Martha Tsutsui Billins (host) – Hello and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins and today we’ll be talking to Vera Ferreira about doing fieldwork in Europe, particularly in Portugal. Before we turn to the interview, just a reminder that you can find us on Instagram and Twitter and if you have a question about fieldwork or a story to share, our email address is email@example.com. So with that business out of the way, let’s turn to the interview with Vera.
MTB – Okay, so welcome Vera Ferreira! Thank you for coming onto Field Notes Podcast, the first inaugural interview.
Vera Ferreira – Hi, thank you for inviting me to be a part of it!
MTB – Of course. So to start off, I’m going to read a short bio about your background in linguistics. After taking the Masters Degree in English and German studies at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, and getting an MA Degree in General Linguistics and Linguistic Typology at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich, Vera completed her PhD in General Linguistics at the University of Munich and specialized in language documentation and endangered languages in Europe.
MTB – From 2008 to 2012, she was responsible for the documentation of the endangered language Minderico within the DoBeS Project, financed by the Volkswagen Foundation, at the University of Regensburg.
VF – Correct.
MTB – Since 2010, Vera has been the chair of the Interdisciplinary Center for Social and Language Documentation and its head of the Language Documentation and Language Typology group. She has since been involved in several projects focusing on the documentation and study of minority stroke endangered languages of Europe, such as Minderico, Fala, and Bavarian, with a special focus on lexicography, as well as in training in these areas of expertise.
MTB – Between 2016 and 2018, Vera was responsible for the Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS University of London, dealing with issues related to language documentation and preservation, data management and archiving. Currently, Vera is the Archive Development Officer, giving support to linguists documenting endangered languages and also communities who want to document and archive their languages. She also volunteers in language revitalization projects around the world.
VF – Thank you.
MTB – That’s Vera.
VF – Yeah! [laughs]
MTB – Whoo! I’m a little bit out of breath after reading that! [laughs]
MTB – So first, can you tell us a little bit about your background in linguistics, why you got interested in linguistics?
VF – It started when I was six, which is crazy right? So when I started to read I was always interested in… or, when I went to school, to primary school. I was always interested in languages. And I always asked my parents, why am I only a speaker of Portuguese? I wanted to be a speaker of other languages as well. But my parents are only speakers of Portuguese. But I couldn’t understand it. I wanted to be part of a multilingual world without understanding what that means.
VF – And, at the moment, in Portugal, at that time in Portugal, we could have a magazine which was called Bravo, it is a German magazine. You have reports about music, bands, with posters, so it’s kind of teenager stuff. And I wanted to understand what they were writing. And that’s why I asked my parents to buy me a dictionary for German. And from that moment on I started translating all the words that I could find in the magazine. And my interest was always for German.
VF – And my mom always said, always, ‘You speak,’ because I speak when I sleep, she said, ‘All the time, this is strange. You say strange words when you’re sleeping, like danke, or hello, as hallo.
VF – And then I figured out that German was becoming part of me. This interest in other languages started from that point on, so then I went to university and it was clear I wanted to do something with German and with languages in general.
VF – But I also liked mathematics. And if you go to language, if you decide to study languages, you don’t have mathematics anymore. But for me, the grammar of a language is like the mathematic part of a language. And that’s why I became so interested in linguistics and getting to know better, what linguistics is about. And of course, my first graduation was about German and English. So I was focused on German and English anyway.
VF – But, we had two parts at the University of Coimbra, we had the literature part, so philology –
MTB – And and this was still in Portugal?
VF – This was still in Portugal. I studied in Portugal, I started and I went to the university in 1995. And it was to study English and German. But not English and German as Linguistics, but as a Philology study. And you have a combination of language and literature together.
VF – And of course I identified more with the linguistic part, and less with the literature part, but of course I had to study both. And it was, there was a lot of culture and historical background in both languages, not only the British variant of English but also the American tradition and everything.
VF – And for German it was only Germany, it was not the other countries that speak German, but for English it was very diverse. And during my English training at the University, we had a teacher, or several teachers that were more into feminism and that’s why I got interested in that as well, but always connected to English. So it’s interesting for me. German was the language that I wanted to research on or to work on, and English I connected to something that is different to what I know, to a different reality than I know.
VF – But I always connected language to different experiences, different ways of living [in] the world, and now that I speak several languages, people say that when I speak a language I gesticulate completely differently., And my voice, my tone changes if I speak in English, if I speak Portuguese or if I speak German for instance.
VF – And this is really interesting because they became part of my personality. But, this interest in linguistics and language started very early in life, in fact.
MTB – I’ve had that experience as well. Before I move to Japan, a couple people who were Japanese told me, ‘oh you’ll have trouble in Japan because you’re too outspoken, your personality is too strong,’ especially as a woman. But I didn’t actually find that to be the case. And I always wondered about it because, you know, I think my personality in Japanese is actually a little bit more docile. Maybe it’s partially my insecurity about my fluency, but in English I’m much more confident saying ‘oh, oh I think this that and the other one,’ whereas in Japanese I think I’m more go-with-the-flow.
VF – Yeah, and the other thing for me for instance, and when that happens, then you know, something is wrong with you: I start dreaming in German. Still now, so from the moment I can remember, my dreams are always in German. So even people that speak English or Portuguese in everyday life, In my dreams speak German. Which is strange! So if you start dreaming in a language that is not your native language, and German was not on a native language for me, I was not exposed to German. For instance as migrant children are, I just went to Germany for my own interest. And I was already 20. So it’s not that I grew up with German but German was already part of my dreams.
MTB – Right, cause you had that German dictionary that your parents bought you. [laughs]
VF – Yeah! Exactly, exactly. [laughs]
VF – And maybe that’s why, that’s the reason why I got so interested in lexicography later on.
MTB – Because you had a dictionary!
VF – I’m connecting both things at the moment!
MTB – Yeah, maybe. So can you talk a bit about your connection to the field sites? I’ve mentioned three communities that you’ve worked on, but maybe today we can talk specifically about Fala and Minderico, which are communities that are both in Portugal. Yes?
VF – No, one is in Portugal, the other one is in Spain.
MTB – Oh, Fala is in Spain, okay. How did you find those two languages, how did you end up working with them?
VF – So, Minderico, it was a really interesting story because when I was studying at Coimbra, a friend of my father, who lives in the same village as my father lives, knew that I was studying languages, and he gave him a kind of glossary. And this glossary was a Minderico glossary. And my father came home and gave it to me as a present and I said, ‘Wow, what is that! I need to go there’. It was not far away from my parents only 40k, so 40 kilometers away from the village where my parents are.
VF – And I thought, I need to go there, I don’t know that it exists and I need to make some research on that. And then it was in the year 2000 when I – yeah. I got it in 1999, exactly. I got it in 1999. And then I thought, I need to figure out a way of doing some research on this language. And so I got involved with Minderico, I started working on Minderico because of that. I just started. So I got this glossary and I wanted to know more about it, then I went there. And I had three teachers, in fact. So one guy that was teaching me, so a member of the community that had a cafe. And he was one of the speakers of the language. And he was growing up there, his children, in Minderico. And it was a really good exposure for me because I was working with him in the cafe and I could listen to people.
VF – I didn’t know a word of it. I didn’t know anything about Minderico. But I could learn. I was there one month together with him, living with him, and listening to the language and to what people say about it. And I had another teacher which is more focused on history, more interested. He was a grade school teacher, but he was always interested in the history part of the community.
VF – Not only Minderico, I cannot say he is a fluent Minderico speaker, he is not. But he was always interested in the etymology of words, Minderico words. And he is an authority in the community. So what he says is being accepted by the community. If there’s a necessity to create new terms, he is the guy to go and to ask for these new terms and what he decides, it is accepted by the community. So he was my teacher on the historical background.
VF – And I have another person which, I’m so glad I had met from the beginning on that supported me from the very first moment on. And he put me in touch with other language consultants. And he was also reporting on my work in the journal, in the local journal, in the local newspaper. He was a director, or coworker at the local newspaper. And every time I needed something or when he thought, ‘It is important that the community knows the work that she is doing,’ then he wrote something in the local newspaper. And this helped me a lot to be integrated in the community.
Vf – So I started, almost 20 years ago working on Minderico.
VF – And Fala, you asked me about Fala. To be honest, let me think. I knew that Fala existed because it is spoken in the border between Portugal and Spain and I knew already there was another language there, that it is fluent, it is endangered in terms of the amount of speakers and influence of Spanish, but it is not –
MTB – Is intergenerational transmission still [happening]?
VF – It is transmitted, and the children are only getting, are only learning or at least they were only learning Spanish when they went to school. So their first language was still Fala. But, Fala is not officially recognized as anything. And a good friend of mine is, started researching on Fala and we were working together because he was interested in Minderico and he wanted to know the work I was doing in Minderico and he was sharing with me his interest for Fala, and then I thought, okay, let me go there, and see what is wrong. Or, what is not wrong, but what exists there.
VF – And because it is so close to Minde –
MTB – which is where Minderico is.
VF – Where Minderico is spoken yeah, yeah this is a long story. I was living with the community but I think we are going back to that later. And then I went there, and I had already some contacts, and because this friend of mine, she’s also a linguist gave me. And from that moment on I’ve decided, okay, let me do something with Fala just to document a language.
VF – I was not so interested in focusing my research on Fala the same way as I’ve done it for Minderico, but I just wanted to document the language because now it is still spoken in a very fluent and constant way. But the Spanish pressure is growing. And we don’t know how long it will last, at least with this frequency. And my main goal was to document the language the way it is spoken today. So that’s why I did fieldwork and some documentation on Fala too. And Bavarian, yeah I lived in Bavaria so I lived in Munich, in Germany. And that’s why I wanted to document what I had there. And I was responsible for language documentation at the University, so for the courses connected to language documentation. And I thought, because normally the students think they need to go abroad to very exotic places to do fieldwork, and normally Europe is being disconsidered in language documentation.
VF – And I wanted to show them that you just need to open your house door and do research. And this is what we have done. And together with the students we created a multimedia dictionary. Of course a small one for Bavarian. But I think I could motivate them to work more on the language, yeah.
MTB – That point you just made about how people always imagine that fieldwork can only be done in the most exotic places, I think it’s very common. But actually, most places do have a lot of linguistic diversity. And every country, almost every country, has some kind of endangered or minoritized language that needs research and documentation.
VF – And not only that, the problems that you face when you are doing fieldwork, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a very exotic place or if you’re even in your own country which, is my case where I do most of my fieldwork. The problems are the same. The mistakes are the same. The problems that your face for your own life are the same and the conclusions that you can get are also the same.
VF – So of course the experience is different because sometimes the cultural shock is much bigger than when you’re in a reality that you know already, or if you do research in Europe in general, for instance in my case, for every European doing research in Europe, it’s not that foreign. But you face other problems that probably you are not going to face if you’re going to Papua New Guinea for instance.
MTB – Can you talk more about that?
VF – About the problems?
MTB – Yeah. Well the problems of doing research in a place that is, it’s not your own culture but it is your own country so, you’re not a member of the community but at the same time, maybe it’s unexpected to feel so out of place because you think ‘Oh, well I’m still in Portugal. Why am I having these problems?’
VF – So the first thing is connected to the language, the language data that you want to collect. When I went to Minde for the first time to do fieldwork in… In the year 2001, of course everybody talked to me in Portuguese because they knew, she is Portuguese. And the language that we can speak to her is Portuguese. So this was the first barrier. And the same happened in Spain when I was doing field research in Fala, because Fala is very close to Portuguese in some sense. So Fala has influences from Portuguese and from Spanish. It is it’s own language, it’s a language on its own. But if people knew that I was from Portugal, then they would try to simplify the way they speak. And use a kind of Portuguese-similar way of talking that I couldn’t understand, it would have been better if they had spoken in Fala.
VF – Yeah, but this is one of the major problems that I got when I was in when I was doing fieldwork in these two places. It was completely different for Bavarian because the reality is completely different over there. But the question that I had with Bavarian is people would ask me, ‘Why are you interested in Bavarian, you are in Portuguese,’ But this is common. You probably also heard that when you were doing your own fieldwork, why are you interested in researching in a language or researching on a language that isn’t, not connected to you?
MTB – It did happen to me, but actually I think it, in a way, valorized the way in which I was looking at because when people heard that I had come all the way from London to study their language, which they call only a dialect because the Japanese government does not recognize it, they were a bit flattered and I think and they were like, ‘oh wow, she can all the way here just to listen to us sing some of our island songs’.
MTB – So the people were very excited and very happy to work with me. Because I had come so far!
VF – Yeah, I had exactly the same experience with the Minderico community because they were not valorizing their language anyway, because it’s not officially recognized. And they called it a slang, which is even worse than a dialect. And when they noticed, okay she’s coming and she has support from the Volkswagen Foundation. So the thing that we speak must be important, it must be important. So it helped them to valorize what they have, and to make them understand. Of course this is the influence from external factors. But this happens in every community, this happens every community, I think.
VF – And there are other problems there because you asked me, ‘what were the problems?’ Even being in my own country, doing fieldwork in a community that is, that is not your community. You feel, you have moments where you feel so depressed because you just want to go out, you just want to leave the community, you don’t want to speak to anyone. But you, you are doing your job so you need to show interest in what they are saying. You need to participate in their own activities even though you’re not interested at all in this kind of stuff. I mean the social part of it, I’m not talking about the language and such. Of course the language always interested me. But the social part, the parties and whatnot. And sometimes it is difficult to –
MTB – have the energy.
VF – Yeah and be always ‘on.’ There are times when you say, oh I just want to switch off. I don’t want nobody to bother me, I don’t want to have nobody around me. And this happens, it doesn’t matter where you are. Because you’re getting this full immersion situation and you cannot get out of it very easily.
MTB – Yeah, it happened to me as well when I was in Amami and I was staying with a host family which meant that you do have to always be on, and most of the time it’s not a problem, but when you go from, you know, living in your own place, and then you’re suddenly are in a family where, complete immersion like you say. And the only time I was alone was when I was asleep.
VF – Exactly –
MTB – So you have to be up for anything people want to do. If they say, ;oh let’s go here, let’s do this, let’s do that’. You have to be up for it, you know because that’s your job.
VF – I think this will change when you do more fieldwork, and in my case, I lived with a community for like 9 years, which is a while. No, not 9 years, 7 years. So from 2010 to 2016, I lived with the community.
MTB – What year could you say, ‘I don’t want to go to your party’?
VF – Yeah, you come to a point where, I was never accepted as one of them. So there was always, in Minderico they have two words for inhabitants. The ones that belong to the community, and the ones that do not belong to the community.
VF – So the inclusive and exclusive terms like ‘seems’ for inhabitants. And they always show me that, because they never called me ‘xaral,’ ‘xaral’ is the one that belongs to the community, the inclusive one. They always call me the ‘covano’ so that means that I was never part of the community which is really good. Because this allows me to go away when I want.
VF – And because they knew okay, if she’s not here, we don’t bother her and we are not mad because she’s not part of the community.
MTB – So you were kind of free from the obligations in a way that –
VF – Yeah but it took me a while to develop that. Because in the beginning I thought, I need to be on all the time. And I think this is what we think we are doing fieldwork for the first time.
MTB – Yeah, I still think that
VF – Yeah, so I think this is one of the things that we need to learn and it comes with the experience and with the time that you spend with the community. If you have limited time to spend with the community, you want to take the most profit out of it and you should do everything that they want, or at least –
MTB – within reason.
VF – Yeah of course. But if there’s a way, if you spend more time with the community and you are not feeling well, you will also see that your recordings will not be the same as if you are feeling well. So, sometimes it’s better to have a break and do something else. Go out if it’s possible. Just go out and meet other people and talk to someone else. Have internet connection again, which is not in some places, it’s not always possible in some places. Even in Fala I had some problems with internet connection.
VF – And when I was doing the PhD, I was also doing fieldwork but not with the Minderico community, but with several – I was focused on the connection between, so my main research question was transitivity in the language but in spoken Portuguese. So I collected data from varieties of Portuguese from all over the country. And sometimes I wasn’t… So when I did research in the north part of Portugal, I was completely isolated. I was sometimes 14 days in a village and I saw one car, which was mine and nothing else.
VF – And there was no internet connection, it was, we are back to the year 2000, 2002. So there was no internet connection. The mobile phone connection was sometimes there, sometimes not. And even if you wanted to refuel your car, you need to drive like 30 kilometers so, you were completely isolated.
VF – Yeah this influences the way you see things, the way you prioritize and it gives you also a lot of experience with other things in your life. See you learn how to value things that you had before.
MTB – Definitely, yeah that’s so true. Can you talk about any non-research related challenges you had for example, some culture shock? We already talked about never having privacy or always having to be ‘on’ all the time, but was there anything else that you found difficult while you were doing fieldwork?
VF – Yeah, for the Minderico, this is a very religious community. And because I’m not so religious, then I needed to participate actively in a lot of religious activities.
MTB – Were you happy to do that?
VF – Yeah, I was happy to do that, it was a different thing and I was gaining experience for my life as well. For instance, it is common to present a project to the community, and in my case I needed to do it in the church, so during mass. And it was strange for me to be there, where the priest normally is, but not talking about the Bible, but talking about a documentation project in the language. But it was great! It was the best way I had to be known by the community, to be accepted by the community. Because I was there in a place where they like to be.
MTB – Yeah, you were meeting them on their own terms.
VF – Yes, exactly. But I had some challenges. Less with the Minderico community, I was also older, but for the PhD. I mentioned before that I was doing the research collecting data in then north of Portugal and they have completely different tradi- not traditions but they have different-
MTB – Customs.
VF – Customs yes. And the word for lunch or the word for dinner is different than what I’m used to, even though it is Portuguese. And for instance, they invite me very often to dinner. And I thought okay, dinner is in the evening, and I always came in the evening. But for them, dinner is in the afternoon because they have breakfast and lunch very early, during the day. So I messed up a lot, until I understood, okay, here is something different. And the other thing was with their breakfast, which for me was a breakfast, for them was already lunch. So in order to engage with them and go with them and be able to collect my data, I needed to do the same activities that they were doing, example culture activities that they started very soon.
MTB – Going in the field.
VF – Really going in the field, literally going to the field, and doing the work that they were doing. And they offered me wine at 10 o’clock in the morning. For me, I was waking up at 10 or 9 o’clock in the morning, and for them it was already lunch. But to be accepted and to be part of the community in order to get trust, I had to do that.
MTB – You were getting drunk at 9 a.m. in the morning! [laughs]
VF – Yeah, exactly! [laughs] At the beginning it was like, oh my God, how am I going to collect the data? But we are talking about the same country, right? And this is a country that I know. But in fact I discovered that I don’t know this culture at all. So the diversity is everywhere. And the challenges are also everywhere and you don’t need to go very far away from your hometown or from your comfort zone.
MTB – Okay, and the last question that I have is, can you tell us if you’ve ever experienced any data loss horror stories?
VF – Yeah, don’t remind me of that! The worst thing that happened to me, and I cried a lot, was when I was coming back from one of the villages where I was collecting data for the PhD. And I wanted to do some holidays after that field stay. Because I was collecting data in several villages around Portugal from north to south, and sometimes you need to have a break and it was the summer and I thought okay, because I need to drive near the coast, I thought okay I’ll stop here and go to the beach and spend here one week or whatever. Just to relax. And I stopped the car, I went to the beach and my car was robbed and I lost, they took everything that I had inside, including my data. I was collecting, doing my recordings with a minidisc recorder. You cannot back up them easily.
MTB – Can you describe the minidisc to the millennial listeners, perhaps? [laughs]
VF – [laughs] It’s a tiny, it’s like a diskette, a disk?
MTB – Like a cassette tape maybe?
VF – A flop disk?
MTB – A floppy disk!
VF – Yeah, it’s like one of those. But, you put it inside of a recorder, like a cassette player. And you do your recordings there. If you imagine a cassette, it’s very similar to a cassette, but more high technology for that time. And they were smaller than the cassettes. But you could not, it was not digital. It was analog. So I could not back up the data in a very easy way, and of course, I hadn’t done any kind of backup.
VF – So the people that got into my car and decided to take everything, took also a camera, the minidisc player, and the minidiscs, and I lost everything that I promised the community to give back, at least the villages. We’re not talking about a community because it was for the PhD, they were different villages, and I promised them when I get back home, because the camera was not digital- the photo camera was not a digital one, so you need to go develop the film. So I lost everything. There were no pictures, there were no audio recordings, and a minidisc player or recorder was also stolen. So I lost like 15 hours of recordings, that I couldn’t recover. There wasn’t a way to recover it.
VF – Apart of from this mistakes that we all do when we are on fieldwork, to forget to have batteries and you think everything is there, you’ve prepared a lot before and you come to the recording and you don’t have enough batteries. Or you forget to have additional batteries, in the case that it stops, because I was recording in several places where there was no electricity. And you need to have batteries or you could not charge your recorder. And yeah, so I did all these mistakes that we normally do when we’re doing fieldwork. And additionally, and that’s why you lose data. But additionally, I got robbed. So, I lost more data. [laughs]
MTB – Do you have any-what advice would you give to someone who is first going into the field?
Vf – Be yourself. Just be yourself. Don’t try to be accepted by force, as in forcing the acceptance. Just be yourself and respect the community. Of course it is hard work because as we said before, you need to be on, and you need to- but you only manage to live with the community or spend more time with the community if you are-
MTB – Are being genuine.
VF – Yeah and if you are, if you be honest to yourself and if you are not feeling well, just avoid doing recordings on that day. Because your recordings are not going to be good.
MTB – Yeah, that’s true.
VF – And just, if you need some time out, just take it. It’s better to take the time out than to feel so depressed afterwards. Because this is very common, when you come from fieldwork, there is a phase afterwards where you feel like, you get into a depression or you don’t know what’s happening with you. And if you can, avoid it during the field stay. So taking breaks and try to reconcile with yourself, and I think it would help a lot.
VF – And of course don’t forget the batteries and don’t forget the backup and don’t forget to turn on the mic. And close your car. [laughs]
MTB – [laughs] Totally. Okay, thank you Vera for coming on the first episode of the Field Notes Podcast! Where can our listeners learn more about your research if they want to learn more about Minderico or what you were doing, where can they do that?
VF – I recommend everyone to go to the CIDLeS website, which is www.cidles.eu and you can learn more about the projects that we are developing. They are connected to revitalization languages, revitalization in general, but also language documentation and language technologies for minority languages.
MTB – Great, thank you so much Vera!
VF – You’re welcome.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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!