Episode 14: Fieldwork in the Time of COVID-19 with Guillem Belmar

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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 episode is about fieldwork in the time of COVID-19 with Guillem Belmar. Guillem Belmar is pursuing his PhD at UC Santa Barbara. He obtained his BA at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and his MAs at the National Distance Education in Spain and the University of Groningen. He focuses his research on language revitalization strategies as well as documentation of endangered or minoritized languages. He has worked on language promotion for many European languages and runs the #europeminoritylanguages project on social media. He is currently involved with the project Maintaining Indigenous Languages within Immigrant Oaxacan Communities in the United States.

And I wanted to have Guillem come on Field Notes today because he made this status on Facebook where he expressed concern about people who were planning to go into the field right now or in the coming months once the travel restrictions lift, and to me, I was quite shocked by it, because I had thought that it was kind of common sense to not go to the field right now because indigenous communities or communities who have endangered or underdocumented languages are usually marginalized in other ways and thus very vulnerable. But I thought that this was a good topic to discuss on the podcast. And disclaimer: we are not healthcare experts or epidemiologists, so, in short, we’re not  trying to tell people what to do, but rather we want to bring more awareness to these issues and start having these conversations in our field.


MTB: Thank you so much for coming on Field Notes. So first off, can you just give a brief summary of who you are and your work?

Guillem Belmar: Oh, okay. Well, so my name is Guillem Belmar. I’m doing a PhD now at University of California Santa Barbara, and I’m mostly interested in language revitalization and documentation of minoritized and endangered languages. And I have been working on revitalization for a while in different languages back in Europe and also on revitalization online, as like use of minoritized languages on social media and the website resources in general, and now here I’m mostly involved in documentation of Oaxacan indigenous languages in the diaspora community here in California. Yeah. Mostly that now, you know.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really cool. Oh, that’s interesting that you work with diaspora speakers. Okay, so to start to get into our discussion, you made a Facebook status that blew my mind. I did not realize that people actually thought that they could be making field trip plans right now, so can we talk about that a little bit?

Guillem Belmar: Yeah, sure. To be honest, I have been talking to some friends and some colleagues that they did have fieldwork plans for the summer, and they are looking forward to doing those, whatever, they can, and I haven’t given it a lot of thought, like mostly because now I work with diaspora communities. Right? So we are in lockdown, but we’re still working online, and we know that eventually at some point we may be able to start working again because they live right here or the town next to Santa Barbara. So it’s not like flying somewhere super remote to get to them. And yesterday, I was… Yesterday — no, it wasn’t yesterday, but like the other day, I was just looking at some news, and I saw that the first officially reported cases of people dying from coronavirus in Amazon, Amazonian tribes, they have been reported officially in Brazil, and I started thinking, “Oh, God. The moment we start going there, this is going to be even worse.” And it’s not like that will be the first time that happens. Right? We know that linguists and anthropologists go into the field that have brought many diseases to these places, and I thought like, “If I can at least convince some of my friends to not do that or some of my colleagues to not do that, that’ll be already okay.” You don’t even have to go very far away. Like even here in the US, the reservations have been hit very hard.

MTB: What was the… The justification was, they had already made plans, and so they were just trying to keep the plans that they had already made? It wasn’t like they saw that the flights were cheap right now and they wanted to book a trip to the field. Right?

Guillem Belmar: No, I haven’t seen anyone thinking that, “The flights are cheaper, so let’s just go now.” I think it’s more of a either people already had plans or people that are just about to finish their whole dissertation and need one more trip, and they just don’t know what to do now. And I get it. It’s a lot of rethinking your whole project, but we will all have to do that.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Yeah, when I initially heard you talking about this, my first reaction was, “Wow. These people are monsters,” but actually the more I thought about it, I started to think like, “People must not realize the risk.” Right? Like they must not be thinking that there’s actually this chance that there could be such devastating consequences. They must think that they can get away with it.

Guillem Belmar: Yeah, definitely. Like I don’t think they’re monsters or anything. For most of us, it’s still difficult to comprehend what’s happening and really understand the consequences of what’s happening and really be aware of the fact that like normal international travelling will take some years to restore, and we’re still not aware of that, or we still think that it will be like maybe a few more months, maybe a year till we get the vaccine and then things will go back to normal, but one thing is that we get the vaccine, and then the other thing is that everyone gets a vaccine, and that, we know it’s not going to happen anytime soon. And we just have to be very careful with these things. You don’t want to be the one that goes to a community and just infects everyone. You really don’t want to be that person.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Can we talk a little bit… I want to make it clear that we’re not trying to police other people, but we just want to have this conversation, because I think a lot of people are thinking about it. Let’s talk a little bit about why the Coronavirus is even more dangerous for speakers and for communities that speak under-documented or minority languages. So to start, like access to healthcare. I can give an example from Amami, where I work. Even though it’s Japan, which everybody — is technically Japan — which people think of as being a very developed country, in the islands, there are not a lot of hospitals, and some of the islands don’t have hospitals at all. So like if this were to hit those islands, then people would have to get on like, a boat to get to the bigger islands that actually have healthcare, and they don’t have enough beds, they don’t have enough space, so they would not be prepared for the situation at all.

Guillem Belmar: Yeah. I mean, it’s just the same old whole this and that, as always. Like minoritized communities tend to live in the peripheries of societies, whatever that is, and that is the places that have the least access to healthcare and any other resource, actually.

MTB: Yeah, and more fragile economies, as well.

Guillem Belmar: Exactly. Yeah. Even here, as I told you before, I work now mostly with diaspora speakers, and most of them are still working because they work in the field, so they’re still working every day. No gloves, no masks. Just working on the field, collecting the fruit that then you buy in the supermarket.

MTB: Gosh, it’s so tough. Also, like the lack of information about the virus, so I saw that the Endangered Languages Project is trying to crowdsource information about COVID-19 in as many languages as possible. Did you see that?

Guillem Belmar: Yeah. Yeah, I saw that, and actually, it was like something that the speakers, the community of speakers that I kind of collaborate with, they started something similar, and they’ve been doing like videos with information in Mixtec about the coronavirus and about some health practice and some hygiene practices that they should follow. And there’s a lot of stuff happening like from the communities themselves, also, trying to get as much information as possible outside, but it’s also… Again, like this is restricted because of access to internet in general, and not everyone can see these things.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, for sure, like not everyone has access to internet or like technology literacy, and even if like… I think the Endangered Language Project is up to over 100 languages now, but when you consider there are like 7,000 languages, then it’s just a drop in the bucket, isn’t it?

Guillem Belmar: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. I mean, there’s only that much that we can do, of course, and it’s difficult to get all this information outside in all these languages, and also it’s difficult to make it available for everyone that would actually benefit from this. To what point we’re actually doing something that is available to the speakers, or are we just collecting some curious list of languages?

MTB: Yeah, definitely, and the situation is always changing, as well. Like as we get more information, then that has to be maybe retranslated, and it’s just impossible to keep up.

Guillem Belmar: Yeah, it’s impossible. I mean, only a month ago, we thought it would be like, I don’t know, a few weeks or a month of lockdown, and now we’re looking at probably much, much longer.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. So I’m in Seattle now, which was like very heavily hit by the virus, but if you’re in like a less-infected area or if you’re in an area that hasn’t been infected at all, like people might think like, “Oh, okay. Well, it’s safe for me to go,” but then, one, you have to go through the airport, which the airport is like having people from all over the world, right, and it’s just like a total Petri dish. And then from your airport, you’re probably flying into the capital city of the country where you’re working with, where the community lives, and then the capital city is also going to have like so many germs that the community would otherwise maybe not interact with, so you’re like picking up germs from like your home airport, and then the capital city airport, and then you’re going into the village, and you’re just like at this point covered in germs.

Guillem Belmar: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, and also, just also be careful that the fact that cases have not been reported in your area doesn’t mean that there are no cases. People are not getting tested everywhere, so we don’t know exactly how many people actually have it, have had it. Maybe I have already had it and I didn’t know, because not everyone gets symptoms or some people get very mild symptoms, so it’s very difficult to really know, and we won’t know until, I don’t know, maybe for some years until we’ve started testing for antibodies in everyone, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So just, like if you want to do stuff, if you are working with diaspora speakers, are close to your community, just be careful. The moment things start getting a little bit better and they, health experts, start telling you that you can go out and meet people, maybe you can start doing that, but just be very careful, and maybe still just like wear protective stuff for a while and wash everything super carefully, disinfect stuff. Just be very careful. And I would suggest postponing international fieldwork for at least one or two years. I know it’s very hard to say this, and it’s difficult to predict, and maybe it’s not necessary, two years, but I would start planning in case it is necessary.

MTB: Yeah. I think it’s hard for like us, but like even anyone to say like when will it be safe, because…

Guillem Belmar: No, definitely.

MTB: Like, well, you and I are not epidemiologists, but also like…

Guillem Belmar: No.

MTB: … the situation is always…

Guillem Belmar; No. Disclaimer: We don’t know.

MTB: Yeah. We are not, very much not epidemiologists, but the situation is just changing all the time, isn’t it, so who…

Guillem Belmar: Yeah.

MTB: I don’t really know how we can say like, “Well, you can go to the field at this point,” but I think just by like talking about the situation will make more people think twice and give pause before they make their plans and…

Guillem Belmar: Yeah.

MTB: … book their trips. So you have already mentioned your work with diaspora speakers, but maybe we can give some suggestions about how people can get their work done if they’re, like you said, like just about…

Guillem Belmar: Sure.

MTB: … to get their degrees finished and they just need like that one more field trip.

Guillem Belmar: I mean, one first obvious thing is, if you are in that situation that you just need one more field trip to finish your thesis, maybe just have a look at your project and reconsider it, can we, can you be finished with the data you already have? Maybe you can. Maybe you just need to change a couple stuff or maybe that’s some things that you won’t be 100% certain about, but that’s okay. Your thesis is not the end of your career, so if you can finish with the data you have, maybe just go with it. Otherwise there, if you can do it, you can do stuff online, then it’s a bit clunky in the beginning to do like transcriptions and stuff like this and share screens all the time, and it’s not ideal, but you can. You can pull it off. If you have a speaker that is able to do all these things, because access to internet and technology, literacy, and all these things, but if you can do that, that’s a good stuff. You could even, if the speakers you work with have a recorder and they know how to send you recordings, maybe they don’t know how to Skype or Zoom with you and do transcription sessions with you, but they can send you recordings. That’s all really something you can start doing, or you can work with materials that are already available on the web.

MTB: Yeah. Definitely, like ELAR, and PARADISEC, and AILLA all have tons…

Guillem Belmar: Exactly.

MTB: … of archive data that people can work with, and I think actually ELAR just did a blog post about someone who did their Master’s dissertation based off of like all archive data.

Guillem Belmar: Good. Yeah. Okay. I know it’s not ideal, and it’s not like what all of us were hoping for when we started doing these projects, but it’s okay. Again, this is not the end of your career, so you may get to do all these things that you want to do later on.

MTB: Yeah. Definitely. Yeah. I think that’s the biggest thing, like we just need to accept that some of our projects may have to change for the immediate future.

Guillem Belmar: Yeah.

MTB: And these are unprecedented times, so we need to be a little bit flexible. Like research doesn’t wait, but we can make choices, and we should make safe choices.

Guillem Belmar: Exactly. Don’t think about you and your research, and think about like global health, maybe. Think about the well-being of the people you work with.

MTB: Yeah.

Guillem Belmar: I mean, that’s more important than your research, so…

MTB: Yeah, for sure.

Guillem Belmar: I mean, as you said that before, we’re not, I’m not trying to police anyone, or I’m not trying to call on anyone and be like, “Oh, you’re such a bad person. You’re horrible because you’re thinking about these things.” That’s not my intention here at all. It just, just some food for thought and some invitation to consider these things critically for the foreseeable future.

MTB: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, and I mean, like maybe this might be a good opportunity, like it’s a horrible situation in almost every way, but in some ways, it might be an opportunity for people, for linguists who are already in the community as insider researchers to have a chance to work with the people that they are already living with in their communities, especially if their communities are not affected by the coronavirus, and…

Guillem Belmar: Yes.

MTB: … they can actually work with their neighbours and work with the wider community.

Guillem Belmar: Yes, definitely. Like all these things that we always say about empowering these speakers and make them do the, like help them do the whole research and help them take agency and control over these things, and we just helping, now this is what we can do. We can just help remotely and let them control the whole thing, and that’s probably what we should be aiming for. And it may not be easy at first, because as you said, like there’s a lot of changes that need to happen for this, and academia is sometimes not the most flexible environment, but we can do this. We can work around some loopholes and do this.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, and I think like we should be holding one another accountable as well. Is there anything else you want to say, Guillem?

Guillem Belmar: Well, I mean, I can just launch an invitation to… Anyone who wants to work on use of minority languages online, I have a group of young researchers that look at how virtual communities can function as breathing spaces for minoritized languages, so if you’re interested in that, something you can do from your house, in quarantine, you don’t have to go anywhere, so just reach out and we can tell you all about it, and you can join and do this for the language you work with.

MTB: Oh, that’s so cool. I’ll link… Is it a website, or…

Guillem Belmar: No. Yeah, they can just email me. I share stuff on my Twitter account. All of us have Twitter accounts, of course, like we work with social media, but yeah. We were going to set up a mailing list, but it never took off, and everything got crazy now, so we’ll see if it ever happens. But yeah. We would be super happy to have more people work with this.

MTB: Yeah. What’s your Twitter handle? I’ll put it in the show note.

Guillem Belmar: It’s @GuillemBelmar, so just my name and my first, last name. 

MTB: Okay. Cool. Yeah, and I’ll link your… Is it okay if I link your email as well and people can reach you there?

Guillem Belmar: Sure. Yeah.

MTB: Okay, cool. All right. Well, thank you so much, Guillem, for coming on Field Notes.

Guillem Belmar: Thank you for inviting me.

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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