Episode 26: Nancy Kula on Researching Bemba Phonology in Zambia

[Intro music]

Martha Tsutsui Billins (host): Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins, and this is the inaugural episode of Season 3. So before I get into the interview for this first episode, I wanted to start with some business at the top. So up until now, Field Notes has released episodes in seasons, but starting now, Field Notes will become a continuous podcast, and episodes will be released monthly (once a month) — and if you are interested in hearing more episodes, you can now support Field Notes on Patreon, and the website for that is patreon.com/fieldnotespodcast, and I’ll link it in the show notes as well. So this is an effort to make the podcast more sustainable and also to start being able to pay for transcripts to be produced with the audio episode, so instead of the transcripts coming out later, ideally I would like to fund transcripts to be produced in time with the audio episode so that they can be accessible to people who either don’t want to listen to the audio or can’t listen to the audio. So yeah, so that’s one of the main goals for the Patreon. And also, I’m really excited to announce that this third season, so Season 3, will be completely devoted to insider researchers. And “insider researcher” is a term that Khairunnisa of episode 5, back in Season 1, taught me, and what I mean by that is basically people who are linguists, but they are working in their own communities and on their own languages. And this first episode today with Nancy C. Kula, she is a native speaker of Bemba, and she’ll be talking a bit about how while she is an insider research, this identity or this positionality of insiderness can actually be quite fluid. So she is from the Copperbelt Province in Zambia, but she actually works with another community quite often in the Northern Province, so it’s not where she grew up, and she talks a bit about how there are advantages and disadvantages and, you know, challenges that come with that. So yeah, I’m so excited to share this episode with you.

Before we get to the interview, I just want to share Nancy’s bio. Professor Nancy Kula studied phonology for her PhD at the University of Leiden. She has an MA in linguistics from SOAS, University of London, and a BA in Education with African Languages and Linguistics from the University of Zambia. Following her PhD, she held a postdoctoral position in Leiden and at SOAS for three years and now works at the University of Essex since 2007. She has worked on many topics in phonology, including tone and intonation, and, theoretically, works on Element Theory. She is also interested in language policy as it applies to education in multilingual contexts and is currently running a project covering Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia. She has published in international linguistics journals and has edited a number of volumes and serves on international editorial boards.

All right. Well, thank you, Nancy, so much for coming to Field Notes today. I really appreciate it.

Nancy Kula: Thank you very much. Thanks for the invitation. Looking forward to it.

MTB: Oh, no, of course. Yeah, definitely. So to start, can you share with us how you first got into linguistics?

Nancy Kula: So I went to do my undergraduate studies at the University of Zambia, and I went to do a bachelor of arts in education, and I wanted in education, and I wanted to do it with languages, but there wasn’t really like a linguistics degree, and so I was going to do English. And the other thing I was interested in doing was maths as well, because it was education. I was thinking of something that I could, you know, use to sort of be able to teach, but one of the professors in the African Languages and Linguistics Department, Professor Chanda, sort of said to me that I should consider doing languages and linguistics. And there was these relatively newly introduced courses on languages and linguistics, and the code was LAL, and everybody sort of called it [laʊ] a bit like… So it was like, “We should consider doing LAL,” and I was like, “LAL? But what is this LAL and, you know, what is it going to be useful for me?” Especially when you’re thinking of, “I’m going to leave here. I want to teach, and how am I going to teach this, you know, this LAL?” So it was a bit like, “Oh, you should try it, try it for a week and see what you think.” So then I tried it and I thought it was really interesting because the modules that were on this LAL, languages and linguistics, were fairly small. So it was sort of like maybe there was 12… I think there was 13 of us, and that made it up to the third-year cohort, and it was different people who spoke different languages, and the approach of teaching was sort of a comparative approach. So in particular in phonology — which is, I think, why I got interested in that, was that the sort of professor would sort of talk about particular processes in sort of one language and then make a comparison with all of the different languages. So each of us had to sort of say, “How does it work for you in your language?” And it was just kind of really nice. And to immediately see this variation across the different languages was for me something which was very, very interesting. So then after that, with all of these different, you know, sound things, I was totally hooked.

MTB: So that was during your undergrad.

Nancy Kula: Yeah.

MTB: Right?

Nancy Kula: Yeah.

MTB: In Zambia.

Nancy Kula: Mm-hmm.

MTB: Oh, wow. Okay. So from the start, you were, straight linguistics.

Nancy Kula: Exactly, yeah. Once I sort of started there, then I thought it was… Yeah, it was great. I sort of did linguistics throughout my undergraduate studies and then after that, it was really fairly clear that I thought this is what I was going to do. So then afterwards, I was looking for possible places to to do an MA, and then thought of SOAS as sort of being the place where everyone talks about doing African languages, so I thought it would be a great place to go to, so I was very sort of lucky to get a scholarship from the British Council to go and do my MA. I did my MA there, which was really… I mean, it was fantastic. It was just really great to sort of be in a new environment, different people. And again, it was almost as if it was my scope of looking at languages then was all of these Zambian languages, all of the African languages, and then sort of going to SOAS and having a similar kind of cohort group, I think maybe we were eight or ten or something, but then looking at many different languages. So it’s a little bit like you’ve got the basis, and I looked at all different Bantu languages, but then in my cohort, there was somebody doing Korean, somebody doing Japanese, somebody else doing Greek, so it was again seeing a similar kind of thing and now kind of, you know, beginning to have the understanding that actually it wasn’t only about those different African languages that I looked at; it was also all of these different other languages. So then the whole sort of concept and idea of universal grammar, and, you know, “Maybe there are similar patterns we are looking at,” really sort of came home to me during during the MA. And then after the MA, I then went to Leiden to do my PhD. Of course, at that time I was really already sort of engrossed in deciding to do linguistics at that point.

MTB: And was it phonology from the start, that you were like, “That’s what I’m into,” or did you, like, bounce around between areas?

Nancy Kula: Not so much, really. It’s interesting. I think right from my undergraduate studies, I was more interested in phonology. And again, I mean, it just turned out to be that I thought the lecturers who were teaching phonology just seemed to be a little bit more fun, and it seemed to just… Yeah, it just seemed to work better for me, and also, I mean, in a way, I was doing quite formal phonology with, you know, different kind of representational stuff, but nevertheless, I sort of didn’t quite get into sort of syntax, and sort of to sort of appreciate that and also all of these trees and stuff. So it wasn’t “I do some interface stuff,” but essentially, I felt like the more the sort of soundy stuff was always the thing that I could see I sort of had an interest in this. And also in particular, because there’s a very nice interface between phonological and morphological stuff, so I thought there was a nice, nice area in which to work in which was quite broad.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, that’s awesome. Can you share a little bit about your… I feel like we could do a whole episode on this, but I’ve been asking people more about like their positionality in their field and like who are they and how does that relate to, you know, the communities they’re working with and the field that they’re working in. So can we talk a bit about your experience working as an insider researcher, and like, do you feel like you’re always an insider? Are you an outsider in other ways? Can you share on that a bit?

Nancy Kula: Yeah. It’s really an interesting question, because it’s true, positionality. It’s certainly not something that sort of stays static or which you can look at it in the same way all the time. So I work mainly in Northern Zambia, where Bemba is spoken. So Bemba is my native language, and I sort of work in this area where Bemba is spoken, but I have grown up in a different area in the Copperbelt Province, which is another area where, you know, Bemba is currently spoken now. People moved from the north to the sort of central area where there was copper mining and sort of lived and worked there. So on the one hand, I’m an insider because clearly I’m a Zambian person. I’m going to these communities. There’s nothing surprising about most of the things that I’m going to see. But on the other hand, I don’t live in this community. I just sort of don’t even know what the communities of practice are, really, and so there are some things which you stand out as being quite different because you’re coming from a different environment.

And I think there’s also a really interesting feeling about what is the classic linguist thing of “What is the pure language? Where is the correct Bemba spoken?” So for most of the people that I meet in the north, it’s the feeling of, “Oh, you come from the Copperbelt,” or, “It’s these town people. They don’t speak the correct Bemba.” So sometimes it’s… I think most times, actually, it’s worked to my advantage, because when I sort of contrast the differences between when I’m doing data collection in the Copperbelt Province (where I come from) and in the Northern Province, it’s the same language, but when I’m in the Northern Province, there’s more of, I’m asking these questions, “Oh, you couldn’t possibly know.”

MTB: Oh, okay.

Nancy Kula: So therefore, because you don’t know…

MTB: Oh, okay, like they’re teaching you.

Nancy Kula: Yeah, exactly. “You need to sort of improve your language and your culture. You’ve lost all of this, so let us…”

MTB: “Help you.”

Nancy Kula: “… initiate you back into the sort of good ways.”

MTB: Yeah.

Nancy Kula: So that’s the, you know, you get… And also, you can ask questions repeatedly, and they sort of say, “Well, yeah, like I told you yesterday,” and it’s kind of fine — whereas in the Copperbelt, like where I come from, like I if I talk to, you know, groups of ladies that I talk to, like my mom’s friends, it’s a bit like, “What happened to you? How come you’ve lost your language? How come you don’t know these things?” And I think like, well, I mean, of course I kind of… I know from my perspective, but I would like to sort of have a second opinion from somebody else.

MTB: Yeah.

Nancy Kula: So I think there’s… But even then, because I don’t live in Zambia at the current time, I’m living away in the UK, so there’s also on the one hand, you’re an insider, but then you’re also a bit of an outsider because you’re not living in this community on a day to day in both contexts. And I think sometimes it works well and sometimes, yeah, it can have its own challenges, sometimes.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I mean, do you want to talk a bit about the challenges now, or we can come back to it later? 

Nancy Kula: So, you know, some of the challenges are a little bit to sort of do with expectations. So, you know, sometimes I think people are trying to be helpful and they are sort of saying, “Well, you’re going on…” I think at one point… So in Bemba, there are four different past tense, and I was really interested, and it looks like one of them is being lost, and I was really interested in knowing when, so of course I think for somebody who’s interested in language, it seems like it’s a very structural thing to want to know, “How come there’s this third past tense which is being lost? What’s kind of going on there?” So I was probing a lot of questions about this, and members of the communities would be like, “Well, this is really interesting, but what you should really be looking at is this and this and that,” or even… But also really sometimes really useful things like, “This is very good that you’re doing this. It would really be wonderful for us to get teaching materials for teaching Bemba because we don’t have enough materials. Everything that we have is really old things, so maybe with some of the stuff that you’re doing, it would be nice for teaching materials.” Again, it’s also, it’s something that I actually would really like to do, but of course sometimes it’s also, what’s your project? What have you, you know, promised that your funders, you are going to do? You have planned these sort of very maybe linguistic questions which it’s not clear whether there is a time to then develop teaching materials, and you don’t really want to say no, but then again you don’t really… You don’t want to make, you know, fake promises.

MTB: Yeah. [unclear 13:32]

Nancy Kula: Yeah, but it’s also, it seems a little bit like, you know, maybe the community is losing out a little bit because you’re just sort of going for the questions that you have. So those things, I feel… I feel it’s challenging also from the point of view of how comfortable you feel about, what’s your research doing? What kind of image are you portraying or what kind of contribution or non-contribution are you making in the societies that you’re sort of working in? So that, I feel it’s a bit… I find a bit challenging many times.

MTB: How do you manage that? Do you just try to do everything you can like kind of within reason, even if it means that you’re doing things outside of what you’ve promised the funder just because you also want to make sure that the community gets something that’s more useful to them, or…

Nancy Kula: Yeah.

MTB: Maybe do you think the answer is like the funders need to actually be more open to things that are what the community members want?

Nancy Kula: I think yeah, no, no, I think it’s a little bit of both, and I think certainly once you are there, for things that you can do, I do try very hard when I’m there. I think the last time I was there, I met with a teacher who taught in a secondary school, and he was also kind of lamenting not having enough materials and how can we sort of improve the situation. So we had a very nice… We decided to sort of have a session where we just brainstormed about what can you do in terms of getting materials, and I think probably now because of COVID things there’s much more use of the internet, and so I was sort of saying to him like, “You know, sometimes they’re sort of, you can try to get materials in terms of like even people doing like, I don’t know, tweets in local languages. Like that kind of material could also be materials that you could use to show actually a language that’s alive that is sort of being used today.”

So I think it’s just these, you know, little bits of, you know, maybe stay a bit longer in the field to sort of have conversations with people about things that matter to them, and I think more and more I’m thinking it would be nice to sort of collect all of that information to try and feed it into future projects that you’re sort of doing, because many times, I think in the UK, we’re having more and more that your projects have to have some kind of impact, so then maybe those are the kinds of things that you could try to bring to bear. But of course, the problem is usually that the impact that funding bodies are asking you to have has to be in relation to the question that you had. So, “You had this question which was about the past tense. Can you show us what impact it can have?” But clearly, it’s not so clear what the impact of that would be, whereas just because I’m working on this language, maybe the impact is developing some kind of, you know, teaching materials for the community.

MTB: Yeah.

Nancy Kula: So I think both ways, really, that it would be good that we try to sort of, yeah, bring this information back to funders and try to sort of make it part of applications that we write that they could be thinking of the community and what would be beneficial to them in some way.

MTB: Yeah. I think that’s a really, really important distinction that what the communities want might not necessarily be tied at all to your research questions, you know?

Nancy Kula: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

MTB: Like I spoke to another a linguist, and he was saying as a community member, he knows what the community wants, and what they don’t want is dictionaries or grammars or things like this. Like, they’re not interested in those things, but they would love better roads.

Nancy Kula: Yes, exactly. Actually, also bigger things, so sometimes it’s also, when I’m in the north, people sort of say, “Oh, when you go back to Lusaka,” because in Lusaka that’s where the government is, that’s where the parliament is, “Talk to these people. We need…” I mean, even things that they need in schools, it’s like big things where you’re really thinking like, “Wow, you need a new classroom. I’m not going to be able to provide you with a sort of new classroom,” or, you know, “We need more teachers to come here. Why don’t people come here and teach? Why don’t you come and teach here?” So it’s really, they are sort of bigger questions, and people say, “When you go back to Lusaka, tell those people in Lusaka that we need this, and this, and that,” and of course, yeah, yeah, we’ve just got absolutely no power or control in terms of, you know, influencing what governments might say or something like that.

MTB: Yeah, it’s a really complicated issue, and, I mean, not something that the linguist can solve alone, but we need to at least start talking about it and thinking about like, “Okay, what can we, what are the options? What is possible?” You know?

Nancy Kula. Yeah. Yeah. That’s true.

MTB: Can we talk a little bit more about the language context of Bemba, for listeners who aren’t familiar with it?

Nancy Kula: Yeah, so like I was saying, the sort of main, or the origins of where Bemba is spoken is in northern Zambia, at least that’s where people think the original inhabitants were, and there was sort of a shift of people moving from the north towards the central area where there was copper mining, but I think that’s like in the ‘40s, ‘50s, people moved to sort of the central area, and now there is a group, a big group of people, who speak Bemba in the Central Province. When you’re in the Northern Province, there’s two areas where Bembas are spoken, two main dialects also which are distinctive, so there’s Luapula Bemba and then there’s Northern Province Bemba, but really, in reality, I’m really quite excited because I’ll be starting very soon a new project on dialectology in Bemba looking at phonology and syntax with a colleague, Hannah Gibson at Essex.

MTB: Oh, Hannah Gibson!

Nancy Kula: Yeah! So yeah, we just got this funding. I listened to your podcast with her. It was brilliant.

MTB: Oh, my gosh. I love Hannah Gibson. She is so fantastic.

Nancy Kula: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, no.

MTB: Okay, sorry, go on.

Nancy Kula: Exactly. No, no, no, no. So full of positive energy! Yay, Hannah, go!

MTB: Yeah, she’s amazing.

Nancy Kula. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Very brilliant. So we’ve got this new project together where we are going to be looking at, because she’s interested in variation and language change, so we are going to be looking at different dialects of Bemba, and I think they’re actually about, you know, 15 different dialects, but no one ever really does very much of dialectal work in Bantu, so we thought it would really be nice to sort of look at what’s going on in the different dialects. And I think part of the reason why there isn’t so much dialectal work is because there’s a lot of comparison of different Bantu languages which are similar, and also similar sometimes to a point where it may well look like they’re different languages, but it may look like different dialects, so then the comparison is always on different Bantu languages. So now we thought it might be nice to look at a language and look at the variation which is inside all of those languages, and we want to make a comparison of those dialects which are in the north and those which are in the central area. So one thing about the central area maybe that I could add is that there is a lot of discussion as to whether is this just like a pidgin? Is it like really a language? So there’s a… One of the sort of very esteemed Zambian linguists, Muganga Kashoki, has written a book which is on Town Bemba, and the idea is that there is… Actually, it is true that there was on the Copperbelt Province language which was used on the mines which was a lot of Bemba predominantly, but various different other languages, because when people came to do mining (there’s copper mining in the Copperbelt), they came from all different areas, so it was a bit of a mix of different languages. I think there was even, you know, some Gujarati in there as well, so it was kind of very mixed, but I think it was a bit of a transitory thing that, you know, people spoke this and it was mainly on the mining, and I think mining has changed with respect to the way it was then, so I’m not quite sure how much of this town Memba there is. And of course, there is some, because I think there’s work, anthropological work, of Town Bemba or urban Bemba that is spoken mainly like around, you know, railway stations or bus stops or something like that.

So there’s this, I have this ongoing battle kind of trying to understand, you know, this… So I come from the Copperbelt Province, and there’s this thing which is called Town Bemba, but my parents are both, you know, native Bemba speakers who came from the north and they moved to the Central Province in Ndola, but they didn’t work in the mine at all. They just came to settle here because there were many more opportunities. There were many more jobs because of all of the mining that was kind of going on, and I just speak whatever it is that they passed down to me, and it’s not necessarily anything to do with the mine, and it’s not a mixed language. It is just actually very standard, two, you know, speakers of two different dialects coming together. So it’s… I feel as if there is a little space that needs to be carved out for these Copperbelt Bemba speakers who are not speaking this Town Bemba, this slang or this, you know, with transitory stuff that’s kind of going on, but just, you know, you just you… Actually, I sort of feel like many times like what someone like me would speak is not so different from the north, but of course, you’re so far away from a particular area, and there are many more languages in the Copperbelt Province. So in Copperbelt Province, Bemba is surrounded by many other languages, so there’s clearly some influence from other languages, whereas in the north, Bemba is surrounded by many other Bemba dialects. There’s a bit of a question about whether, is all of the Bemba that is spoken in the Copperbelt this slang Bemba, or is it something slightly different?

MTB: Wow, that’s really interesting. So did people from the north kind of come in waves? I’m just wondering if there’s like kind of like… You’re kind of like a second-generation northern Bemba person in the town, but is that like unusual? Are there people who have grown up in the town for like many more generations so then their Bemba is like more of this like Town Bemba, but you’re like kind of a northern Bemba heritage speaker?

Nancy Kula: It’s really… Yeah, I mean, these are the really, really interesting questions that it would be nice to to probe and understand a little bit. I’m not even quite sure that I can understand that. I think they probably were different waves of people that came that… I think the very early, the people who came really the earliest to the Copperbelt were people who really came to work on the mines, and they didn’t really settle. I think they worked on the mines like… You know, I don’t know if they worked like, you know, you work for months and then you go back home to the north, spend a bit of time, then come back to the Copperbelt Province. But then that may have been… I think the idea is that maybe around from the ‘20s, ‘30s, people just came like to work on the mines, and probably that flux went on, but later on, I think at the time that my parents were coming in maybe the mid-’60s, this was people just coming to sort of work in a place which has now become a city, and they were not going back and forth. They just came, and they settled there, and they stayed there. And I think, okay, of course, we can assume that their language must have changed or has changed just from the fact that you’ve been away from a particular place in a long time. But of course, it’s changed in a sort of different way in contrast to if you were in this area of high multilingualism, in this sort of like mining context. Yeah.

MTB: Oh, that’s so interesting. Yeah. It sounds like even classifying speakers and what Bemba are they speaking is going to be like really interesting for this product.

Nancy Kula: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Just to find out even, how do you do this? And then of course, there’s also the younger generation. So I think of my nephews and nieces who are indeed, again, removed away from that, and, I mean, they’re speaking a lot of English. You know, many times I sort of speak to them in Bemba, but then they would respond, they clearly understand, and they by default are usually many times sort of answering back to you in English, so it’s really a bit like when they would speak Bemba, what is their Bemba like? And it would be… I mean, there aren’t any studies even to make a comparison between these sort of different generations, three generations of people who are in the Copperbelt Province and what kind of Bemba that they speak and how that might differ from changes that might also be going on in the north, because even in the north, there presumably are changes going on as well, so it’d be interesting to see whether there’s any convergence in terms of young speakers who are in the Copperbelt, and young speakers who are in the north. Yeah.

MTB: Yeah. Oh, so interesting. Can we talk a little bit about Bemba intonation? This is something I have no idea about, phonology.

Nancy Kula: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MTB: So I’m really interested to hear like more about this and your work on it so far.

Nancy Kula: Yeah, so most of my research focuses on prosody in a sort of very broad sense. I’m interested in phonology. I’m interested in tone. I’m interested in intonation, and that connects very much with why I’m interested in the phonology-syntax interface, because I’m interested in trying to see how, in what way can phonology influence syntax or in terms of how can it influence our processing in some sense? So with intonation in tone languages, it’s really fascinating, because, of course, with tone languages, you’ve got tone, so you’ve got tone on each vowel in a particular sentence, and I think the conclusion usually, I think, you know… Previously it was felt like, would there be intonation which is different from the sum of the tones, so to speak? So is intonation just the equivalent of, you’ve got your tones high, low, high, low, and in Bantu (or at least, you know, in Bemba), it’s two tones, high and low, and it’s usually sort of high, low is kind of a default tone, so you’ve got particular vowels which are going to be high, and some which are going to be low, and then if you have that on each vowel, then should you just join those dots and that kind of gives you what the international curve is going to be? But it kind of turns out to be that that’s not quite at all how it works. So there is also intonation, which kind of seems to sit on top of all of these individual tones. So, of course, with tone, usually we are looking at it in terms of like words which are being contrasted by tone or grammatical marking which is using tone, whereas with intonation, we’re looking at bigger domains. So one of the questions that’s… A couple of questions that I was studying in terms of intonation in Bemba was to see, for example, how are questions formed? Which is something, which is a very, you know, classic thing to study when you study intonation.

MTB: Oh, okay, so like in English with a rising tone…

Nancy Kula: Exactly.

MTB: … at the end when you’re asking a question?

Nancy Kula. Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. So then of course, then, I mean, you find this in English. You find this in many, many languages where it kind of goes up when you’re asking a question, but I was struck very much when I was sort of looking at intonation in Bemba that, oh, you ask a question and it actually goes down. 

MTB: Ooh.

Nancy Kula. It doesn’t go up. So it’s a little bit like, “Oh. Oh, that’s really… It’s counter-expectation.” You think that you’re asking a question and it should go up, but it kind of goes down, so the intonational effect seems to be, when you ask a question, that you sort of raise the pitch of the sentence, but in terms of the intonational curve, so when you see it, you go down. So somewhere at the start, you really raise your intonation, and then you kind of go down. And that’s also connected, very interestingly, to how you mark focus. So again, in English, if you were going to say, you want to emphasize the person that came, “John came,” you would say, “John came,” or, “John is the one who came,” so then your emphasis is placed on ‘John.’ And what you see, at least in Bemba, is that you don’t place emphasis on the actual item that you want to focus, but on something which is before it. So if you want to say something like, “I bought biscuits,” and ‘biscuits’ is the thing that’s supposed to be high, it’s almost as if you’re saying, “I bought biscuits.”

MTB: Wow. The ‘biscuits’ is…

Nancy Kula: Is emphasized. Yeah.

MTB: [unclear 29:01]

Nancy Kula: Exactly, yeah. So it’s a little bit like the thing that you want to focus is, doesn’t have this raised intonation, but the intonation is before. And of course, I mean, it’s a bit weird, but if you think about it in terms of processing, it’s just a cue that’s telling you that, “I’m raising now because something important is coming.”

MTB: Yeah.

Nancy Kula: “And then the thing that’s important is biscuits, and I don’t have to do anything about it as long as I raised somewhere.” So, yeah, it’s really interesting because it kind of begins to question the basic assumptions that one has about what should intonation be. You think it’s just like it’s going to work the same across different languages, and then we see in some very areas which are sort of like the classic examples that you get — you open an intonation textbook, you want to explain it to another graduate student, you say, “Oh, intonation is like in English. You always go up when you want to ask a question,” and then that’s the most basic assumption is like — you look at a couple of other languages and it’s quite, quite different. So I’m really, I’m interested in doing more stuff. Again, also, with the dialectology stuff, I’m really interested in seeing, how does that vary with respect to different dialects? Is one of the things, for example, even between the Copperbelt and the north, that people can hear, sometimes words are… Yes, there are lexical items which are different, but could we also be able to tell, a person who’s speaking, whether they happen to be from the north or from the Copperbelt because of the way that their intonation is? So I’m really, really interested and excited to sort of do this work on, you know, variation of intonation in Bantu languages.

MTB: That is so interesting. I wonder how language learners deal with that. Oh. Gosh, that’s so interesting. As a native speaker, is this something that you always knew that it was cool in Bemba because you spoke other languages, or was it not until later, you were like, “Actually, that’s really cool”?

Nancy Kula: Yes. No, no, it was something that I didn’t even notice. I mean, that’s why this whole like, you know, being a native speaker of a language, you just don’t even pay any attention to it, and I didn’t kind of realize it. So I sort of collected all of this data when I was doing sort of a systematic study to see, “Okay, let me sort of, you know, measure what’s happening in declarative sentences in contrast to questions, in contrast to focus constructions.” Then I sort of said, “This is absolutely consistent, but it’s always sort of always different.” And, of course, once you sort of like — after seeing it, then I think like, “Yes, actually, I sort of hear this, and it seems…” I notice it a little bit more that there is, like this fall that you get at the ends of sentences seems to apply, you know, across the board, different kinds of sentences, there’s always this kind of final lowering, and it’s different in slightly different contexts, but essentially you always kind of go down at the end. It always seems… And sometimes now when you listen to it, it always seems like, you know, a question is supposed to be something which sounds like, you know, somebody’s getting excited about something, and it always just sounds a little bit like it’s just like, “Mm.”

MTB: A little flat.

Nancy Kula: Just kind of matter of fact kind of way, which is really a little bit like surprising, but no, I didn’t have a feeling. There are certain things, like more segment stuff where like maybe sound processes which I sort of think like, “Okay, yeah, we’ve got this /b/, which is not the /b/, because it’s a [β] which is softer, blah, and I know that people have difficulty in sort of producing this voiced bilabial fricative. It’s a little bit like what you have in Spanish as well.” So things like that, you notice immediately because you sort of know that, “Oh, people fail to sort of say this,” but the intonation stuff, even for me as a native speaker, it is really like analyzing the data that made me realize like, “Oh, there all of these other cool different things going on in Bemba.”

MTB: Oh, that’s so amazing. That’s so cool.

Nancy Kula: Yeah.

MTB: Do you have any thoughts on how fieldwork can be more collaborative or how, based on your own experiences, your work has been collaborative?

Nancy Kula: Yeah, that’s a really, really, you know, interesting question. So I have, I guess, on two levels. So I’ve worked with colleagues at the University of Zambia in terms of, you know, actual linguists who we are going to sort of collect data together, so I had a project previously where I was going to work in an area (not in the Bemba area, but in the Western Province where Lozi is spoken; and I don’t really speak… I mean, I can say “Hello” and “How are you?” and “Can I have some fish?” which is really important, because it’s a fishing area and they have gorgeous fish there, so I can sort of say some basic things) — but when we were going to do fieldwork in that area, it was really crucial that I had this, two collaborators from the University of Zambia and also an MA student. And it was really, really amazing to have a sort of an MA student from Zambia as a language assistant, and I was sort of… Initially, I was wondering whether should I have someone who… It was a funded project, so I was wondering whether I should have somebody from the UK or not, and I thought, “Actually, it would be nice to go with somebody who speaks the language in that area,” so that was really very nice. And I feel that, really, without working with this language assistant from this area who speaks the language, it would have been much more difficult, and also it really was nice and sort of, you know, as usual, sort of trying to sort of avoid the observer’s paradox as much as possible, having the two other colleagues who spoke the language as well natively going into different areas in the field was also really, was really very useful. And I think it was also nice to sort of work in this sort of, you know, professional way with colleagues, you know, at the University of Zambia. So that was really, really very nice.

And then I guess also working a bit collaboratively with people in the community themselves. In a way, most of my work, like the stuff on intonation and phonology is very much a little bit of one to one with different people, but usually, I mean, usually, when I’m in a place, like a couple of times, I sort of stayed in a sort of like church center where there’s always people that would come on a Sunday, you know, because there’s some activities going on, and there I would meet, you know, different people and then try to sort of work with them. And also, of course, at some point, people just sort of start bringing people to you to sort of say, “Oh, there’s this person who’s here and they’re working on a language,” and I… For, me all of those things are part of working collaboratively, so they may not be collecting data (which would be nice if they would be collecting data, and I think that’s something that, for me, it would be nice to do a little bit more of), but just in terms of people knowing that you’re there and talking to you about things and, you know, signposting to you and asking different people to talk to you, I thought that’s really very interesting.

In a new project I’ve got going with colleagues at at Essex at the moment where we’re looking at multilingualism in language and education policies, they were working very closely with teachers and community, the community, to sort of have sort of focus groups and discussions of issues to do with how do they feel that their language is represented in the education teaching policy, to try and see whether the multilingualism that you see in society is also being brought into the classrooms. So there we are having many more discussions in terms of talking to people, you know, in groups to sort of say, you know, “What do you think about this? What’s your your opinion?” Because it’s a bit more qualitative research. So that’s a bit more collaborating with the community, at least in the sort of work that I’ve done so far.

MTB: Yeah, I think that actually ties in really nicely to the next thing I wanted to talk about, which is, what can we… What are your thoughts on what more we can do to decolonize linguistics and more broadly academia? So, I mean, starting with collaboration with local colleagues.

Nancy Kula: Yeah.

MTB: Yeah. [unclear 36:27]

Nancy Kula: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that, for me, it’s a key thing that, you know, one should, maybe we should really… I don’t know if anybody is doing this anymore, but essentially working more with the communities and sort of not just sort of zooming in and out of      communities to sort of have your questions’ answers, but to have, you know, local experts, so to speak, being part of the research. And the other thing, again, is also maybe that I feel that it would be nice if the local linguists would be part of setting the agendas. I think they’ve got issues that they would like to work on, and it would be nice that we are fitting more into their projects, because at the moment it seems much more that, you know, you come up with a project that you just sort of think of here, you know, and then think, “Who can I collaborate with on this question that I want to ask about the intonation, you know, in Bemba or about the past tense or something?” And, in a way, it would be nice if it could also sort of be the other way around. They have got things that their students in their classes are talking to them about that they would like to find out about, and that the collaboration should be that they get a chance to explore those questions and see where it leads, because it just might be different questions. So to sort of change the research agenda-setting to also be set from the local context as well, and I think that really means that the local people are at the center of discussions, they are at the center of deciding, “What are we going to do?” And it’s true, maybe our role could also be, yes, providing support and, you know, discussion on what are the best ways in which we could do things, because we’ve got, we may have, you know, a bit of experience in doing that, but in terms of the actual questions themselves, it’s kind of, would be really interesting to sort of have that coming more out of the areas themselves, because they are local experts whose expertise it would be nice to see, you know, being exploited a little bit more.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Nancy Kula: It’s sort of like uh, you know, a pitch for sort of using of local languages when one does fieldwork that, you know, maybe one could make more of an effort of using the local language in the place where you’re working or otherwise finding means in which, you know, you sort of work through others who would be using that language, but I think a bit of an effort in terms of knowing some of the local language and culture and system and taking part in it would seem just a little bit more embracing of the situation that you kind of find. I think, obviously, you know, we all can speak multiple languages and stuff, but it just really seems as if, if you focus on a particular area of research, that you would try to conduct some of your research within the local languages, and yeah. I mean, see how people feel about these things, but again, it’s empowering people that the knowledge that you’re getting can also be represented in a way that is meaningful to them, which might mean in a local language rather than just, you know, a journal article which is, you know, produced somewhere not in an accessible manner. I think it’s, in a way, it is also, I guess, goes back to what we were discussing about maybe what the focus of the research should be, like how much you should include. So you’ve got your research question, and how much else should you include? And that “else” maybe is a really important part in decolonizing kind of what you’re doing to sort of make it also relevant for the community that you’re sort of working with.

MTB: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. We had one linguist, Alex Garcia, and he spoke about doing monolingual fieldwork in the Philippines. So he turned up to the Philippines, and he didn’t speak… He works on Alta, Northern Alta. He didn’t speak Northern Alta, but he decided for him the best way to do it was, he was going to do all his fieldwork in Northern Alta, so he learned Northern Alta and then…

Nancy Kula: Oh, [unclear 40:15]

MTB: …just did monolingual fieldwork, and… 

Nancy Kula: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah.

MTB: This is like definitely something that more people could at least try to do.

Nancy Kula: Try. Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no, no, no, it’s really true. And I can imagine that it also brings, you know, certain insights, because also, at the end of the day, it’s also about relationships that you make with people and that they feel, you know, it’s this trust and feeling that “you’re making an effort to be sort of one of us.” I think you also get data which is slightly different. It’s not going to be… Somebody is not trying to think in a different way, because they’re just going to give you, you know, the language as they would speaking it, not trying to change anything for your benefit, so to speak.

MTB: Yeah, like not everything is going through translation, and then…

Nancy Kula: Yeah.

MTB: … what you actually get at the end is…

Nancy Kula: It might be…

MTB: … watered down.

Nancy Kula: slightly modified. Yes, exactly. Yeah, yeah.

MTB: What advice would you give to someone who wants to do fieldwork working with speakers of Bantu languages?

Nancy Kula: You know, there’s so much experience, or people who are working on Bantu languages, so it means that there’s just loads of colleagues who one can talk to, so I think my advice would be: Just go for it and kind of do it. Because, I mean, people are very, very friendly. So one of the things that I was very wary of, actually, and I think sometimes local colleagues have that, is just, you wonder, are people going to take you seriously because you’re a local person, or are they going to change and move into this, “I need to do research about this thing”? And even when I went particularly in the area where Lozi was spoken… So Bemba is a language which is quite a dominant language in terms of the languages that are spoken in Zambia. There are many, you know, it’s multilingual in Zambia, but in Western Province, it’s an area where mainly Lozi is spoken, and I went there, and my Lozi wasn’t very good. I could just sort of speak a little bit, so of course, I was very conscious of this fact, and I was very concerned that I would get some negative treatment because of that, that I wasn’t sort of like… And of course, you know, it’s a little bit Bemba in, you know, on some levels, is a little bit like speaking English where people sort of say that you don’t make any effort to learn any other languages because your language is big and it’s dominant. So I went there really very, very concerned about whether, “How are people going to take me? Is this going to be like a nice experience?” And it’s good that I had this sort of assistant with me, but people were extremely, extremely friendly, and people are sort of really very, very, very happy to help. So that’s really, is something which I would say for anybody who wants to do research, essentially you’re always pleasantly surprised. People are sort of happy to have an opportunity to talk about things that matter to them, and also if you have got a bit of time to sort of learn about other people and their cultures, then it will always be a really, really enriching experience.

And also, there is always something to be found. A lot of work has been, yes, done on sort of Bantu languages, but there are so many about which we know nothing, and there are a number of them which are really getting endangered. The language I was working on in Western Province was an endangered language with sort of very few speakers, so even though we know a lot about Bantu languages and there are many which are sort of alive and kicking, there’s loads that we don’t know about. There’s lots, like we talked about with respect to dialectology as well, there’s still loads to do, so it means there’s just much more, lots of stuff to find out. So then I would say, yeah, just go for it. Do it, because there’s lots of exciting things to find out.

MTB: Wow, that’s so great. That’s so nice. Okay, well, thank you so much, Nancy. I can’t say enough how much I am grateful that you could make time for this today. Where can our listeners learn more about the work that you’re doing and like find you online if they’re interested in reading some of your articles or looking into your research?

Nancy Kula: Okay, excellent. So my Twitter handle is @nancyckula and if you would like to read some of my papers, they are online at Academia.edu and also at ResearchGate. And one of the other projects that I was talking about that I’m working on on, you know, multilingualism in languages, we also have a nice, very active, more active Twitter account which is @bringing_in, so loads of information there to find out and see kind of latest work that we’re doing.

MTB: Awesome. Okay, and I’ll link everything in the show notes so people can just click over.

Nancy Kula: Yes, excellent. Thanks very much for having me. It was really, really a great, great pleasure. I’m really, really enjoying your podcast and looking forward to sort of hearing more from the different linguists.

MTB: Oh, thank you so much.           

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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