnisa who is a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship and a PhD student at University of Hawaii at Mānoa. She is doing work on the Sasak language, of which she herself is a speaker. Sasak is an Austronesian language spoken in Lombok in Indonesia. I am really excited about today’s interview because normally the narrative we hear is about an outsider researcher going into a community doing their research and then leaving, but while this is the most popular narrative it definitely isn’t the only story of how linguistic fieldwork and language documentation in general is getting done. If you are an insider researcher or if you know an insider researcher who would be willing to be interviewed and share their experiences, please email the show at fieldnotespod@gmail.com

MTB: Thank you for coming on the podcast today, Nisa.

Khairunnisa: Thank you.

Khairunnisa: Yeah.

MTB: Yeah, thank you so much. I would like to welcome Khairunnisa. She is a third year PhD student at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. She is researching the interactional linguistics of the Sasak language from Indonesia, of which she is a speaker herself.

MTB: Thank you so much for taking time today. To start, can you tell us where your interest in documenting and researching Sasak came from?

Khairunnisa: Oh yes, so, it’s a bit of a long story. Actually, I started to have this interest since I was doing my master’s degree back home in Lombok where this language is spoken. Linguistics is not my background but when I was doing my master’s, my professor introduced me to this issue of how crucial it is for us as Indonesians to start to pay attention to our local languages. I was looking for a scholarship and I saw this opportunity and thought, “ok let me just start working on Sasak.” I applied for Fulbright and I got a scholarship and that’s why I came to UH. To my surprise here, they offered me, as an indigenous scholar, a graduate assistantship as a language consultant. So, that is how I got into knowing more of all this language documentation stuff. In addition to being a language consultant, my professor here, Brad McDonnell, and all the people in the class helped me to do the stuff. Starting from winter 2016, I always went back every semester break to my hometown and did my documentation.

MTB: So you were a language consultant for the field methods class here at UH? Is that right?

Khairunnisa: Yes. 

MTB: Cool, and how was that experience for you as a language consultant?

Khairunnisa: It was great but it also gave me a different kind of perspective. It is totally different when you are the consultant and when you are the fieldworker. When I worked as a language consultant I started to sense more, “oh my language is so cool, I didn’t realize it could work that way.” Then I compared the data that I gave to them and the data that I got from the speaker’s back home and somehow many interesting things came up. That’s why now I’m working on variations.

MTB: Cool. Can you talk a bit about your main research question for your research now at the moment? Your PhD research.

Khairunnisa: Yeah, so now I am working on my qualifying papers. Looking at the sociolinguistics, specifically various sociolinguistics in which I’m seeing, looking at variations. First off, I’d like to tell you about the sociolinguistic situation. Sasak language, where I am researching, has a caste system and a speech style. So we have low registers and high registers, but most of the research so far has been focused on the noble people who have access to the high registers and not on non-noble peoples; there isn’t much research on that. So I’m focusing on that and seeing what strategy my speakers can use for politeness when they don’t really have access to the high register. So, I’m researching the variations and arguing, “oh, maybe they can use pronouns like that.” I’ve found now that my speakers use more clitics and then if we link that to politeness strategy, they try to avoid using directness. Such as when addressing the second speaker, like in the locator, instead of saying you, they will switch to the third person or the first person plural. So I started to code those…

MTB: …instances. 

Khairunnisa: Yeah.

MTB: That’s really interesting, wow. So you said you go back every year to do fieldwork, do you go back to your own hometown, your home community? Or do you do research in other communities?

Khairunnisa: For now I’m still focusing on my own community. Most of my speakers are actually my neighbours, but it’s interesting in terms of dialectical grouping. The variety that I’m speaking belongs to, you know if you refer to Peter K. Austin, this belongs to Ngenó-Ngené dialect, but actually there are variations inside Ngenó-Ngené. So in Field Methods, we named this Ampenan- Sasak because it is spoken in urban areas, and there are so many things going on here, so we cannot really group it into Ngenó-Ngené, so we call it Ampenan-Sasak.

MTB: Cool. So, this is a distinction that had not previously been agreed upon?

Khairunnisa: Yeah, you will not find, if you look at literature on Sasak, something named Ampenan- Sasak because of conventional grouping, this would belong to Ngenó-Ngené, but it’s not. So I am trying now by taking this variation and sociolinguistics approach to collect evidence.

MTB: To make a case for it being separate?

Khairunnisa: Yeah, yeah. Research and see something in a different way. 

MTB: How has your experience as a community member affected your fieldwork? You say you are working with your own neighbours, how’s that?

Khairunnisa: Yeah, well…it’s kind of easy to get speakers because I don’t really need to approach people, right? My neighbours, it’s also interesting, they thought I went to the US to study English and said, “What? You’re studying our language?” It’s kind of cool, right? So yeah, it benefits me and also the speakers, right? But it’s also as a community member, all the social norms apply to me. Last summer it was very challenging because I am researching this variation and my speakers were all male fishermen. It was very hard to approach them because Lombok is very religious, so majority is Muslim and for Muslim communities, men and women have barriers like eye contact or the way of speaking. Eventually I had to hire my brother as my research assistant and that’s how I got speakers. *laughs*

MTB: Ok, so you had to train your brother?

Khairunnisa: Yeah, it was kind of funny because before I went home, me and some students here and Gary, Gary Holton went to Kupang. We had a project there and one of my friends, she came to Lombok with me for the research. At that time we had two researchers, right? It was funny because I found it easier for me to get speakers for my friends than for myself.

MTB: Do you think that’s because people see you as an insider and you have to adhere to the cultural norms? You have to follow the rules?

Khairunnisa: Yeah, so I think the community saw my friend as an outsider, so it’s ok to have eye contact, it’s ok to speak whatever way, but my friend compared to me, yeah.

MTB: Yeah that sounds tough. Just going back a bit, so Gary Holton is one of the professors at UH and he took a group of students to Indonesia last summer, right?

Khairunnisa: Yes.

MTB: To do…was it a fieldwork project?

Khairunnisa: It was a workshop.

MTB: Oh! Workshop, yeah.

Khairunnisa: In collaboration with Leiden University and Unkris University in Kupang.

MTB: Cool. Have you lost any data during your project? *laughs*

Khairunnisa: *laughs* Of course. Yeah, not only data loss, but especially in my first fieldwork because that was my first semester. This was all new to me and I got very short training, you know? *laughs* Yeah I did lose some of my data. When I lost the data, I couldn’t really ask my speaker to repeat it. I didn’t tell them to be honest. What I did was just ask them, “could we pair you with someone else?” and then I got similar data.

MTB: So you tried to recreate the situation with another researcher or another consultant?

Khairunnisa: Yeah that’s what I did, other speakers. I tried to make them not produce the exact same because that would be awkward. *laughs*

MTB: Yeah, ok *laughs*. What advice would you give to someone about to go into the field for the first time based on your fieldwork experiences?

Khairunnisa: If you are an insider, the first thing to do is to really make your speakers understand that your role there is as a researcher. You do want to collaborate with them, so this is something crucial because you don’t want your speakers to think of you as a friend. You know, it’s good to be friends but then we have to bring this issue up and as a member of the community, you have to be ready for all the cultural norms that may affect you. If you can’t approach the male or female speakers, what can you do? You can get someone to do that for you or whatever. I mean, you should know better as a member of the community, but you wouldn’t realize that until you’re trying to get the data.

MTB: Yeah. So do you have any plans for the future? When are you going back to the field? Or how are you planning on furthering your research on Sasak?

Khairunnisa: Yeah, so I’m going back this summer. I plan to have a working group because I teach at the university but so far I haven’t really involved my students.

MTB: Here at UH?

Khairunnisa: No, back home. 

MTB: In Indonesia?

Khairunnisa: Yeah, I teach at a university, so I plan to build a small group that can help me for data processing. Speaking from my experience from giving workshops at Kupang, I found the community was very interested too. So, I plan to give a small training and have a small group, you know, teach them how to do their own documentation and how to do the data processing, things like that. 

MTB: Cool.

Khairunnisa: Hopefully *laughs*

MTB: Great, yeah. Good luck! Thank you Nisa for chatting with me.

Khairunnisa: You’re welcome.

MTB:  I really appreciate it.

Khairunnisa: Thank you. 

MTB: Can you tell our listeners where they can learn more about your work or more about Sasak?

Khairunnisa: Yeah, I plan to have a website and once it’s done I’ll let you know.

MTB: Ok yeah, when it’s done let me know and i’ll include it in the show notes for this episode.

Khairunnisa: Yeah, sure.

MTB: Great, thank you so much. 

Khairunnisa: Yayyyy.

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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