Episode 9: Fieldwork Q&A with Vera Ferreira & Hugo Cardoso (Part 1)

[introduction music]

Martha Tsutsui Billins host – Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins and today’s episode is with Vera Ferreira and Hugo Cardoso. Hugo Cardoso is a research and professor at the University of Lisbon. He specializes in Portuguese-based creoles spoken in South Asia. He has worked closely with the creole-speaking communities of Diu and Kerala in India and more recently with the Portuguese Burgher community in Eastern Sri Lanka. He is also a depositor at the Endangered Languages Archive and a recipient of the Endangered Languages Documentation Program Grant. If you want to hear more about Hugo Cardoso’s work, you can check out episode four of Fieldnotes. Vera Ferreira is the Head of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social and Language Documentation (CIDLeS) and she is also the ELDP Archive Support and Development Officer at the Endangered Languages Archive. She has worked with several communities in Europe, most notably, the Minderico, Fala and Bavarian communities. She is also a depositor at the Endangered Languages Archive. If you want to learn more about Vera Ferreira’s work, you can check out episode two of Fieldnotes.  

In this episode, I met up with Vera and Hugo in Lisbon and we discussed some listener questions including, how to share collected data in a meaningful way with communities and how to deal with power imbalances whilst in the field. Thank you to everyone who wrote in with questions, we actually had so many questions that we’ll be splitting all of the questions over two episodes. The first half will be in this episode, episode 9, and then the next half will be next week in episode 10. If you have a question about linguistic fieldwork, you can email it to us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com

MTB: This is so exciting.

Hugo Cardoso: [laughs]

MTB: Reunited in Lisbon!

Vera Ferreira: Yes! [laughs]

MTB: Yeah, and I think it is worth mentioning that this is just based on our own experiences.

Hugo Cardoso: Right.

Vera Ferreira: This does not represent best practices or whatever that people think we are guiding them in some things.

Hugo Cardoso: Yeah.

Vera Ferreira: It is what has worked for us and not…

Hugo Cardoso: Or even if we have interesting things to say, it is not the full range of things to be aware of.

Vera Ferreira: Yeah.

MTB: Yeah, exactly. So it’s not that what we are suggesting is the only way to do something, but it’s just…

Hugo Cardoso: So keep listening to the podcast.

[Everyone laughs]

MTB: Exactly, yeah. Find other people with different ideas [laughs]

Hugo Cardoso: [laughs]

MTB: So to start, the first listener question is, “What do people do with the data they collect after fieldwork is over? And if the research data can be shared, how can it be shared with the speakers or the community in a way that makes it meaningful for them?”

Vera Ferreira: Well, I think…I am going to start. There are a lot of things you can do with the data, and from the archive perspective and from the documentation perspective, I would say the first thing is to put everything in the archive. Make your data available in an archive. This allows other researchers to access the materials, but also if the community has internet access it can also access the materials immediately. The other thing is that you can develop a lot of things out of the materials that you have archived. If the materials are available you can create, for instance, apps for the community based on what you have recorded and preserved. I think the most important thing is that you put the materials in the archive; they are safe there in formats that are preservable. Then you can do a lot of things out of the materials that are archived; apps, teaching materials, what else? Story books. So, there’s a lot of things that you can do also for the community and to give back.

MTB: Outreach materials.

Vera Ferreira: Outreach materials, too. You can also create DVDs if the community doesn’t have internet access. You can create DVDs with the recordings that you have done and share them with the community. I was working with the European community with internet access, but it doesn’t mean that they are going to the archive because most of the archives have their interfaces in English, and they cannot access the materials very well. We also need to guide them into discovering the materials in the archive. This is the other part, maybe we could do this discussion later… 

[Everyone laughs]

MTB: Yeah, this could be a whole episode about archiving, right?

Vera Ferreira: Yeah, but maybe you can say something about how to use the materials from your own perspective.

Hugo Cardoso: Right. In fact, the communities I work with, they mostly, or at least part of the population, do have access to Wi-Fi and to the internet. They can read in English, so that is not an issue. The internet does work in my case as it works in your case, I guess? 

Vera Ferreira: Yes. 

Hugo Cardoso: Which means whatever we are saying here about using the internet to disseminate our materials doesn’t really apply to all situations. It applies to ours, right? If it does, then it’s a good way to do it; it’s a good way to share. Before I go deeper into that question, one thing that I’ve done with my latest research project which was conducted in Sri Lanka and has an ethnomusicological component as well, was to create a Facebook page where we share all sorts of information about the collection and the uploading to the archive and all that. Every now and then, we will cut a little clip of a musical performance and we post it. Those are of course, as you would expect, especially popular. It’s a good way to introduce people to the documentation and to the archive. It’s a good way to invite them into the archive so they can search for other things.

MTB: Yeah and that’s a website that they will already have familiarity with, right? If you

are using Facebook, they already know how to use Facebook, so it kind of bridges the gap in a way.

Hugo Cardoso: And Facebook is only one of the platforms you can use, of course. You can use the others that people are aware of…but it’s interesting what Vera was saying. Making the data available in the archive is the ideal situation of course and that’s what we should be aiming for, but in my experience, I’ve conducted three different documentation projects and their nature was different and the result of what I did with the materials afterwards was also different. So, I think I’d like to combine this question of, “How do you make the material available?” with another question that one of your listeners sent which had to do with, “What do people prioritize when they are doing documentation?” 

MTB: Oh, yes.

Hugo Cardoso: Because things aren’t usually tight, right? They depend on how you design your project from the start. What’s your intention and whether you are planning from the beginning to make it available in the archive. If you have established the contacts with the archive to make sure they can do it or not. Very often for a lot of people who do fieldwork for the first time and definitely for me, fieldwork was tied to grammar writing, so to linguistic documentation. That produces a very different set of materials which may not be the ideal ones if you decide that your documentation project from the beginning is going to be made available. So, that’s what happened with me in my first two projects, this is what I was doing. I was interested mostly in linguistic description, so my materials included a lot of elicitation sessions, questionnaires, things which are perhaps boring if you’re not necessarily…[laughs]

Vera Ferreira: But they’re also worth it for the archive because other researchers can work with them…

Hugo Cardoso: Absolutely.

Vera Ferreira: So when we are talking about the dissemination of our research results it doesn’t mean that we only have to deal with conversations and naturalistic data. Of course the elicitation part of our research is also interesting for other researchers as well, so it is worth archiving. 

Hugo Cardoso: It is, it is. I’m happy that I recorded it because a lot of people perhaps don’t record their elicitation sessions. They just write down what they hear. I decided to record them and that’s been not only useful for me, but afterwards when I go back, if I have any questions, the data is there. It can be archived, like you are saying. The thing is that for a lot of people that are doing description mostly, they don’t perhaps intend to make the materials available from the beginning, which was my case. So in fact, it’s interesting that you said this is also valued for an online archive, I had these two projects, the first one was in Diu and the second was in Kerala, and the materials are the same. In one case, I haven’t yet been able to process the data to make them available in an archive but in the second case I am doing that now. I am going back to that material and I am processing the data so that it can be uploaded to ELAR, the Endangered Languages Archive, and that is a lot of work, of course. So it’s different from the third project which was always intended to go to that specific archive, which means that all the transcriptions and adaptations, etc. were done in a way that was compatible with the archive.

MTB: From the beginning?

Hugo Cardoso: From the beginning. So that makes a difference.

Vera Ferreira: There is another thing connected to elicitation. As you said, several researchers think, “ok elicitation is not interesting enough for other people,” but in my case for instance, I have also done elicitation of course, all of us have done elicitation, right?

Hugo Cardoso: Of course.

Vera Ferreira: The community was using the elicitation sessions to create a vocabulary list that they could use for teaching at the local schools. So, this is also another part, another profit that is connected to the community uses of the materials. So we should not underestimate the value of the elicitation. Even though it is not the ideal scenario for the documentation, it is part of it and all of us do elicitation. Maybe we can think about strategies of using the elicitation out of the linguistic context. We know it is a linguistic communicative event but it can be used for other purposes out of the linguistic research domain.

Hugo Cardoso: Mhmm, yes.

MTB: Yeah, definitely.

Hugo Cardoso: There is another practical issue. If you have these materials lying around which were never meant to be made available online and then you want to do it, another practical issue is that perhaps you will have to search for consent or obtain consent… which is an effort of course, but it is worth doing it if you can make your materials available widely. You shouldn’t underestimate how much work that is as well. [laughs]

Vera Ferreira: Yeah you are right, if you don’t plan to archive from the beginning on, then you have one year or more of work to prepare your materials for the archive. If the listeners want to collect data and think that they want to archive the materials, they should design a strategy from the beginning on.

Hugo Cardoso: That’s right. 

Vera Ferreira: I think this is the best advice I can give. 

Hugo Cardoso: If you are doing a documentation project from the beginning that’s not necessarily tied to grammar writing and you just want to create a large enough corpus to be put online, the kind of materials you collect and the kind of topics you raise and the diversity of not only subjects but also consultants and their sociolinguistic profiles is also different. So doing a large scale documentation project on the one hand, or doing something that’s very specifically tied to grammar description, is going to result in different things, and that’s the way it is.

Vera Ferreira: Yeah, yeah.

MTB: I think the question that you were speaking about, that’s the next one actually and this question is from Lauren and she wrote, “I’m always interested in finding what people prioritize in their documentation work and why? Especially in the face of increasingly unrealistic expectations of what a project can achieve. Also, anecdotes about food.”

Hugo Cardoso: Those are different things.

[Everyone laughs]

Vera Ferreira: I think I am going along the same lines as Hugo, but of course it depends on what your personal goals are and what you want to achieve with documentation. For several of us, when we are starting fieldwork or doing fieldwork for the first time, it is for our PhD or our master’s, so we have a very clear goal in mind. The kind of data that we are going to collect depends on what we want to research or do research on. It’s completely different at what stage you are doing the fieldwork; if it is a major documentation project or if it is a small grant and you are starting now and you don’t have experience, it depends. This is from the perspective of the researcher and then we also have the perspective of the community. What is important for the community? For instance, when I was documenting Minderico and we have a limited time spent to do the documentation project, you cannot document everything, so you need to focus your research or your documentation on topics that are important for the community. In my case, it was the textile industry because the language emerged in the context of the textile industry. Language of everyday communication and religious events, social events in general and religious events at work were a part of the events that I wanted to collect. Why? Because I had discussed with the community what they wanted to collect and what they wanted to make available to the general public. So what to prioritize? On the one side, it depends on what you want to do with the data, your own interest and your research interests in your career because we are focused on our career of course when you are doing the research. On the other side, we tried to combine it with the priorities that the community wanted to see in the documentation. So, I think this is a mixture of both things. You cannot say you should prioritize only this or only that, it depends on the context, it depends on the situation and it depends on the community you are working with.

Hugo Cardoso: One other factor I think is also relevant here is how much work has already been done on that language in the past.

Vera Ferreira: Exactly, yeah.

Hugo Cardoso: Those projects that I mentioned in which I was doing grammar writing and linguistic description were on languages that had no description at all. So, there was really nothing else I could do than focus on these instruments of grammar elicitation and vocabulary elicitation and things like that. Whereas in the third project on Sri Lanka, this is a language that has had some descriptive work done in the past which means that it makes it possible for you to have some knowledge of the language before you go to the field. 

Vera Ferreira: Which helps a lot [laughs].

Hugo Cardoso: Which helps a lot [laughs]. It makes it much easier for you to transcribe and annotate your data because a lot of descriptive labels are already available for you. It allows you to focus on other things, for example, making sure that your collection is varied and covers a lot of topics and things like that. So, that’s another factor I think.

Vera Ferreira: Yeah.

MTB: Yeah…anecdotes about food?

Vera Ferreira: Oh.

[Everyone laughs]

MTB: I was trying to think of some anecdotes about food. I mean…they eat snails in Amami, so that’s kind of exciting.

[Everyone laughs]

Vera Ferreira: The places where I did fieldwork, they are not so spectacular in terms of food or so diverse in terms of food that I would say, “oh this is a really good anecdote to tell to everybody.”

MTB: What was the best thing that you ate on fieldwork?

Vera Ferreira: Woah…this is a really difficult question.

Hugo Cardoso: [Laughs]. You know if you work in a place like India or Sri Lanka, you really can’t pinpoint. The food is so good overall [laughs]

Vera Ferreira: I don’t think I can pick something and tell you this was the best food ever that I ate during fieldwork. It really depends on your taste. I had no bad experiences; bad experiences that I felt bad afterwards. Only, I had to eat a lot, so this was the issue. Eating a lot all the time.

Hugo Cardoso: When you are invited to their home?

Vera Ferreira: Yeah, I was invited to the places where I did the recording for the families and they were just feeding me all the time.

Hugo Cardoso: Yeah.

Vera Ferreira: This was one of the issues that I had to deal with but…

MTB: That was one of my biggest issues. I was staying with an amazing host family that would make three amazing meals for me every day and then I would go to the speakers’ homes who also made amazing fantastic food and there’s no option not to eat it. You have to eat everything. So every day I was feeling sick.

Hugo Cardoso: [Laughs] yeah that’s an issue. On the other hand, I am always excited when people invite us over for food because I know it’s going to be great! Normally because I spend a long time in the field and I dont always stay with families, I end up eating in restaurants which is fine, or cooking at home if I end up renting a place where I can do that. You know when you go home to some of your informants’ houses, you know it’s going to be spectacular and it doesn’t fail. It never fails.

MTB: Next question from Sarah, “What are some problems or benefits to using a facilitator language?” I think she means working language, i.e., a language that you both speak but it’s not the target language.

Vera Ferreira: Yeah, the working language. [Addressed at Hugo]: Were you using Portuguese when you were doing the fieldwork in Sri Lanka?

Hugo Cardoso: No, yeah, well all three communities are different in that respect because in one of them…wait, should I explain a little bit about the project?

MTB: Yeah of course, go ahead.

Hugo Cardoso: So the thing is, I work with communities that speak Portuguese-based creoles and that always makes it very sensitive to use Portuguese, which in many places is seen as a norm and places a lot of pressure on the performance of the speakers. I did that in three different locations and Portuguese was only known in one of them. So in the others, it wouldn’t have been an option. In this first one where Portuguese was known and I could have used it with some people as a contact or facilitator language, I decided not to and I used English instead to stay away from that potential problem of interference. In the other cases, the initial contact language was always English because that’s what was available to all of us. It’s always ideal to learn the language as soon as possible and start conducting your interviews and even your elicitation in that language as soon as possible.

Vera Ferreira: I had the experience with Minderico because the community, speaker community, is really small. I have only 24 now, unfortunately, 21 fluent speakers. The majority of the speakers are active speakers but they could switch all the time. So, if I use Portuguese they will continue in Portuguese straight away, they don’t switch to Minderico again. I was working with the language already before, so in order to conduct the interviews and all the elicitation and everything, I had to use Minderico because I knew if I start with Portuguese they will switch immediately to Portuguese and will not go back to Minderico. In Fala it was interesting because they knew that I don’t speak Fala and we had someone from Spain doing fieldwork with us. She was from Seville and Fala is spoken in a region not far away from Seville and when the girl that was with us was interviewing them in Spanish, they would immediately switch to Spanish and they would not use Fala. With me, they tried to use Fala because it was more similar to Portuguese. I could speak Portuguese and use Portuguese as a facilitator language, but it was not the language that I used because although they could understand it perfectly, they could not speak Portuguese. So, they would reply in Fala because it is much closer to the language. If we use Spanish for that, they would switch to Spanish immediately. In Bavarian, it was interesting because you can use standard German, high German, and they would speak Baravarian, it doesn’t matter. They don’t care, they just speak Bavarian. The only language that I had in common when I was doing the fieldwork in Bavaria was German, so, but they didn’t …it’s a  kind of interference. It has to do also with the identity of the speakers, how confident they feel in the language, how they identify the language and how they deal with the language in everyday communication as well. With the Mindericos, they don’t use it in everyday communication anymore so the tendency is to use Portuguese.

MTB: “How do you deal with social or other types of power imbalances while doing fieldwork?”

Hugo Cardoso: Hm! With care [laughs]…and diplomacy.

Vera Ferriera: Yeah [laughs].

MTB: Yeah.

Hugo Cardoso: I think there are at least two ways in which power differences can impact your work or the kind of data you will obtain. One is if it limits access to a part of the population for some reason. The other is whether there are certain registers which people think are not appropriate or substandard, something like that. So the way you deal with these problems is different I think. I’m not sure what your experience is but my approach to the first one, how do you work with the established power structures but also make sure that this doesn’t limit your access to the whole of the population, has been to be very open about the need to talk to everyone from the beginning. I’ve never tried to circumvent these power structures, associations, presidents or those members of the communities who are usually seen or perceived as spokespersons for the community. They’re as relevant as anyone else, but I also always try to make it clear from the beginning that I will also be working with other people and that it has to be like that. Otherwise the quality of the materials and the success of the project is at stake. It has worked fine for me.

Vera Ferreira: I did exactly the same. In these small communities you always have a spokesperson and the one that they recognize as the one that represents the community. Sometimes even the representatives advise you to work with people and then you notice these are not the right people to work with for several reasons: they are not interested, the knowledge of the language is not what you need for a particular moment in time. I try to always work with everybody, as many people as I can. In a small community, with less fluent speakers, you really have to use everybody that you have around. I have done exactly the same as you’ve done.

Hugo Cardoso: You should not go against the people with some sort of prestige or power. That’s not advisable at all. Just make sure that you are not limited to what they offer you. Perhaps it is important to realize that you as a researcher also come with an image of power, whatever it is, from the beginning. If I go back to that first project of mine where I was working in this community with speakers of Portuguese-creole who have some knowledge of Portuguese and attribute some linguistic prestige to Portuguese, me as a native speaker of Portuguese had to first of all break that barrier. It takes time and can only be done by debunking linguistic myths and stereotypes and making sure or making it clear to the people that you are working with that you have no intention of ridiculing their way of speaking; on the contrary. That takes time and that takes the building of trust before you can actually do that kind of work because you do have power, whatever it be, it can be high or low, but you yourself even as an outsider, will be awarded some sort of position in that power structure.

Vera Ferreira: I think it is really important for people that are doing fieldwork to be aware that because we are in a position of power, it doesn’t matter if it’s a high power or low power, high prestige, low prestige, we need to be aware of it because this can influence dramatically the way the community trusts you and the way you build your relationship to the community. 

MTB: Yeah. Definitely.

You’ve been listening to the first half of my discussion with Hugo Cardoso and Vera Ferreira. Next week we will be finishing answering listener questions including our advice on how to handle particularly difficult recording situations and how to reduce your environmental impact whilst in the field.

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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