Episode 19: Dreamtime Narratives & Language Sustainability with Dorothea Hoffmann

URL: https://fieldnotespod.com/2020/05/29/ep-19-dreamtime-narratives-language-sustainability-with-dorothea-hoffmann/

[introduction music]

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 Dr. Dorothea Hoffmann, who is a documentary linguist who has worked in remote parts of Northern Australia documenting the highly endangered languages Malak Malak, Jaminjung, Kriol, and others. In North America, She has been involved in language revitalization projects for the Acoma, Ute, Stoney Nakoda, Ho-Chunk and Cowlitz tribes, and First Nations. She is affiliated with the University of Oregon as an Honorary Research Associate and works as a Linguistic Project Manager for The Language Conservancy. In addition to her linguistic research, Doro also is one half of the team that runs the venture called 180forward – an ecotourism and education business based in New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest.

In this episode, Doro and I discuss why as researchers we should be striving not only to help sustain the languages that we’re working with, but also to help the communities regenerate the language, and by that I mean empowering new speakers of the language (if that’s what the community wants, of course). Doro also walked us through her work in spatial reference, and she shares a bit about her research into Dreamtime narratives, which is something I find really interesting and a little bit hard to understand. And I’m really excited to share this interview with you, because, as someone who is still working in linguistics but no longer working in academia, I found that Doro had a lot of good insights to share with us.


MTB: Thank you, Doro, so much for making time to come on to Field Notes.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Oh, thanks for having me. I’m excited.

MTB: Yeah, of course. To start, can you take us through your work? Like how did you start doing linguistic fieldwork? What was your journey into the field?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. So, well, I basically started becoming interested in Indigenous languages of Australia when I did an exchange year in Adelaide, and when I was there, they did, for the very first time ever, they actually did a course on Indigenous languages. And to be honest, at the time, I actually didn’t like linguistics at all. I was studying German and English and found the classes I took in German and English very strange and just didn’t really go with anything that I liked about language and all that, so then I decided to take at least one serious course while in Adelaide, and that was this linguistics course, and, well, it literally changed my mind — my mind and my life, both of them. Then, yeah, just realizing how different languages can be interpreted, how interesting that can be, and also just how much more richness is in these kind of languages and that I just couldn’t really find in English or German. Yeah, and so after that, I knew I wanted to pursue that further and basically decided that becoming a teacher wasn’t quite what I wanted to do anymore, at least not a schoolteacher, and yeah, and decided to go for a PhD and then ended up being in Manchester. And I just looked for the about five people in Europe that worked on Australian languages and found someone who wanted to work with me and started doing that. Yeah, so my very first field trip was in 2010 to work on Jaminjung, and Ngaliwurru, and Kriol in the Katherine area in the Northern Territory. And it was quite scary, to be honest, to go there. My instructions from my advisor were giving me an address and saying, “I hope she still lives there.” That was my contact for the speakers. And luckily, she did still live there, and so I could actually start something. And yeah, it was six weeks, and I was hooked, just working with people, getting to know them, driving some very, very old cars around because I didn’t have any money for a rental car or anything like that, so I borrowed other people’s cars. Yeah. It was an exciting time.

MTB: That’s so cool. That sounds amazing. So you just showed up in Australia with like an address, and you were just really hoping that that would work out, but did you have a backup plan, or…

Dorothea Hoffmann: Not really, no. I mean, I did meet some linguists beforehand who lived in Katherine, so I got in touch with them, and they actually provided me with a place to stay, which was super nice, of course, and I guess my backup plan would have been to see if they can introduce me to someone, but they wouldn’t really have known anybody, I think. At the end of the day, once I was there, I realized that, but yeah, that was pretty much it. So yeah, I worked with the speakers whose address I had and then managed to go to Timber Creek, which is a small little community, to work with a bunch of people on Ngaliwurru as well, which is a dialect of Jaminjung, or variant, and then also ended up being able to go to Ngukurr to do some Kriol fieldwork just because someone I met in Katherine happened to go there and they had a spare seat. So I tagged along and did a really mammoth fieldwork session in one day. Met with five people, recorded like five hours’ worth of things in like as much as possible, and yeah, it formed the basis of my thesis.

MTB: That’s so cool, so your thesis was on all three languages, or the Kriol was something extra, or…

Dorothea Hoffmann: No, it was on all three languages, so it was comparing how, in these languages, we talk about space and motion, particularly motion, and if there’s any difference, because languages are typologically very different, but they’re very close, spoken close to each other. A lot of people that speak Kriol also speak an Indigenous language, so seeing where the similarities and where the differences are in talking about space was my basic PhD.

MTB: That’s so interesting. So, then you worked on Malak Malak later.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yes. Malak Malak was my postdoc. So, after I finished a PhD, I was really hooked on the fieldwork and documentation aspect. For Jaminjung, for the PhD, I hadn’t really been able to do an awful lot of documentation. I mean, I still, I went out and did a lot of elicitation, and I collected some narratives and all that, because time you talk about motion is in narratives, but I was really interested in working on a language that hadn’t been documented that much. So yeah, I asked around, and one of my friends in Adelaide, Rachel Nordlinger (she’s a professor in Melbourne now), she suggested Malak Malak and said that nobody had been working on it since the ‘70s, and there was only a few people left, and it had really cool verbs, she said. And when I talked to my PhD advisor, Eva, about it, she got really excited about the verbs as well, and I said, “All right. I’ll do that.” And I had another very, very strange first time out there, which was everything kind of that could have gone wrong went wrong but then still went well in the end, but yeah.

I had applied for a bunch of large grants to do documentation and one small grant to do like just for a pilot study kind of thing. I got the small grant before I heard about the large ones, so I could go, so I knew I could go for like six weeks to do a pilot study and kind of just try and meet people and see if they would want to work with me, because I hadn’t met them. They hadn’t met me. Just knew nothing about them, and there was no way for me to contact them beforehand. So I was very grateful when that got funded, and because I got this pilot study, these larger grants also got funded, so I knew that I would be coming back, but when I got there, I had asked a guy who had been living there for a long time who happened to have email who had suggested to, or he had offered, to introduce me to the Malak Malak ladies because he had worked with them a little bit and done some recordings, but by the time I got there, there had been a death in the community, and he was unable to come because of that death. On top of that, there had just been another death in the Malak Malak community, so people were really upset at the time and didn’t want to talk to anyone, especially strangers.

Yeah, so I didn’t really know what to do. I was there. I was in a little tent on a campground, and I knew I had six weeks and I needed to get to know these ladies to do my postdoc, because without them I wouldn’t be able to, so I hung out in all the public spaces that I possibly could find. I went to church and all that, and that was all unsuccessful. But eventually, I managed to meet them in the little community. And they really weren’t particularly happy to meet me, at first. Very, very just reluctant to meet new people and say, “What do you want? We had other people come here. How are you different?” And I just asked them to give me a chance, and that indeed I would be different, I promised, and that I would be coming back, and I told them that I had money to come back, and this is what I was interested in. And luckily, they agreed to take a chance. So yeah, so I started doing some preliminary work with them just kind of to get to know them and show them what I would want to do, and a few months later, I came back, and it went on, and every time I came there, there was… More people would talk to me, and they’d become friendlier and happier, and every time I could… Like I brought some old recordings back with me that the guy in the ‘70s had recorded. I got them from an archive, brought them back, put them on CDs, brought them back. People really, really appreciated that everything that I recorded with them, I put on CDs and left with them and always asked them what they wanted to do. And it took at least two years until they allowed me to do any video recording, but yeah, it was basically just being super, super patient and waiting for the right moments and yeah, just going with the flow, even if that meant that you maybe got behind your research agenda, but that’s just not how fieldwork works.

MTB: Yeah. That’s a really good point. I’ve only done two field trips so far, but the second time I went back in 2019, I was able to bring the recordings from the first field trip, and one of the speakers had passed away in between the time I had left for the first time and then come back, and his family was so moved to be able to hear his voice and hear him speaking his language that… It’s really powerful, right, to be able to give those recordings back to the community. It’s so important, isn’t it?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. It definitely is, and just showing that you’re there, and that you’re keeping your promise, and that you are coming back, that helped an awful lot that I never promised anything that I couldn’t keep, because, yeah, people wouldn’t have appreciated that at all. But by now, I mean, I feel like people put an awful lot of trust in me. Sometimes it’s a bit scary how much there is, but I was definitely very happy to… While I was really doing research and all, I was only working with these three ladies mainly who were three sisters, Malak Malak. Since then, they were also two more sisters and a brother that kind of listened in but never really joined in the sessions, but those other three all passed away by now, and with everyone passing away, the three ladies, the original three ladies, became more close to strangers and to new people coming in and even like doing the language work because it reminds them of their siblings. But I was still able to continue coming. But during the time while I was there, I always wanted to do some more revitalization work, but there was never any interest in it, like there was no real… It was hard to find like a wider Malak Malak community, and nobody was really into it. So I kind of had given up on that a little bit and just done my thing and archived it and hoped that that would be okay, but then I got, actually, contacted by some people who I didn’t know from the Malak Malak community early last year who said, “Hey, we want to do some language stuff, and we were told we need to talk to you.” And so we had a few long conversations about what they wanted, what their goals were, and how many people were involved in all that. And at the time, I was working already for The Language Conservancy, just as a contractor, and so I was kind of able to then offer them to do something more professional rather than, you know, writing a grammar or even a print dictionary, which is things that are very limited to a limited amount of people, it seems. So, we actually created an app, a vocab-builder app with them. Took about a year, actually. It just came out literally this week, which is super exciting.

MTB: Oh, wow. Congratulations.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Thank you, yeah. It’s quite amazing to actually see it in the flesh now out there. And yeah, and I’m just super happy that that was there, and it was a great first step for the community. We might be able to do some more things, like a dictionary app or something like that or a digital dictionary, which would reach more people than some of the sketch dictionaries that I’ve left with people, but which I think people are really using, actually. The few copies that I was able to leave are well-worn, but at the same time, it’s a very humid climate there, so anything paper goes away very quickly.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. So in this community, in the Malak Malak community, do they have the taboo of listening to people’s voices or seeing people’s images who have passed away? Does that pose a challenge for you?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. Yeah. There is this taboo, and that’s a good question. So I’ve always, I’ve had, especially the recordings that I brought back from people that had passed away quite a while ago, that wasn’t that big of a problem, usually, because the longer someone has passed away, the more open people will be. Basically for this app, the ladies agree to be recorded and for it to be shared in an app. If they should pass away, basically it’s up to the Malak Malak community, to their closest family members, to decide whether or not they want to maybe not allow any new downloads or something like that for the app so that they wouldn’t come into this problem. But yeah, it always is an issue, but it seems people are mainly, well, really mainly concerned with local people who might hear someone and might get upset about it, and understandably so, but I think if that were to happen, there’s also the typical disclaimers that you see for a lot of Australian languages on a lot of Australian languages’ sites that says, “You may see the images and hear the voices of people who have passed away,” as a warning, and then people know if they don’t want to move forward.

MTB: So it’s not so much a problem, like if other people are hearing these voices or seeing the images, that isn’t so problematic for them, but they themselves don’t want to see these images and hear the voices. Is that right?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yes. Yeah, that’s exactly right. Yeah. People don’t really mind for anyone else to see it if they open it up to a wider audience. For a lot of the languages I work with, people have always been very closed, very protective of the languages — for good reason — to not share it with too many people. Like this app we just put out, actually, is password-protected so it won’t be available just for anyone — which is not something I personally believe in, necessarily, but because I also simply don’t think that there’s a lot of interest, to be honest, outside the community, as bad as that is, but that’s usually the case. But yeah, it is password-protected. So people want to only have it circulate within the Malak Malak community, but what I found was that people don’t really care too much or are very happy for me to share things with researchers, with people from the faraway countries that I’m from, basically, but they’re a bit more reluctant to share with local people that are not Malak Malak. And that’s also for a very good reason, because there’s a lot of Traditional Owners and Welcome to Country ceremonies, and cultural events, and all sorts of things where, at the end of the day, some money can be made, and money is not easy to come by in these remote communities. So they’ve had some incidents with people that were Indigenous but not Malak Malak coming out and stating to be Traditional Owners of the country and doing Welcome to Country Malak Malak ceremonies. And, of course, they’re very, very eager to learn about Dreamtime stories and learn words and phrases that are important, so basically they’re happy for it to be shared elsewhere, but not within the community or within a small radius of the community.

MTB: Yeah. Okay. I see. Can we talk about the Dreamtime narratives and spatial language? That’s like something I don’t know anything about, and I find it really, really fascinating.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. So do I. Yeah, and I’ve done a few publications on that, but it is something that’s really hard to understand, I feel, for an outsider. It was for me for a long time, and I know that I haven’t gotten even like a quarter of it, really, but what is really interesting about the Dreamtime in the English translation of that, or the English term “Dreamtime” is a very misleading one, because the Dreamtime is, as been coined by Stanner, it is “Everywhen”. So it is something that is everywhere, but also all the time, so it’s not the past; it’s not the present; it’s not the future. It’s all three of them at the same time. So all these are creation stories — basically in Dreamtime are creation stories, but creation is circular, and it happens continuously, it happens all the time.

People tell the stories of how the ancestral beings, they could all talk to each other, and they travelled the land, they named the land, they created landscape features, gorgeous rivers, mountains, and left behind clues in the landscape, and where they left behind clues, there’s a scared spot today where people go and tell that part of the story. And when they tell the part of the story, then the story continues to live and the story continues to happen, so things are, the animals are still there. They have been there for a long time, but they’re also gone at the moment, so it is very complex.

And one thing I found when listening to the stories over and over, and there was one particular story I listened to many, many different times and I got many different versions of, and I could never quite got it, was a story about a blue-tongue lizard, but it was a sacred site close to where the Malak Malak ladies lived (and still live). And I could never quite understand what the sequence of events was in which things happen, because the blue-tongue lizard, he was fighting with a king brown snake, and there was another lizard there, and they all got kind of involved until eventually the blue-tongue lizard was killed by the king brown snake and went into the ground where there is now the sacred space. But the king brown and the other lizard kind of left and never to be heard of. And they told me this story in all sorts of different ways, and sometimes the blue-tongue lizard was killed first. Sometimes the other lizard left before he was killed, and sometimes he didn’t. And then eventually I realized that the story was told a little bit differently in different areas. So, the story had different parts, and there was one part where the lizard went into the ground, so where he died. Then there’s other parts where he collected some mushrooms and roasted them on a big rock, and it’s not a sacred site, and there’s a mountain where he did something else where he kind of climbed over and where he rubbed his belly raw.

So, I realized that when people were in different locations, they focus on different parts of the story. And then I looked into that a bit further for this particular story and for some others where I had different versions in different locations, and it really seemed as if the story and where and how it was told was dependent on where it was set, and then that particular location became the focal point of the story, and everything around it, it didn’t matter when it happened. Like temporal time frames got mixed around quite a bit. That’s why I could never really understand it, but because it didn’t actually matter what the sequence of events is, the only thing that matters is where it took place, and that there, it left something behind for the people to observe and for the people to talk about. And a Dreamtime story is never told in full. It is always told in fragments, and the idea in the… Not conscious, but the idea in the oral history of it is that children will listen to the story, children, adults will listen to the story so many different times that eventually when they are Elders themselves and start telling the story, they know all the parts of it, but you never just hear the whole thing all at once.

MTB: Wow.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah, and that was… I’m still fascinated by it, just thinking about it.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s so interesting. So just trying to reiterate this to make sure that I understand, so let’s say the same Elder tells the story three times, and he’s at three different locations each time he tells a story. So, depending on where he is, the story will be different and focus on the location that he’s currently telling this Dreamtime narrative. Is that right?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yes. Yeah. That’s correct. Yeah.

MTB: That’s so cool.

Dorothea Hoffmann: And I noticed that for other languages, as well, actually, noticed that for Jaminjung too, that the same things happen there, and actually people also tell Kriol stories along these same lines even though, of course, Kriol stories are not as traditional; they’re usually newer. And it also seemed that this whole narrative structure, this narrative scheme, travels over to other types of narratives that are not Dreamtime narratives. So when someone tells a story of travelling somewhere, some event, you went finishing or someone went out, bush, went camping, people will tell it not necessarily in temporal order of events. What I noticed was, temporal order of events was maintained during the journey when someone was, while the people were travelling. “There’s where we crossed the river, and then we drove this dirt road, and we took a turn, and this and that,” but then once you are at the location where things are happening, there are all sorts of events happen at whenever, and it doesn’t matter what the actual sequence of them is, but it just all happens on one place, so we’re going to focus on where it happens, but not when it happens.

MTB: Wow. Gosh, it’s very complicated to think about, as an English speaker, isn’t it?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. It sure is, and we’re all so used to the Labov structure of narratives and what happens, and there’s an introduction as a main part, and there’s a climax, and certain parts that are a necessary part of every narrative, but for these narratives, it just doesn’t work like that at all. There’s no such thing.

MTB: Yeah. Wow. That’s really interesting. So shifting a little bit, you run an ecotourism and education business, 180forward. Can we talk about how, as researchers, we can decrease our environmental impact? Do you have any ideas or thoughts about that?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. I mean, that’s a really good question, and I mean, I am all about, really, sustainability and regeneration. So I don’t think we can solve the problems that we have by all driving electric cars, or recycling, or using LED lights. These are all nice steps, and it’s not a bad thing, but at the end of the day, we have to think about what is sustainable and what is actually more than sustainable, what is regenerative? Especially as researchers and especially as researchers working with Indigenous and endangered languages, we never just want to preserve the status quo. We want to help, usually, want to help these languages come back to — really come back to life and become their own entities again. So I think like as researchers, and maybe that’s less of an environmental impact, but more taking this idea of sustainability and regeneration into what we focus on in our work is to really focus on creating new speakers and creating new language warriors, people that take control and take ownership of the language and run with it, and not focus on preserving a particular type of language and particular, “This is how the Elders spoke, and this is exactly what the language is like, and nothing else is correct.” I mean, languages change. Languages evolve, and we need to let them, because they are living things. And I feel if we try to just preserve a pretty random status quo, which just happens to be the people that we work with who are the oldest people that we can find or whatever it is, or just the people that want to work with us, it doesn’t mean that that is what the language is all about. And, I mean, in so many ways, being… Kind of taking it one step further, so if we take the skill set that we have as linguists to document, describe the language in a way that really helps the community to revitalize it on their own terms and doing the things that are important, is important for them, then we really create stewards of the language, and just like that, we also create stewards of culture and stewards of the land. I mean, how often have I heard people from different Indigenous tribes and nations describe to me how the language connects them to the land and how the language connects them to the animals and every tree and every mountain and every river that’s in it, but without the language, we lose that connection. People talk about that a lot, like the Elders that know the language and that live it every day, and you must know that too. Like getting a glimpse into this other language, you get this glimpse into this different, slightly different way of thinking…

MTB: World.

Dorothea Hoffmann: … and new world, exactly. So this is what, as researchers, we need to focus on to get people to that, to help people to that stage and not being the white saviours and not being… It’s quite difficult to come into a community as an outsider and being like, “I know what to do, and I can help you,” and all that. But really listening what is important for people, and how can we help them to become involved and engaged so that they can carry on what they want to do. And yeah, and I think these are very lofty goals, and they are very, very difficult to achieve, and I’m very aware of that, of course, but if you don’t aim high, I mean, what are we doing? So might as well try for the stars, pretty much. That’s kind of where I think we can do that. Yeah, and even thinking about, I mean, on a very simple level, we travel very far distances to get to the places that we go to and use a lot of fossil fuels and all this. At the same time, I mean, this is in the same realm as driving an electric car, or driving a Prius, and recycling everything that you have or composting. All great little things, and yes, reducing our environmental footprint is a good thing, but at the same time, if with this kind of travel you can empower some other people to really, really do more and to take a step back and reconnect to the land, it must be worth it.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah.

Dorothea Hoffmann: So I wouldn’t really say, “Don’t fly to faraway places because you have to fly in five airplanes and take a lot of cars to get there.” If it’s worth it, if what you want to do is really, really something for the community, then it is worth it.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. Totally. Yeah, that’s such a good point. I really struggle with the fossil fuels from airplanes thing. On the one hand, I think I totally agree with what you’re saying that if you’re doing the work then it is like a good trade-off, but I don’t only get on an airplane to do fieldwork. When I lived in the UK, I took an airplane to come home and visit my family and go on holiday, and it’s something I really struggle with, and I’m not sure how to reconcile that.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. I mean, I do, too, and… I mean, I’m from Germany originally, so I go back to visit my family whenever I can. I have been in Australia quite a lot. I basically have a second family down there, and we live on the opposite side of the country from my partner’s parents, so we do travel a lot, and normally we fly a lot, but we also… We made the conscious decision to say, “If we want to participate in this world, and if we want to try and make a small difference, we have to do these things.” We have to travel, and we have to use fossil fuels, whether that’s with our car driving around. We live in a rural community, so we need a car to get anywhere. In a lot of ways, living in a big city would probably be more environmentally friendly because there’s more sharing resources for transportation and all this, versus out here you just have no other choice. But the alternative is to be a hermit in the woods, basically. If you don’t… I mean, it is quite radical, but if you don’t want to have any environmental impact, you need to live a hermit life in the woods.

MTB: Yeah, no. I don’t want to be a hermit in the woods.

Dorothea Hoffmann: No, and exactly. I mean, most of us don’t, so then how do we reconcile, we make that connection? And one part of our idea is to help people learn about smaller-impact living, and that has to do with the off-grid Earthship that we have in New Mexico and where people can experience what it’s like to live completely off the grid, built with sustainable and recycled materials only, house that heats and cools itself, produces all its own water, electricity, produces its own food. It’s just very radical, but on the other hand, very simple idea, and being able to expose people to that, we get a lot of feedback from that where people are very, very happy that they’ve had the opportunity to just experience what it’s like to live off the grid that is not being a hermit in the woods, that is not being in a cave down by the river.

MTB: Yeah.

Dorothea Hoffmann: And I think that’s — we have to make these choices, but we can all do still very small parts. There’s a lot of things that are more important in that realm than it is to what car you drive or anything. It’s actually more environmentally friendly to drive an old, beat-up car that’s been 30 years on the road but that’s still running than buying a new Tesla could ever be because of all the energy and everything that went into producing it. And there’s a lot of ways we can make our houses more energy-efficient and more sustainable, more resilient, that people don’t really think about when they think about living a low-impact life.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. I think exposure is really important. Right? Because a lot of people don’t think critically about the electric car. They just see that it’s electric, and then they’re like, “Okay. Well, this must be good,” but they don’t consider that the electric car is only as green as the electricity that fuels it, but if you can expose people to different ways to do what they can do, then it gives them more opportunities and just things to think about.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. Definitely, and just small-impact living, like being, a tiny house, just downsizing, kind of things. It’s a big movement right now, of course, or having… Of course, right now we hear about everybody’s planting a garden, but there’s so much you can do at a very small scale at home that makes you more resilient, makes your landscape more resilient, helps the environment by feeding local wildlife, and providing habitat, and all these little things. I mean, there’s so many things that come into that. And I don’t know, we can circle back to researchers from here, but we are part of that and being at universities and living our lives, but we can all make a small difference on our own.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, no. Definitely. We can all do what we can do. So circling back to research, I was wondering, you talked a little bit about your app and how your fieldwork ideology is to work with the community and see like what their vision is, but can you talk a little bit more about how your research has been collaborative?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah, so I’ve always been, when I worked in academia, I’ve always been very much of a lone wolf, and I think a lot of us are in that same situation where we’re the only, or almost the only, person who works on a particular language. If somebody else works on the language, they might work in a different community, so you’re very much on your own. You go out to the field alone. You do your thing, collect your data, write about it, great, produce some materials, whatever is needed. But the thing was for me, always, when I wanted to do any actual revitalization materials, like I try to produce a small picture book with the story of the blue-tongue lizard that I told you about a little bit, but I don’t know how to design a book. I’m not good at that. I don’t know what a good editing procedure is and how to put things together and how to make it look nice. I’m not an illustrator. I can’t illustrate anything, so all I could do was put actual pictures in there and try to draw some maps, which are quite crude, to be honest. They did the job, but it was a very slow process, and it’s just talents and skills I don’t have, and took me a long time to even learn some of.. to even put it into a certain program to put it together into a little booklet.

So when I started working with The Language Conservancy, which is a non-profit, and we work with 30, 35 languages in the US, Canada, and Australia, it was all of a sudden this teamwork, this team effort from all angles. It was not just from a linguistics perspective that you work with other people who are experts in the language, but people with different backgrounds come together, so there’s graphic designers that help design the books or the images or anything that needs to be drawn, designed in any way, and then there’s others. There’s an IT department that knows how to code an app. I could have never done that. I mean, there are certain ways to put an app together yourself, but it would have never been as nice as this one. Obviously working with an artist to make all the different animal pictures. We created over 220 new images just for this app, because we’ve done it before for Native American languages, but obviously the animals and plants are very, very different, and people are very different in Australia, so we had to change a lot. So without that, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this, and I feel, because in academia we have… Our incentives are mainly, and they kind of have to be (that’s the nature of the beast) are to publish and to research our data and to put out linguistic discussions, but that’s very focused on the narrow aspect of linguistics and of grammatical aspects. So whatever you happen to be interested in. For me, there was always spatial language and typology. Other people are interested in syntax and phonology, and then that’s all you know about a language is a lot about the phonology but nothing about the morphosyntax or vice versa. So being able to open yourself up to other people — first of all, other researchers as well, like experts in phonology and phonetics. Like that’s never been my forte, and I’ve never been too interested in that, but I would have loved for someone to really look into that for Malak Malak some more, which never really happened. And for a lot of people, that’s not what they do.

And it seems to be this mindset in our field, as well, that being the lone wolf is a good thing, and it secures our careers if that’s our language and we’re the only ones working with it, so we have a lifetime of publications ahead of us just with this one language that we really know well. But yeah, I’m all for sharing, sharing as much as possible, and also really considering, what are your skills and what are your strengths, and what are they not, and what’s the best use of your time? I mean, maybe I could really learn how to code an app or put an app together, but is that a good use of my time? Probably not, and this is across a lot of projects that we do where we always work in a team, and ideally with a team of researchers and linguists as well, where maybe there’s one person who’s the lead linguist on a project and who has like final say, because you need someone like that in everything. If it’s all collaborative and someone just cannot agree on the right spelling for a word — because is there a tone, or is it a falling, or is it a rising tone; what is it? — then there needs to be one person to say, “Look, I know what it is.”

So you definitely need that, and it needs to be clear what’s happening there, but if you want to do real revitalization work, being able to — where are your limits and how much good work can you really do with the skill set that you have, and maybe seeing if there’s some professionals out there that can help you to really design a nice picture book rather than just putting something very crudely together, like I did, which took me a long time, and it’s still nice that I did it, but it’s nothing that I can write home about, really, or show someone outside of the community. So, I guess I’m talking about it right now, so I am writing home about it, but yeah, it’s certainly nothing that I would show around a lot, but professionally produced books are something very nice that raise the status of a language quite a bit, and that makes a big difference when people actually have something real in their hands, something that is tangible and that looks as if it was made for them with a lot of skill.

MTB: Yeah. Definitely. Do you have any advice for early career researchers who are just starting out?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah. It’s always a hard one. I know how difficult it is to come out of a PhD into the so-called “real world”, and the job market is awful, as we all know. And it’s hard, because we’re not really getting prepared for anything other than being a researcher and being an academic, but, I mean, my advice is to really keep an open mind and even during your PhD and while you’re doing your graduate studies, maybe do a postdoc, keep an open eye, and an open mind, for what else is out there and how else you could use your skills, the skill set you have, to really make a difference. That doesn’t only mean… 

The most obvious thing for a lot of people, and a lot of my friends are doing that, is being in computer linguistics, working for Google, working for Amazon, working for Apple. If that’s something that you’re interested in, then do that straight away and take a computational linguistics course, but not only that, but also take some coding classes. Take some classes that actually help you in that.

If you’re really interested in non-profit work, then really reach out and try to do something, maybe try to do a little project on the side. Some things I did was basically, yeah, bringing some projects with me to the organization I work for now, and by now, I’m actually full-time working for them, and that was a long process. It started out just as a contractor and just on a project basis. Then I brought in my own project, and just being able to have that and fostering these relationships and keeping an open mind for that.

I think it’s, for a long time, I was definitely very, very focused on the academic career, and that was the only thing I could think about, but I wasn’t successful in getting any jobs. I got postdoctoral grants. For some reason, I was good at getting those, but not real jobs, and after a while, that also really gets to you, and it gets to your psyche, and you feel like are you really doing the right thing, and are you good enough for it? And the thing is, I would say to anyone who thinks that like: Yes, you are good enough for it, but the situation, the job market, nature of the beast that academia is, is so that a lot of cards are stacked against you. And that’s not just what you can do, but also who you know, where you’re from, what your thesis is, what your topic is about, what you’re interested in, what theory you work in.

I mean, I was always a real outsider, especially here in the States, working on typology and working on functional linguistics — and descriptive linguistics — rather than more in the Chomskyan field, especially when I was at the University of Chicago. I felt like such an outsider, and I really felt like, “Man, I am not a real linguist. I’m an imposter. I don’t know what I’m doing here,” and not until I actually came back to Australia to go to a conference there and realized that all these people knew me, and they knew some of my work and my papers and were interested in talking to me and working with me, I realized, “Oh, it’s not that much me. It’s just like that I’m in the wrong spot, in a lot of ways, and there’s just very few places where I can be,” and there’s very, very few places for descriptive linguistics in the States in particular.

So yeah, just hone your skill set and gain more skills, and it always helps to also have some organization skills, some project management skills, some… Yeah, some skills that go beyond the linguistics, but also being able to do things on time, finish things on time, and being able to prove that you can. I mean, that landed me this full-time job now as linguistic project manager is that I have skills that go beyond my expertise in linguistics, but just proving that, being able to get things done and keeping things organized, which is not that difficult, and most of us that come out of academia can do it, because we all wrote a thesis, which was a lot of tiny little moving parts to put together. So we can all do it, but we should sell it some more.

MTB: No, that’s so true. That’s really so true. Well, thank you so much, Doro. This has been really great, really informative. Where can our listeners learn more about your work and find things that you’re doing?

Dorothea Hoffmann: Yeah, so you can go to languageconservancy.org. That’s where we work now. We have also https://languageconservancy.org.au/ if you’re listening from Australia. That talks a lot about all the different projects that we do, different deliverables and all that. I do have some personal sites out there. They’re a bit outdated by now, but I try to keep some of my research papers out there, so if you just search for my name and “Malak Malak” or “linguistics”.

MTB: I’ll link it in the description in the show notes.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Great. Yeah, there’s definitely that, and yeah, if you ever want to experience staying in an Earthship or in a tiny house, let me know. That’s also something we do. Nothing to do with linguistics, but sometimes you just have to get away.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah. Totally. Thank you so much, Doro.

Dorothea Hoffmann: Well, 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!

[Outro music]