Episode 11: Alex Garcia on Monolingual Fieldwork in The Philippines

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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 Alex Garcia. Alex Garcia is a researcher at the University of Barcelona. He obtained his degree in French studies at the University of Valencia and then moved to China where he taught Spanish at Instituto Cervantes of Beijing and the Tsinghua University for several years. Since 2013, he has been working on the documentation and description of Northern Alta, a Negrito language spoken by less than 200 people in the Philippines. He recently obtained his PhD at the University of Barcelona with the dissertation titled, “Documentation of Northern Alta: Grammar, glossary and text.” He is also an ELDP grantee and a depositor at the Endangered Languages Archive. In today’s interview, Alex will be discussing how he first started working on Northern Alta and his experiences in the field, as well as what it’s been like to do a collaborative community project where he’s worked very closely with younger community members and has been able to train them in language documentation so that they can collect data from their own contacts and work in their own community even when he is not there. I hope you enjoy this interview.

MTB: Hi, Alex! How are you?

Alex Garcia: I’m great! Thank you, it’s good to hear you, Marti.

MTB: Welcome to Field Notes! Thank you so much for taking time, Alex.

Alex Garcia: Thank you very much for inviting me and it’s my pleasure to be on your podcast.

MTB: Aw, thanks. So to start, how did you get into linguistic fieldwork in the first place?

Alex Garcia: I was looking out for a language to work on for my PhD. I was thinking in describing the language and possibly in documenting the language. At the time, I was living in China, I was considering working on a language from there, but my supervisor in Spain suggested that I consider working on some Austronesian languages. I started reading about those and I first checked out Taiwan and several languages there had already been documented and described, so then I moved to the Philippines and I discovered the story of the Philippine Negrito people and I was fascinated by the things I was reading about their history. I read about those for a period of time and found out that many of these languages needed documentation, so I started making a selection on possible languages, depending on whether they had been described or not. I ended up with four or five languages and then I decided that I would visit communities on my own. I wanted to visit the communities on my own but I decided before travelling to the Philippines alone, I decided to contact the specialist on the area which is Laurie Reid who had been working in the Philippines for decades. So I let him know about my project and I told him that I was planning to visit the Philippines and he replied to me the next day. He was very kind and he seemed very happy. He said that it was good news that I wanted to work on one language from the Philippines. He told me that he was going to visit the country at the same time as I was. He told me that he could show me around, so we organized a trip together throughout Luzon island. That was a 12 day trip in September 2013. On that trip we visited first the Bontok communities on the Central Cordillera where Laurie had made fieldwork during the 60’s. We then visited Linguist Yukinori Kimoto from Japan who was working on the Arta language, another Negrito language. Then we eventually reached Baler, the capital of the province where the Alta live. Laurie Reid had made some work on the language in the 80’s but he hadn’t had any contact with them ever since, so we started from zero. We didn’t know anyone there and we first visited the mayor of Baler to explain about the project. Then we visited the local office of the NCIP, which is the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples. We were talking with the lawyer from the NCIP and we were explaining that we were looking for the Alta and next to the lawyer there was another lady who was just working at her desk looking at her papers. Then when she heard the word Alta she raised her head and said, “Alta! I am an Alta.” That’s how we met Violeta, who later became one of my best consultants. She accepted to take us to the village where she was from, immediately, and that’s how I first met the Alta. 

MTB: That’s so serendipitous.

Alex Garcia: Yes, long story but eventually we found the Alta.

MTB: Wow, that’s so cool. Prior to your own work, had there been any documentation or description of Northern Alta or were you the first to work on this language?

Alex Garcia: There were some materials, some word lists collected by other linguistics. The first one was a missionary from Belgium who had collected a wordlist… Then another word list by Phillipine anthropologist later in the 50s, I think. Then another word list by Laurie Reid in the 80s, a word list and some sentences. That’s all we had of Northern Alta at the time I started working on the language.

MTB: Wow, so not that much?

Alex Garcia: Yeah, very little, quite little. No recordings available.

MTB: Wow.

Alex Garcia: Oh yes, I am forgetting. There were actually some recordings made by Jason Lobel and Laura Robinson who had been travelling on the Eastern coast of Luzon collecting data on languages, and later on, I found some of their recordings in PARADISEC archive. 

MTB: Oh cool, wow. Can you briefly describe the language context in the area that you work in the Philippines? So Northern Alta is the endangered language, what is the language context in the area of your field site?

Alex Garcia: The Alta communities are located in different villages around the town of Baler in North Eastern Luzon. The language spoken there most commonly is Tagalog, the national language, but it is also pretty close to the Ilocano area so there are many speakers of Ilocano and there are Ilocano migrants in the area. Then the language Northern Alta is surrounded by other languages, a few of them are Negrito languages, so for example, if you travel north for an hour or two, you find Arta language and also Casiguran Agta and also Kasiguranin and to the south we have Southern Alta language and also Umiray Dumaget Agta.  Then if you travel to the west you find Ilongot language and so the language is surrounded by other languages and then we have to also state that all the speakers of Alta are bilingual with Tagalog. They speak Tagalog in their daily lives and they often codeswitch. 

MTB: Besides Tagalog, are the other languages endangered as well?

Alex Garcia: I would say Alta is spoken by 11 speakers, more or less, so I don’t know about the transmission of Alta nor about the other languages, but they are spoken by a small amount of people. I’m not sure if there are supports in the transmission of these languages. So they are most likely endangered but I cannot tell for sure which ones are endangered.

MTB: Yeah. What are your main interests for your project? So you just finished your PhD and now you’re going back to the field soon, right?

Alex Garcia:  Yes, I will be travelling to the field in three days, or four days. So it’s all very exciting to go back to the field after one year. I am mostly interested in language description and in particular in describing morpho-syntax. I’ve also been very interested in how language develops, the grammar; so grammaticalization. I’m also interested in other topics, for example, the connection between Negrito languages and the fact that some words may be uniquely shared by these languages, so finding evidence of a possible Negrito subscript. That is I think a topic that could be interesting to explore in the future since we have now more descriptions of Negrito languages and more documentation, so more data available. I’m also interested in language contacts, in different ways in which languages mix.

MTB: Yeah. Can you give some details about your current project? Is it a continuation of your PhD work or are you doing something completely different with Northern Alta now?

Alex Garcia: I have recently completed my PhD and I’m also finalizing my language documentation projects. The aims of the projects were a two-fold documentary, of course. As we said before, very little data on the language had been collected, so we wanted to create a corpus on the language including a collection of recordings. Of annotated recordings and a glossary that can serve as a tool for more in-depth research in the future. Also the descriptive goal which was to develop a grammatical description of the language. Which would also serve as a base for future linguistic research and that also would provide a user friendly access to the language documentation corpus. So on this trip we just want to visit the community one more time to inform of what we have been doing in the last year. We would like to continue the training with our trainees and possibly collect data for future projects.

MTB: Can you talk a bit more about training? You’ve mentioned before that with your project you collaborate with younger members of the community. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Alex Garcia: Yeah, so we have been working with two young community members, Maebell and Jennifer, in a classroom provided by the elementary school in Diteki, one of the communities. We have been working in two different periods, in 2016 and 2017. In this training we had the chance to have some Alta adults who participated as speakers and we trained the trainees, the young community members, to first make simple recordings with a Zoom. We also taught them to segment, transcribe and translate our recording with ELAR. Also they learned some basic commands on Flex, for example, searching for a word, adding or removing an entry or adding a photo to an entry. On several occasions we lent trainees the recorder and the camera so they could go around the village and make recordings or take pictures. They would later annotate at the school and that’s how the trainees created the collection of 15 recordings. Some of which focus on plants, these turned out to be a quite positive experience. Some good recordings with very good content, better than the content that I would sometimes get myself with the speakers because the Alta would feel more comfortable speaking to them, and that was it. Hopefully this year we will have some more training and some more recordings.

MTB: Can you talk about the major equipment that you use when you’re on fieldwork?

Alex Garcia: Sure, we have been using Zoom H4n. So I personally have a Zoom H4n and then another one for the community, two solid state recorders… and then I also use a shotgun microphone, the Rode NTG2. I also, for conversations, a cardioid microphone Rode NT4. For the video camera we have a Canon Legria HF G25. There is also an SLR camera which is the one we lent to the trainees and community members so they can take it around and take pictures or videos, that’s the Canon PowerShot SX400. Then we have three laptops, two for the community and one for myself. These are the Toshiba Portégé and Toshiba satellite laptops, so that’s pretty much the equipment I’ve been using. 

MTB: Cool, and I’ll link everything in the show notes as well so that people can find all this stuff. So when you’re not in the field, I am assuming the two laptops for the community members stay in the field even when you are not there? And are they processing recordings while you’re in Spain or are they continuing to collect data? Or is it just when you’re in the field that they’re also working on the project?

Alex Garcia: For the laptops, I usually bring them to the field and they work with the laptops while I am on the field. But if at some point, I make sure that they will continue processing data, I would for sure leave the laptops in the field. What I had left since last year is the Zoom H4n and the SLR camera, so I will see these here, what they have got out of them.

MTB: Yeah cool. Next, what advice would you give to someone who also wants to do fieldwork in the Philippines?

Alex Garcia: Uh, the first advice would be contact the language specialists first because they know best which languages require documentation and which are potentially interesting. That will save you some time. Also, if possible, take some courses on any Phillippine language. Maybe you will be able to find courses on Tagalog or Ilocano, or if there are other courses as well because that will help you in getting familiar with the grammar of Phillippine type languages and will also save you some time. Also, learn as much as you can of the vernacular language spoken in the area. This will give you more independence in the field since you will be able to communicate with the speakers of the language you want to work on. Finally, I would also say involve young community members by training them to make photos, videos, or to annotate recordings. This will help you in many ways. It will help you to adapt to the community, you will get more data, more in-depth recordings.

MTB: Can you talk about what you said about learning the language that you’re studying? So, how was your experience learning Northern Alta?

Alex Garcia: Sure. So, at the beginning I didn’t know anything of Northern Alta, I just had the word list. I knew very little of Tagalog, so I didn’t have any language in common with the speakers of Northern Alta. The only way I could communicate with them would be to speak in English to some of the teenagers that were there that could translate for me. So I decided to focus on first learning the language and I was attracted by a technique called mono-lingual fieldwork. I didn’t know much about this technique but I knew it was developed by linguist Kenneth Pike and I had read that it consisted of learning a language by only using that language. So in one of the first field trips, I sat down with Renita Santos, one of the speakers of Northern Alta. We sat down together everyday for three weeks, for a couple of hours, just focusing on that task. On the previous day, I would design a session of elicitation and then on the next day we would carry on the elicitation sessions. This started out by saying simple things such as one dress, two dresses, one blue dress, one red dress, I have one blue dress, you have one red dress, and so on. Getting from more simple to more complex and it was exhausting for both of us but I found it super exciting. I think this was one of my favourite parts of linguistic fieldwork and I would love to have the chance to do it again with another language. It was also very positive for my integration to the community because they could see my progress learning the language and my interest and took my project more seriously. They would often come to the house where I was staying and they would speak to me or even if they saw me anywhere in the village they would come and say hi and speak a few sentences. At some point, I got some degree of commands in which I could catch a recording with some native speakers. I could also ask some questions or interview and that was really helpful.

MTB: That’s great, wow. Can you tell us a little about your daily routine when you are in the field? Do you have a daily routine or is it different every day?

Alex Garcia: So yes there are several types of days. So there would be a day when I would work on annotation. I would take the motorbike and travel to Diteki which is the village where I normally do annotation and we would meet with one or two native speakers in the morning at nine and work on transcription and translation in one of the classrooms. That’s the most quiet place I could find in the village. So we would work from nine to one or one-thirty. At some point, once my consultant would be tired, we’d stop and interrupt fieldwork and then I would go back to the place where I stay and have lunch. Then in the afternoon I would either visit another consultant that lives closer to the place where I stay and work on some other tasks, some elicitation, or on reviewing some transcription or some translation. Also, I would prepare or segment the recordings for the next day so we could continue the transcription and the translation. So this is when I focus on annotation. There are some other days when we just focus on recordings. On these days, we take the motorbike, we prepare the equipment, and go to one of the villages where we had already scheduled a meeting with one of the speakers. We know the speakers already and we know what topics they like, what topics they are interested in or they feel comfortable in talking about. For example, we have fishermen that could explain how they build the tools for fishing or how they fish. Also, we would visit a lady who has a garden with many plants and who knows a lot about plants. So we would schedule a meeting and then record with that person and have a meal after recording, and this is it. Then the next day and the next day, and so on.

MTB: Cool, nice. Thank you so much, Alex! Where can our listeners learn more about your work?

Alex Garcia: Oh, sure, so there is of course the deposit page on the ELAR archive, so they can find all of the data I have collected in open access, also the grammar of the language I have developed. Also there is my website, which is on Weebly, http://alexgarcialaguia.weebly.com. You will have the link. Finally, I am also uploading my project data on the Kratylos website which I think is a very cool platform because you can upload your data and you can use regular expressions or different search patterns to explore data from language documentation corpora. So my lexicon is already uploaded on Kratylos and some of my annotated recordings are there, so I will keep uploading all my stuff on Kratylos as well.

MTB: Cool, thank you so much Alex.

Alex Garcia: My pleasure, thanks to you.

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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