Episode 15: Rethinking the ‘field’ in Fieldwork with Hannah Gibson

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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 with Hannah Gibson. Hannah is a fellow SOASian, and she is now a Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Essex. She holds a BA in Swahili and Law and an MA and PhD in Linguistics, all from SOAS. Her research is primarily concerned with linguistic variation, particularly why and how languages change. Much of her work explores the syntax and semantics of the Bantu languages, with a focus on languages spoken in Eastern Africa. She has conducted data collection in Tanzania, Kenya, and the UK. In this episode, Hannah and I discuss her work, her daily research routine, and why we should think critically about what we mean when we use the term “fieldwork”.

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MTB: Okay, so welcome, Hannah. Thank you so much for taking time to talk to us.

Hannah Gibson: Thank you. Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

MTB: So to start, can you talk a bit about where you’ve done fieldwork, your fieldwork biography?

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, absolutely. So most of my research is on languages spoken in East Africa. The biggest chunk of time I spent kind of doing data collection is in Tanzania. So my PhD was on a language called Rangi, which is spoken in Central Tanzania, yeah, in a wonderful sort of part of the bottom of the Rift Valley, essentially. So I spent a good chunk of time in Tanzania, and then in a subsequent project, I was looking a little bit at Rangi, but also some languages spoken up near Lake Victoria, so up on the border between Tanzania and Kenya, for a chunk of time, as well, around a town called Musoma. And then I literally last week just got back from a fantastic trip to South Africa, which is part of a new project and where I’m working on two South African languages, Sesotho and Setswana. So I just got back from a tiny bit of data collection in South Africa, but yeah. That’s sort of the main picture. 

MTB: So Rangi is an endangered language, right?

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, so I mean, yeah, I can expand on that a little bit. So yeah, so Rangi’s spoken by about 300,000 people in Central Tanzania, so in some respects it’s really quite a large language. I know there’s people who work with much smaller communities or are a part of much smaller communities, but in the context of Tanzania, where there’s something like 120 languages and then Swahili plays this kind of lingua franca role across Tanzania — it’s the official language, language of primary education, language of administration — most people would sort of think that all other languages are threatened to some extent in that they’re increasingly not being passed down to younger generations. As people move to urban centres, they tend not to kind of transmit them or use them as much they did, so yeah, Rangi wouldn’t be sort of on the, yeah, top of the list in terms of endangerment, but I think all other languages in Tanzania are probably threatened.

And in the context of Rangi, that’s relevant. So I went there as a linguist interested in a very particular syntactic structure, but people were sort of saying, “Well, why are you interested in this? Why? When you go back to England, who will you be talking Rangi to? What will you do with this?” So that was always really interesting. And yeah, so that’s sort of spoken in the Kondoa area of Central Tanzania, which is a really interesting linguistic part of the world or interesting linguistic part of East Africa. So people have kind of divided the languages of Africa into four broad language families, so this is a sort of formal approach, and Tanzania’s the only place in Africa where you have languages from all four of the language families found, so you have…

MTB: Oh, cool.

Hannah Gibson: … huge levels of linguistic diversity in one particular area, and I was interested in language contact, which is why I started to look at Rangi. So yeah, you have this quite sort of vibrant, thriving community of Rangi speakers around the town of Kondoa and the neighbouring villages, but yeah, the area has for a long time been home to speakers of other languages completely unrelated and very distantly related languages. And then, yeah, over the top of that, kind of Swahili throughout the area. And I was based in a small village called Haubi, which is on the lake, beautiful in the centre, sort of Rangi-speaking part of the area. So yeah, that’s sort of where I spent most of my time, because I spent about 12 months there doing research for my PhD, so that’s the kind of longest chunk of time.

And then what I was looking at in Rangi is a particularly sort of — a word order variation, which is unusual. So I’m a syntactician, and I’m interested in those kind of things, and at that time, I had only noticed that you have this order, so you get the verb before the auxiliary in Rangi, but over the course of my PhD, I found another few languages which do this as well, so I did a project after that as part of some postdoctoral research which took me up to this other area of Tanzania, so they’re not sort of neighbouring areas, but you also find a group of languages there. That’s on the edge of the Serengeti National Park and Lake Victoria, and there’s four other languages spoken there which also have this unusual word order. So yeah, that’s the kind of what’s going on, so you have, yeah, high levels of multilingualism, small communities. With some of these other languages like Ngoreme and Simbiti, it’s more like kind of 50,000 speakers, so they’re smaller, but again, with this kind of role of Swahili as this like national language and definitely language of wider communication, high levels of multilingualism. And then yeah. I mean, I can talk about this other trip, certainly, but that’s brand new. That’s like very fresh off the press, yeah.

MTB: I think I have a question later that’s only about your newest…

Hannah Gibson: Fantastic.

MTB: … latest project, so…

Hannah Gibson: Then we can come back to that.

MTB: Yeah. We can come back to that. Then also, you did data collection in the UK for your PhD project as well, right?

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely, yeah. So I mean, this was a good point. So when I was working with Rangi speakers and I was working in Tanzania, people would often say to me, “Why are you here, and why are you interested in Rangi?” And I would sort of try and explain, and then often they would say, “Well, who will you speak Rangi to when you go back to the UK?” And actually, what I did when I got back to the UK is, I sent out a few messages in the kind of UK-Tanzanian community to find out if there were any Rangi speakers in the UK. I was also just interested in their experiences and meeting other Tanzanians and sort of, but also I thought like, “Oh, I’ve got a few more sentences it would be nice to check.” And when I first got to Haubi, where I was based, that was the first year they had mobile phone coverage. They put up a mobile phone mast just before I got there. There was… you know, it’s off-grid, so it wasn’t like I could send people an email or definitely then a WhatsApp message. Now, I think I could send people a WhatsApp message or, you know, get them on Facebook, but this was sort of, yeah, a while back, so you couldn’t do that, and I thought if there was a Rangi speaker in the UK, maybe I could meet with them. And someone got back in touch with me and said, “Actually, my wife grew up in this area, and she speaks Rangi, and she is based in Preston,” so not even in London, so I just went, “Oh, this isn’t great,” because I thought maybe I could meet up with someone. But anyway, we sort of got in touch, and we would speak on the phone and things like that. And so it’s a very different type of data collection, if you want. It’s not… Yeah. The contrast was spending 12 months living in a community, talking to people, learning greetings…

MTB: Every day.

Hannah Gibson: … and things on a day-to-day basis, but I think this is also really important, because, yeah, what I wanted to do was more of the kind of like checking or, I suppose, elicitation or getting a second opinion or a third opinion on stuff. And then I could pick up the phone and speak to Vanessa in Preston. And yes, with the sort of additions that she wasn’t any longer living in that community. She’s obviously away from home. She now uses other languages on a day-to-day basis, but that’s still also a great source of information.

MTB: Totally.

Hannah Gibson: And I think, I mean, living in London, really, the whole world is here, and I know that I’m not the only person who’s done that, so who’s reached out to speaker communities here or has one way or another, or in other countries as well, like find that there are communities in France or in Portugal of people from Mozambique or other parts of the world. And I think it’s really helpful for us to keep that at the back of our minds, as well, as a fantastic resource.

MTB: Completely.

Hannah Gibson: And sometimes they have different ideas and perspectives on things as well, which is always interesting.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s so true. The community I work with, they speak a language called Amami, and in 2004, it was estimated that there are about 1,800 speakers, and so much smaller, but even for that language, there are speakers here in London.

Hannah Gibson: Oh, wow. Fantastic.

MTB: Which you completely wouldn’t expect. Right?

Hannah Gibson: And did you meet them, or did people tell you about them? I mean, how did you come across…

MTB: Yeah, so people just, friend of a friend, really. They were like, “Oh, you’re working on Amami? Well, you should meet this person,” and they actually have like a retirement group of older people who all speak Amami. They’re all from Amami, and they’re here in London.

Hannah Gibson: That’s fantastic.

MTB: So, yeah.

Hannah Gibson: I think it’s really important that we remember that, because it’s always easy to kind of think that the only way of finding these things out is to go in this sort of particular approach and immerse yourself in the context, and that has great advantages, but yeah. There’s other options as well.

MTB: Do you want to talk now about the term “fieldwork” and how we think it’s kind of a like an exotic adventure in the jungle, if you will, but data collection in the UK is also fieldwork?

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely, yeah. So, I mean, I avoid using the term “fieldwork”, but I don’t really have an alternative word, so I find myself saying “data collection” because I think that’s one of the things that I mean, although, of course, fieldwork is a sort of bigger kind of project. Yeah, so I’m really wary of using the word “fieldwork”. I think as long as we use the word “fieldwork” to involve, to refer to getting on a plane, and going to Tanzania, and spending time with the community, and the same things in East London or in Manchester, then I don’t have a problem with the term “fieldwork”, but what I find increasingly is that people use it only to talk about those, yeah, going somewhere else, going far away — and also, a particular kind of idea of what that looks like. Right? So how you have to live, how you interact with people, and then if you do that, you’ve got this like genuine legitimate image of a community. And I actually think like even if I now lived in a place for 30 years, I’m still an outsider the way that people talk to me, interact with me. My experiences of the world are still different, so I think I don’t have a problem with the word in itself, but I think often we use it to refer to only one kind of thing, so I try not to use it in a bid to try and get people to challenge that or to use it when I’m talking like, “Oh, I’m just going on the Central Line to Barking, and I’m going to do some fieldwork in East London.” Because what’s the difference? Right?

MTB: Yeah.

Hannah Gibson: And I think it also, the other thing it does is, so one of the things I think I’ve said is that I also worked with Rangi speakers who were linguists, and I think it, what if you are working on a language you speak, or what if you’re working on a language spoken by a community that you’re part of? What position does that put you in in terms of fieldwork? Does it immediately undermine your experiences and your insights? Does it immediately position you as an outsider? I think there are really interesting tensions, and I don’t work with communities that I’m part of, but I think, again, just sort of saying, “Ooh, well, what does that mean? I have friends who are working on their languages, their community languages, and if I’m talking about fieldwork and I only mean it in this narrow kind of way, then the danger is that I’m kind of undermining the really important work and important contributions they’re making as well.”

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting and important point. I think I’m taking kind of the second approach that you mentioned where I consider fieldwork to be everything. Everything is fieldwork. Getting on the Tube to go to Barking is fieldwork. We had two insider researchers who were working on their own languages, and they’re going to the field, but really they’re going home. You know? [laughter]

Hannah Gibson: Yeah. Yeah.

MTB: And yeah, but I think it’s definitely worth mentioning that and trying to have a more critical sense of the word.

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely, and I think, so I agree. Like there’s two ways of doing it. One is to use it to refer to everything, and one is to use it to refer to nothing, and I think because most of my research is in Africa and I’m immediately positioned as an outsider, I’ve chosen the first option, which is not to refer to it as fieldwork, because then when I go to conferences that are working on African languages, most of the people are also in the same position as me. I go to a conference in Europe, there’s lots of people from Europe and North America talking about Africa, and again, I’m just trying to perhaps, it’s a sort of small measure, but trying to highlight that or make people aware of it. I also hear people sort of say things like, “I’m going to my field,” and things like that, which —

MTB: Or, “It’s my language.”

Hannah Gibson: Yeah.

MTB: Yeah. “I work on my language.” Right.

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, and I sort of, again, like, so also the danger that I have as a native English speaker, I don’t want to be policing other people’s language use as well, so like the fact that I’ve chosen not to do this doesn’t mean that I now want to go around saying like, “Oh, don’t call it ‘fieldwork’,” but at the same time, part of me inside is thinking like, “If we’re using it like that, then we have to use it consistently across the board.” But I think like at the moment, it’s also like gathering kind of currency, this kind of discussion. Lots of people in other disciplines have perhaps done more of this work already. In sort of sociology, anthropology, I think, there’s a lot more discourse around this and how people position themselves as researchers and where they are and what their perspectives are. And that’s not to say that linguists and linguistics haven’t done it, but I think we need to be doing more of that.

MTB: Yeah. I mean, you kind of like have hit the nail on the head for why I wanted to make this podcast in the first place was to show that fieldwork doesn’t have to be just like one kind of stereotypical idea that I think a lot of people have, and also there’s this… I don’t know if you feel this way, but there’s definitely this feeling somewhere that people who go to places that are like very remote, or without electricity and who have to like wash themselves out of a bucket, are like the real fieldworkers, and then people who go to places that have electricity or people who do fieldwork in London are just like having these lush research trips without hardships. But of course, no matter where your fieldwork is, you are going to have challenges, and just because you’re going someplace with electricity doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, absolutely, but I think you’re absolutely right, like I think having this discussion, particularly for people who are going to do this kind of work, so I think when I was doing my PhD, I was also lucky enough to have friends from other subjects, so people who are doing politics and anthropology, and the way that people talk about, in their case, perhaps developing ethnographies or doing interviews. Like it can be really different, and it can look really different, but also the sort of similarities across our disciplines, but I think, yeah, particularly perhaps studying somewhere like at SOAS, where if you’re sort of doing Swahili, then that’s really kind of mainstream. It’s really easy to forget when you go out into the rest of the world that that’s not kind of like mainstream.

MTB: That’s so true, yeah.

Hannah Gibson: Like your language, like the world language you’re working on. It’s got 300,000 speakers. Wow, that’s…

MTB: So basic. [laughter]

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, and everyone else is like, “Wow, that’s really small.” But yeah, but… So I think there is something important, though, about talking about like if I go on the train to Barking and I sit down with people for two hours, that is a really different personal experience for me than spending a year or a month or six months in a context where I’m surrounded by the language and the kind of insights and the kind of conversations I’m going to have on a day-to-day basis are also going to inform my understanding of the language, even as a syntactician or someone who’s doing like phonetics or something like… I think you still get that bigger picture by being in that context, but yeah. If I’m doing elicitation or if I’m doing video recordings because I’m interested in a particular like articulator or something, I can still answer those questions in 101 different ways, really, which don’t all involve living off grid and having a tough time. Because these are also… I mean, it’s a fantastic privilege to be able to go somewhere and live somewhere else for 12 months and to be, in my case, welcomed in with open arms and a bit of a curiosity about who this person was who was suddenly like, you know…

MTB: Totally.

Hannah Gibson: … living with you. But it’s also, yeah, like some of the most sort of amazing and unique experiences that I’ve had.

MTB: So any thoughts on what we as linguists can do to decolonize language documentation? Big question.

Hannah Gibson: It is a big question. Yeah, I think… So I think there’s a bit of a sort of momentum at the moment and a lot more discussion of decolonization of all sorts of things, so decolonizing our curriculum has really picked up, and the university more broadly, and I think, again, as linguists and people working in linguistics, that we need to be part of this. I think we should be driving it as well and being critical of our own discipline. I think in my sort of way of thinking of things and my field of linguistics, I suppose, there’s different elements. So there’s how you do the research, which touches on some of the stuff that we’re labelling data collection and fieldwork-type things, but being aware of and then ultimately avoiding extractive kind of practices, so you know, arrive in Tanzania, get all my sentences, and then leave, I think is to be— 

MTB: And never be seen again.

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, is to be really avoided. I think even if you’re just interested in the linguistic data that you get, I think it’s just not going to be as good, so even if you’re not concerned about the kind of ethical and power structures that are attached to that, I just don’t think the work will be as good, so I think connections with local linguists, in our cases linguists, and local research institutions, or… So it’s not always universities, so there may be other institutions. I know in Malawi they have something called the Centre for Language Studies, which —

MTB: Oh, cool.

Hannah Gibson: There’s also sort of organizations that do things around orthography development and educational things like that. Similar in South Africa. There would be different boards of literature and literary sort of stuff that you might want to speak to. And I think then saying like, “Oh, well, should we write things together,” or, “What research is being done at the moment? How can I fit into that? Can I contribute things? What can I learn from you as well?” Right? So colleagues at the University of Dar es-Salaam have been doing this work since before I was born, so me sort of getting in thinking like, “Ooh, what can I teach you?” Again, sort of stopping yourself or questioning that a little bit. So I suppose there’s sort of that side of things, and then what you do afterwards, so I think in terms of funding, for example, there’s some specific funding to encourage kind of North-South collaborations, but the funding still comes from the Global North and often is held in Northern institutions. And I think, again, we need to, if we’re going to be involved in those projects, ensure that things are in place that sort of say like, “Okay, so what are the outcomes that I want? What are the outcomes that my colleagues want?” They may be the same, but they may be different, like people have different pressures on them. We’re talking here about REF, so the Research Excellence Framework, which takes place every seven years in the UK, and if you’re a researcher in Malawi or Kenya, that wouldn’t be the same pressure that you’re under, but you might have a different set of pressures. You might have 2,000 people in your classes, so sort of setting joint agendas and then working out where we can compromise and things like that. Funding, I think conference is a big issue, so the African Studies Association UK just did a massive exercise gathering information relating to visa rejections from Africa-based colleagues and scholars who were trying to come to the biannual conference here and show that a disproportionate number of colleagues from Africa were being denied visas to come to conferences.

MTB: Here in the UK.

Hannah Gibson: Here in the UK, specifically, and this was taken to Parliament, and there was a discussion on it a few weeks ago. And I think it’s really important to do that and to say to Parliament of the UK, “This is not on,” but I think we can also be asking like, should we then be doing a partner conference every other year in an African country? That has its own problems, particularly in the case of Africa, but I’m sure in other parts of the world as well, in that travel between African countries is often as expensive as coming to Europe, so it’s not automatically the fact that if you have a conference in Nigeria, you have a conference in South Africa, all of your colleagues from Africa suddenly, it’s much —

MTB: Can come.

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, can come. They also have visa issues and finances, but again, we can’t continue to have like conferences just sort of in the North, the Global North, and especially with, yeah, visas and finances. I suppose similar things for journals and publishing?

MTB: Yeah.

Hannah Gibson: So the sort of bulk of those being based in institutions and being very costly, so subscriptions that individuals couldn’t afford, institutions couldn’t afford. And I think in linguistics, that’s something we’re doing really well on, so there’s things like Language Science Press. There’s Glossa, which has gone open access in a big sort of movement to say, “This is information that should be available. I’m paid, or I have access to funds to gather it. Why should someone else…”

MTB: Have to pay.

Hannah Gibson: “… have to pay again to then read it?” Including myself sometimes. Right? Like I think I’m supposed to buy an article I wrote, which is just, as a model — I mean, they’ve got a great sort of racket. And then I think finally, as I’m now a Lecturer, and this is something I have to sort of think about, also teaching linguistics. So there’s all sorts of ways in which we can teach linguistics which don’t just relate to sort of concepts of, yeah, grammatical functions and things like that, but linguistic discrimination is widespread. There’s been interesting studies on discrimination in like legal cases and different languages, different varieties, the stigma that’s associated with them. So bringing our students into the classroom and university not being a place where students are saying like, “Oh, I don’t have this kind of English,” or, “I don’t have this kind of style of writing.” None of us are native speakers of academic English or academic any other language, so we’re all moving towards some sort of new register and new form, and when we’re learning, I think it would be great if our students have examples from languages they speak, languages from communities that they may be part of, diaspora should really be reflected. Because I think, again, we have such a fantastic, a potential to make such fantastic contribution as it links to race, as it links to ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic background, and not to see that as somehow separate from linguistics. Because on a day-to-day basis, like I think basically the first word out of someone’s mouth, you can often make 101 assumptions correctly or incorrectly about them. And this is also the work of linguistics. Like it might not be my area of study, but if I’m teaching and if I have the classroom, I think it’s really important that we bring that into the classroom.

So that’s perhaps slightly broader than this idea of decolonizing subject, decolonizing linguistics or whatever, but I think what I’m sort of thinking of as like almost linguistics or language studies for social justice, so there’s movements like maths for social justice, particularly in the US, actually saying, “Okay. These are our students. What can we do that helps this subject be a portal for addressing inequalities as they exist in society rather than like aside, ‘They’ve got to do that somewhere else. That’s not for our classrooms.’?” So yeah. I think it’s really exciting. I think it’s something that I’m really committed to, and I’m not quite sure what it will look like over the next few years, but I think there’s not an option not to do this kind of work, really, and I think it’s urgent.

MTB: Yeah. Well said. Can you talk a little bit more about your main research interests?

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely. Yeah. So I’m interested in language contact, so what happens when languages are in contact with each other, what happens in bilingual, often multilingual, contexts, and particularly how languages then change. I really work on structures, so kind of syntax and morphosyntax, and the reason that I started working on Rangi is that it had these… Before, when I was sort of looking for a PhD topic, had these two examples that came from Rangi that someone else, Oliver Stegen, had sort of found or described and showed this unusual word order. So you have the verb before the auxiliary, which is unusual in the context of Bantu languages, so Rangi’s a Bantu language, unusual in the context of East African languages. And also, Rangi has a subject-verb-object order, so it’s unusual in that it’s like English. It should have the auxiliary before the verb, and one of the suggestions was that this was a result of language contact, so I’ve described this area of Central Tanzania as very linguistically diverse. And so I set off to look at language contact and sort of find out that it was, yes, it was due to contact with a Cushitic language spoken in the North or something like that. And I think pretty much throughout my entire PhD thesis, I don’t mention language contact once, so… I mean, I do, I think, in sort of avenues for future research, because essentially I ended up looking at this particular construction, which was much more rich and complicated and interesting than I had known about in the first place. And I also have a theoretical analysis of it, so I work in a particular framework called Dynamic Syntax, so half of it’s a description of broadly Rangi morphosyntax, and the other half’s this formal analysis, but at the end of the thesis when I have the avenues for future research, I come back to this idea of, “Well, where on earth did this verb-auxiliary order come from?” And then I started looking at it in other languages. So I’m interested in how structures change as a result of language contact and also whether there are ways in which languages don’t change, which, again, so you can sort of say like, “Oh, well, if you use that word, I borrowed that word, fine, or if you use that sound, then I borrowed that sound,” but what does it mean to say that a structure of a language has changed in terms of how children learn languages, in terms of how languages are passed on, and in terms of like perhaps universal constraints, like are there ways in which languages don’t…

MTB: Don’t change.

Hannah Gibson: … change? And, I mean, we need to know so much more about the world’s languages to be able to answer that, but those are the kind of driving questions behind pretty much all of my research today, and that’s sort of, I’ve come back full circle, so I’m still interested in language contact, and most of the work that I do at the moment is looking at variation. And then yeah, specifically most of my work’s been on the Bantu languages, so it’s a group of something like 450 to 600 languages spoken across Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa, depending on how you count languages and dialects and things like that.

MTB: Yeah. Shifting gears slightly, can you give some details about your current project, so South Africa?

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely. Yeah, so I’m part of a new project with a colleague, Kristina Riedel, who’s based at the University of the Free State in South Africa, and this is looking at variation in two of South Africa’s official languages, so Sesotho and Setswana, particularly how these languages are spoken in the Free State. Again, still looking at structures and things more specifically, but there’s a few things driving the project. One is that there’s some description and some documentation of these two languages. They’re massive languages spoken by millions of people and official languages. What people have said for Setswana is that there’s dialectal variation, but people have said for Sesotho that there’s no dialectal variation, and it just doesn’t seem reasonable given that there’s millions of people and they’re spoken in different areas. So we’re interested in variation, but we’re particularly interested in variation between urban and rural varieties, and in the context of South Africa, the kind of orthography and the forms that are used in education and in official documentation are based on this kind of like rural variety that was codified primarily by missionaries and sort of people at the time of missionaries. And the idea is that when kids now get to school and they’re fluent Sesotho speakers, they get to school, and it’s like us being taught maths in like, I don’t know, Shakespearean English or something. It’s not a realistic reflection of the language as they know it, and this has all sorts of barriers, as you can imagine, for just understanding, participation in class, educational access and attainment, and just sharing information. Right? And otherwise, you’re being told like, “Oh, but this is in your language.”

So that’s the kind of big picture, but as is the case with lots of languages that I guess we work on, to get there we need to know just about how the variation happens and how it plays out. Is there rural-urban variation? We would expect so, but what does it look like? And then because of the language contact element as well, so these languages are in contact with other languages, and they’re also in contact with each other. So I’ve just come back from a trip where I was based at University of the Free State, and you have communities there which are really like Sesotho- and Setswana-speaking and people kind of move between the two or quite happy in both, and things like that, so that’s also an interesting way that they influence each other. And I suppose from a larger perspective, like how do you sort of decide, “Oh, this is a Setswana word or this is a Sesotho word,” when the languages are already quite similar to start with? Right? So structurally, they’re closely related and things like that.

MTB: Are they genetically related?

Hannah Gibson: Yeah. Yeah.

MTB: Okay.

Hannah Gibson: So genetically related, and then also spoken in the same kind of geographic area, high levels of, you know…

MTB: That sounds so hard.

Hannah Gibson: So it’s hard, but it’s like, so this also taps into some of these other questions that I suppose people are working on about concepts of sort of like translanguaging and things like that, like we have this idea that, “This is language X and this is language Y,” but what if we and our communities speak two or three of these, perhaps to varying degrees, and on any given day I’m moving between them? Actually, as a linguist, I don’t know if I want to come and say like, “Oh, that word is from this language,” because it doesn’t necessarily matter — although, of course, sometimes for identity and all sorts of other things it does.

But the project also has a really, a sort of part that I’m really committed to, so the last — two weeks ago, we were running a couple of training workshops for local researchers and students who are really interested in language documentation and description and linguistic analysis. So hopefully, as a result of that, we’ve got lots of people who now want to look at morphosyntactic microvariation on languages they speak, communities that they’re part of, and we were doing things like, yes, ELAN and FLEx and things, but also just saying, “These are some of the questions that are really interesting,” like, “Is this your, is this this language?” People saying… It was great to speak to people who were like, “I speak this language, and I think there are at least five dialects, but is there any references on this? Can I read something about it?” And you’re like, “No, but you’ve identified a fantastic research project, a gap. Go ahead and do it.” So there’s two parts. There’s the sort of research that Kristina and I are doing together, and then there’s hopefully spreading the enthusiasm and the skills for other people to do the research themselves because, in many ways, they’re much better positioned than I am to do this research.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. That’s so cool. Can you talk a little bit about what community collaboration has looked like for your research?

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely. I suppose this has a few different kind of forms. So when I was working on Rangi, there’s a couple of Rangi speakers who are linguists working in Tanzania, and they were great in that I could have a conversation about the fact that I thought there was a inclusive and exclusive distinction in the first person plural possessive pronouns, and they were also great in saying like, “Oh, that’s a really good person to talk to if you want a story.” Right? Like it’s nice to be able to have that kind of, both of those kind of conversations. So that was nice to have a sort of linguist and sort of say like, “Oh, I think actually this is a seven-vowel system,” or, “I think it’s this.” They were also able to put me in touch with people who I ended up mainly working with in terms of doing interviews and kind of informants, consultants.

I think because of the kind of context in which I was doing that work, also is really important that people just like also looked after me. So I stayed actually at a convent. I was living with Catholic nuns who, one of them was a Rangi speaker, and the others who weren’t. And it was really nice that people were able to say, “Okay, this would be a good place for you to stay.” For a variety of practical reasons, it was like the third year of sort of droughts in that area, and they were like, they have plenty of food. They have water tanks. This is a good place to stay, but also like, “Stay here, and people will know how to find you. They’ll know where you are,” because, yeah, if you turn up in a place where you don’t speak the language and you have two sentences, basically everything you do is just relying on, yeah, kind of community to work with you. So then I had one sort of main person that I would work with, and I would say, “Okay. I’m interested in stories,” and he would say, “Okay, these are the people to talk to,” or, “This week I want to just sort out the future tense,” and, “This is a good person to talk to about.” And then more recently, yeah, increasingly working with researchers at universities, so University of Dar es-Salaam in Tanzania, which is really nice. Been part of a few projects with them, and it’s great to see what their research agenda looks like as well, because it’s really easy for me to go, “Oh, I want to work on this,” and it’s really, I think, it’s been a real insight to see what kind of linguistics they’re wanting to do. So yeah, linguists, academic linguists based at universities, have been great, and then, yeah, broader kind of people who end up, I suppose, being your friends and you walk here because you need to get to another village and they tell you this is a good place to go…

MTB: Yeah. People recognize you on the street and just start…

Hannah Gibson: Well, there’s no chance that they wouldn’t recognize me or just recognize that there’s someone who is definitely not from there who’s in town, but yeah. It is, it’s like you couldn’t do any of this work on your own. Like even if you’re working on your own language, right? I mean, your intuition takes you so far, but everything is just off the basis of people’s generosity and time, and… Some people get really excited about the work, and some of them are just happy to answer like questions for an hour, and then you can see they can’t wait to get away as quickly as possible. 

MTB: Yeah. That’s so funny. So how did you end up at the convent? Did you arrange it beforehand, or like…

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, a little bit. So Kondoa, which is the closest town, was sort of, I knew I was aiming for that area, so that’s the sort of administrative centre of the district, but I knew that I didn’t really want to be in town, and also, because of the linguistic diversity, not that it’s bad, but there’s people speaking lots of different languages there. Basically, what I did was be led by people. So they said, “Okay. If you want to get the ‘pure’ Rangi,” in scare quotes, “you should go to Haubi.” And I said… Well, actually, I was told there were two options. You could either go to Haubi or you could go to Pahi. Haubi or Pahi would both give you pure Rangi, but I think Pahi had bigger snakes and bigger rats? So I was like, “Haubi sounds like my kind of place.” But then also there was this suggestion that it would be very easy, like you can phone ahead and say to the convent like, “Is there a space to stay?” And I think, poor things, they thought I was coming to stay for a couple of nights, and…

MTB: Oh, no.

Hannah Gibson: … ultimately ended up there for sort of nine months the first time and then a few more months later on. But yeah, that’s… It was people saying, “This would be a good place to go, and then this would be a place that has space and food and is dry.” And it was. They were wonderful, and that gave me a completely different insight, again, into the life of Tanzanian nuns.

MTB: Yeah. That’s amazing. Such a unique experience.

Hannah Gibson: Yeah. It really was. It really was, and yeah, so only one of them was a Rangi speaker, because the nuns are very much, and actually also the Fathers moved around a lot, so I guess the idea is that they’re not from there, but one of them who was also a trained… She was medically trained, so they had a clinic at the convent as well, so people would come. And she was a Rangi speaker, so that was also nice, and she was from the area and things, so that kind of helped, sort of connections and things.

MTB: Yeah. That’s cool. I laughed so hard when I saw your note under this question and you wrote, “Boring”, but what major equipment do you use in the field?

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, because I don’t go all “wow” for the equipment. So yeah, I still use a Zoom H2 which I bought the first year I started my PhD, which is now over 10 years ago, I think, although I don’t like to count, and I use that. I have used it with like a non-name no-brand (I wouldn’t know what it was called) microphone. You can tell that I’m not really flying the flag…

MTB: No, but I think — 

Hannah Gibson: … for the training I’m supposed to —

MTB: I think this is good, though, because always people want to say that they’re using the newest, most cutting-edge, most expensive thousand-dollar microphone, but you can do language documentation and research without that stuff.

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely. Absolutely, and I think… So I’m sure I would have higher-quality recordings — I’d be able to do acoustic analysis and things — if I had other equipment. For my purposes, one of the important things is, I was off-grid, so I was using a very small solar panel, and I was actually just using batteries, and I was like, “Okay, this Zoom can keep me going for as long as I need until I get back to town. I can get some more batteries. I can transfer all my files across.” It was really… I was doing everything else by hand, so for my purposes, actually, that was a good balance between, “I need this recording,” and, “This is my limitations.” And I know I could have taken video cameras, and actually, most recently in South Africa we did also use a, I think it was a Canon. We did use a video recorder, and it was really nice, because we had some sort of like, yeah, the sort of gesture, and it was nice to see what’s going on, and I think particularly for transcribing and going back and looking over the data, it is really nice to have the video. But yeah, if you want to know the ins and outs of different microphones and things like that, then I’m certainly not the person to talk to.

MTB: No, I think it’s good. We aim to represent the full range of linguists. Can you talk a little bit about what a typical day for you is when you’re doing research?

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely. I think actually, this is something that has been quite consistent across what I’ve done, and I usually have my day kind of chunked into three parts, probably. So one part, I’m usually doing some kind of preparation. Second part, I’m doing some kind of elicitation, recording, getting somewhere to be with some people, and then a third part where I’m doing some kind of very initial, very preliminary analysis. So even when I was working for a really sort of sustained period of time, like nine months, what I would be doing is, in the morning, thinking what I needed to work on that day, writing down some sentences, mapping out things that were gaps from the day before. In the afternoon, either walking to, or spending some time getting to, where I was going, or if people were coming to me, that always saved a bit of time. Recording, talking, introducing yourself, explaining who you are, if it’s the first time you’re meeting, and then afterwards, as soon as possible, like you’re often absolutely exhausted, but really as soon as possible, and I write while I’m recording, and I write while I’m talking. Often, it’s completely illegible, but like the idea is that you can immediately start something like, “Oh, that’s an interesting thing.” Just big circle around it or a big exclamation mark, because what you want to then do, basically, is the next day ask about it or whatever. And of course, if you’re working with the same person over and over again, you sort of think, “Oh, I’ll just ask that next time or next week,” but it’s really easy to go off and never come back to that, and then you’re writing it up or you’re doing some presentation and you’re like, “The perfect sentence to prove this point I forgot to ask because I never came back to it.”

So I think, yeah, I think actually I have tended to do my data collection in the afternoons, but really it doesn’t matter. So there’s a sort of before, a middle, and an after. And when I was in Haubi, it often involved quite long walks, two people, so sometimes that was like, okay, one day you’re walking, and then you stay there or whatever. But yeah, if people are coming to you, that’s sort of much easier. And then depending on the access to electricity and things, some kind of complicated backing things up, converting things so you’ve got them in as many different places as possible, and so basically the next day you’re ready to go somewhere in there, like feeding yourself and a little bit of recovery time as well, hanging out a little bit. But yeah. Really, it can be quite a gruelling… Even if you’re basically working for an hour. Like I mean it’s a lot of preparation beforehand, and then hours and hours of time afterwards when it really gets down to kind of transcription and stuff.

MTB: Yeah. So much work for like such little…

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely.

MTB: … little gain sometimes.

Hannah Gibson: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things, I mean, about being interested in language contact. One of the things that’s really interesting there is, it’s always felt a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, because you really don’t know what you’re looking for, and then I found like, “Ooh! This is interesting!” But you’ve got to kind of have quite a broad outlook and then find a feature, but often by chance. I mean, you can have a bit of an idea of where to look, but yeah, you’re absolutely right. it’s a lot of work for what ultimately ends up being quite a short chunk of time or one sentence, one ungrammatical sentence.

MTB: So true. So this is the last question, but based on your experiences and your own research, what would you say to someone who’s just starting out and they also want to do similar research? Do you have any advice for them?

Hannah Gibson: Yeah. It’s really difficult. I was sort of thinking about this question. I didn’t really come up with a kind of nice little kind of nugget of an answer, but I do think to really be driven by what you’re interested in is really important, and I think that relates to any kind of work, any kind of academic work, if you’re working on a PhD, if you’re working on an essay. I mean, you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it, so if you’re interested in it, then that’s a massive starting point. And I think with that comes maybe like a little bit of patience. So even if we’re sort of trying to pick apart this idea of fieldwork a little bit, ultimately, yes, I may be spending an hour asking someone sentences that help me understand exactly how wh-questions are formed, but on a day-to-day basis, I’m also like living somewhere else, meeting people, having food that’s different (some of it’s nice; some of it’s not fantastic). Not to sort of think like, “Oh, I’m only working. I’m only valuable in that one hour when I’m sitting with someone,” because often the informal conversations, regardless of what aspect of language you’re looking at, are when some of these insights come. And you’ve got to look after yourself as well, and I think that’s also really important, and that’s the same if you’re doing this kind of work here. Right? Like if you’re stressed, if you’re unwell, if you’re not looking after yourself, it just gets harder and harder. So I think sort of being led by your own interests and curiosity, being patient and kind of taking a broad kind of holistic view, if you want, and then, yeah, self-care. And I think that’s probably true for many of the things we do in this world as well, but just like looking after yourself, because, yeah, if you’re not sort of approaching it 100%, then yeah, it’s really difficult to keep going. And also, to give to yourself, to others as well. Right? I mean, again, not to have this kind of extractive approach where you’re going and asking people things and wanting things, but like what can you contribute while you’re there, like listening to people, talking to people, sharing experiences? You want to be able to contribute…

MTB: Yeah, and it might not even be linguistic. Right? Like people might not be interested in the recordings. They might rather have, I don’t know, their family’s restaurant menu translated into English or whatever.

Hannah Gibson: Yeah. Absolutely, or just like, you know, I met people who were — well, actually, of all ages — but particularly I think meeting women who were just really interested in what life was like in the UK or outside of, in my case, Tanzania. Like, “Well, what’s school life there, and what’s this like there?” And it would have been really easy to sort of think like, “Oh, this isn’t like the main…”

MTB: “This isn’t my job.” Yeah.

Hannah Gibson: “… part of my work.” Yeah. And there are days, of course, when you don’t want to be that kind of person who kind of had to explain things or you want to be able to walk down the street and be anonymous, and, yeah, a lack of anonymity is one of the things that I’ve found hardest over long chunks of time. But really like yeah, if people are interested, then they’re interested in the same way that I’m interested in their lives and their communities, so to try and explain and sort of paint the picture that, “Yes, I’m here,” and, “Oh, that’s what school was like,” or, “That’s what prison’s like in the UK,” or all sorts of questions that you don’t really see coming, but just to have that time, I think, is really important. And hopefully, some of these relationships will be ongoing as well, so you may go back, or you may go back to visit. You may go back in a kind of linguistic work capacity, but yeah, to see those as like just also people living their lives who you want to have a connection with.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Thank you so much, Hannah. This was so nice.

Hannah Gibson: Thank you.

MTB: This is really great. So lastly, where can our listeners learn more about your work if they want to get in touch or read things that you’ve written? Where can they do that?

Hannah Gibson: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m quite active on Twitter. My Twitter handle’s @itsthegibson, which you can find on Twitter, and I do something also which is a Swahili word of the day, which I sort of curate, so we have other people who contribute to that. So if you’re also interested in learning a little bit of Swahili, we do little sort of daily tweets Monday to Friday from that account or from others with the Swahili word of the day hashtag. For my academic work, so probably I have a profile page on the University of Essex website, so “Hannah Gibson University of Essex”, googling that, it should come up.

MTB: I’ll link it.

Hannah Gibson: That would be great. And then all of my publications and things, open access versions of them are all available there as well, so yeah. And feel free to send me an email or tweet me if you’re interested or want to get in touch, or if people want to know more details, because I’m really always happy to talk to people.

MTB: Cool. Thank you so much, Hannah.

Hannah Gibson: Thank 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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