Episode 6: Madoka Hammine on Insider Research in the Ryukyus

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Martha Tsutsui Billins (host) – Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins and today’s interview is with Madoka Hammine who is a PhD student at the University of Lapland in Finland. Madoka is a heritage speaker of Yaeyama and is currently researching, teaching and learning of indigenous languages. At the moment, she is finalizing her PhD thesis entitled, “Embracing Multilingualism in Education” based on her fieldwork in both Finland and Japan. She is from the Ryukyuan Islands and she has been active in language revitalization and language reclamation research focusing on Yaeyama, her heritage language, for several years. 

MTB: Okay, so today I would like to welcome Madoka Hammine onto the podcast.

Madoka Hammine: Thank you for inviting me.

MTB: You’re welcome! I’m so glad that you could join us. So, to start, how did you get into linguistics?

Madoka Hammine: Yeah, it was a very gradual step because for my first degree, I did it in language teaching, it was not “LINGUISTICS-linguistics”. I grew up in the Ryukyus in Japan, in the Southern part of Japan, and when I was younger I wanted to go and see other parts outside of the Ryukyus. I was also interested in learning other languages, and obviously in Japan, the first foreign language was English. I studied English, and went to America for exchange and thought, “oh it’s so diverse.” When I am in Japan, it is pretty much monolingual and monocultural and monoracial, so when I was in the States, I noticed that there are so many different cultures and also different kinds of languages. So, that’s why I was interested in languages. When I came back to Japan, and I went to Tokyo for my bachelor’s degree, I studied language teaching and I wanted to become an English teacher. But in Tokyo, I noticed that everyone sees me as an Okinawan and it was a very strange experience for me because I thought I was Japanese but then when I go to Tokyo in mainland Japan, people see me as an Okinawan. Then I went to the university library and I started reading about Okinawa and I noticed that we have another language in Okinawa. Until then, I didn’t notice. I learned that both my grandmas have their own language which are Okinawan and Yaeyama, and that’s why I became interested in linguistics and education and language teaching.

MTB: That’s so interesting. Can you give some language context about Yaeyama for people who are not familiar with it?

Madoka Hammine: Yes, Yaeyama is one of the Ryukyuan languages. It is considered an endangered language and within Yaeyama there are different varieties and different islands within the Yaeyama (islands) have different (linguistic) varieties. There are no statistics on the number of speakers of the variety I am focusing on, which is spoken in Miyara Village of Ishigaki Island of Yaeyama. It is said around 300 people speak this variety.

MTB: And they’re all elderly, right?

Madoka Hammine: Yes, mostly, yes.

MTB: So, can you talk a bit about your fieldwork? Like how many times have you done fieldwork? And have you done fieldwork in other areas of the Ryukyus?

Madoka Hammine: For my PhD thesis, I’ve also done fieldwork in Finland. My first fieldwork was in Finland, I focused on Sami languages, their education and how they are teaching Sami languages. And I focused on teachers who are teaching Sami.

MTB: Oh cool, and how that might relate to the Yaeyama context? Or how it could translate over to language revitalization in the Ryukyus?

Madoka Hammine: Yeah, after doing two fieldworks, one in Finland and one in the Ryukyus, I noticed there are very different kinds of language attitudes, which I am focusing on for my PhD. In Finland, I met a lot of young people who are Sami and who are learning their heritage language and are very happy to learn their language. But when I came back to my own community and when I interview young people, they want to learn but sometimes they have this negative language attitude which comes from the older generation. They think their language is “not good” to learn which makes me really sad because it is my own heritage.

MTB: Yeah. Do you think besides just feeling a negative attitude towards the language itself they might also have negative feelings towards their own proficiency in the language? Like, in my experience, in Amami, it depends on the person of course, but I collected so many stories from either elders who said, “oh young people don’t know how to speak correctly. Their Shimaguchi- their Amami (language) is terrible.” Or from young people who said, “oh I really don’t like to speak Amami with my elders because I am not sure if I am being polite enough.”

Madoka Hammine: Yes! Definitely. I find a similar attitude from young speakers of Yaeyama language. They are very afraid of speaking Yaeyama language because they are not confident, they are afraid that they will make a mistake. Which is natural when we are learning a new language, it is natural to make mistakes. And also especially because in Yaeyaman, honorifics are very complicated, it is more complicated than Japanese. If we make a mistake when using honorifics towards the elder generation like my grandma, my grandma’s generation, 80 years old, it’s really rude, you cannot do this. The society, culture, is very hierarchical. So you have to always show respect and honorifics is one of these important things to keep in mind.

MTB: Yeah, definitely. I think as an English speaker, or when I am trying to explain this idea to other English speakers who don’t speak a language that has honorifics in the way that Japanese and Ryukyuan languages do, it is hard to imagine how this holds young people back. But it really is a big problem if you can’t use the proper honorifics. For example, if you want to get a job you have to be able to use keigo honorifics, at least in Japanese.

Madoka Hammine: Yes. In Japanese it is important but I think even more important in the Ryukyuan languages. For example, in Yaeyama there are differences when you want to speak to people who are over 80, you use different types of honorifics than when you speak to people who are over 50. With your peers, you don’t need honorifics at all. For example, if I speak to my friends I don’t need to use honorifics at all. So, it is more complicated.

MTB: Yeah. Do you think that has to do with the generations? Like, “oh my grandparents are around 80 so I use these honorics with grandparents but then these other honorifics are for parents around 50.” Or is it really about once you hit 50 (years old) you get one honorific and once you hit 80 you get another honorific?

Madoka Hammine: Yeah, I think it depends on the age in general.

MTB: Oh ok.

Madoka Hammine: In the village for example where I do my fieldwork, everyone knows which year you were born, and even which month you were born. For example, when you go to visit people’s houses for a funeral, you have to sit in a line according to the age. If they are one month older, you have to show respect to this person. You cannot sit in front of this person.

MTB: Yeah. In Ishigaki, is that where your grandmother’s family is from? Or is it another island completely?

Madoka Hammine: Ishigaki is where my father’s family is from, and my grandma and my relatives, they are still there.

MTB: So when you are doing fieldwork in Ishigaki, you are really like an insider community member?

Madoka Hammine: Mhm, yes.

MTB: How do you think your experience as an insider researcher affects your fieldwork? Do you think there are particular challenges that come with being an insider or particular benefits?

Madoka Hammine: I think because I sometimes go to the field also with other researchers who are not insiders, I see people change from when I go alone. And if I go with other researchers who are from outside, people change. Some things they talk about only to me and they don’t talk to outside researchers. For example, some researchers from outside, when they come to my community people say, “ohhh, I’m so happy you are from Europe and you are studying our language, it’s so good!” They are so happy but when I go sometimes I’ve met people who tell me, “oh, why you speak Japanese, you speak English, and you went out to study abroad and why you are studying our language again?” This kind of attitude. It was hard because it was from my own community and I don’t know if I noticed this kind of…they want me to be outside but they don’t want me to actually learn the language. It’s a little bit difficult for me.

MTB: Yeah, that’s interesting. I wonder if maybe it is something like, when outsiders come to research Yaeyama they feel like it’s giving some value to the language, but when you are studying Yaeyama, they feel like it doesn’t have value? Or Yaeyama is not going to do anything for you and they’re invested in your future as a young community member?

Madoka Hammine: I don’t know exactly why but I wrote one article about it and they call this phenomenon linguistic self-orientalism. People devalue our own language and for example, one person told me, “oh, you are so beautiful and you went to university, so that’s why I don’t want to speak to you in my own language.”

MTB: Ohhh no.

Madoka Hammine: Yes, it was very sad.

MTB: Yeah.

Madoka Hammine: They have this kind of, I don’t know how to call it…

MTB: Like self-deprecating?

Madoka Hammine: Yeah, yeah. If you go to university, you are not supposed to speak this language, this kind of attitude. But definitely there are also advantages as an insider. For example, I feel more connected because people talk to me about my grandma when she was young. How she was and also my grandpa. He already passed away but when I am in the field, some people, some old people who knew my grandpa, they talk about him and I really feel connected with my family. When I speak my own language I feel I am connected more. Also, at first, my grandma didn’t want to speak to me in Yaeyama but when I kept speaking it to her, one day she changed and she started speaking to me in Yaeyama. I was so happy! I felt like, “oh, now she is able to speak to me in Yaeyama” and I felt very emotional.

MTB: Yeah, that’s so special. Going back to that about young people who want to speak to their elders, this isn’t directly related to field work but, what advice would you give to young heritage speakers or young community members who want to speak their language with their family but they don’t have confidence or they’re worried that someone will get upset? Do you have any advice for that situation?

Madoka Hammine: I think that one piece of advice I could give to them is not to give up. Because I have experienced some negative attitudes, which is because of the history and trauma that the old people have, but don’t react to it. It’s not their fault and if you keep doing your effort, someday, some people understand and they start speaking the language to you. Once you get any person, one person, who speaks to you in that language, it becomes much easier.

MTB: Mhmm.

Madoka Hammine: I think it is something like learning a new language. It is always new at first, you will have some mistakes but then if you try again and again, you can communicate in that language and it makes you so happy! It makes you feel like you gained another personality or almost like you are another person when you speak in another language. If it is your heritage language, it’s even more important and it’s even more emotional.

MTB: Mhmm.

Madoka Hammine: I think. So don’t give up.

MTB: Awesome. Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to record their heritage language? Or what advice would you give to someone who wants to record their community language but maybe they don’t have much training or they don’t have any training? What’s your recommendation for where to start?

Madoka Hammine: I think you don’t necessarily need to have specific training but if you have motivation, the first thing you could do is to go to the elder people and talk to them and try to help them. If you are from that community you can talk, you can ask them about your own grandma or grandpa and they will be more than happy to tell you about your ancestors and how life was before you were born. So, you can start from this small visit to the houses of the people, I think.

MTB: Yeah. Great, thank you! Thank you, Maddie.

Madoka Hammine: I hope it helped.

MTB: Lastly, can you tell our listeners where they can learn more about your work? I will link the paper you mentioned but if they want to know more about your research or more about Yaeyama, where can they go?

Madoka Hammine: They can visit the university website. My university is the University of Lapland in Finland and I have my own page and there are articles you can read, and some of the articles I write in English, so you can also read about it.

MTB: Ok, great! So I’ll link your page on the University of Lapland website. Then people can read more about your work. Thank you, Maddie!

Madoka Hammine: No, Martha, thank you. Thank you, Martha! Bye

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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