The Embroidered Wug

A blog about linguistics, grad school, and the beauty of language. What's a wug? Look here.
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Musing about methods of language description

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about research methods. The next step of my PhD program is writing a dissertation proposal — so in a nut shell, I need to decide what questions I’m asking and what methods I’ll use to answer them.

In general, people usually talk about two data sources for language description: elicitation and texts. Elicitation includes asking for translations of words or sentences — “How do you say X in your language?”. Sometimes the researcher will construct a sentence and ask if it’s grammatical, and sometimes people elicit words and sentences using pictures rather than a verbal prompt, but elicitation always means you’re directly asking for a piece of linguistic information. When we say text, on the other hand, we mean a more natural type of speech — for example someone telling a story, or explaining how to do a particular task. A text could be written or spoken; regardless, linguists then search the text for examples of a particular phenomenon and analyze it’s use.

But while we talk a lot about elicitation and texts, research in language documentation & description frequently bounces between many different methods, both quantitative and qualitative. One minute you’re observing/participating in a cultural event, another minute you’re testing a hypothesis in a structured elicitation session, another minute you’re conducting a semi-structured interview. In the evening, you’re journaling about your experiences and writing up qualitative memos while tagging data in a spreadsheet. There are many types of data, and many ways of analyzing that data.

I’ve been trained in elicitation and text-collection, but I’m interested in expanding the research methods at my disposable. In order to understand my research process a little better, I’ve been watching videos on Quantitative Methods and Qualitative Methods from the University of Amsterdam (via Coursera). While many of the concepts introduced in these courses have been familiar to me, I haven’t always been taught them in a formal context; having words for different elements of my research process has helped me organize my thoughts a little better.

For example, in the qualitative methods course Dr. Gerben Moerman used the phrase “epistemological dialogue” to talk about the process of shifting between different research philosophies, and putting those philosophies is conversation to search out a more complete answer to your question. Moerman also used the phrase “iterative knowledge production”, discussing the constant dance between gathering data, reflecting on data, and drawing up theories. Both of those phrases speak to something I really appreciate about the language documentation process: the freedom to approach questions from a multitude of different perspectives. I want to take advantage of that freedom a little more!

I don’t know exactly how I’ll be exercising methodological freedom in my dissertation — using more visual methods to get at speakers’ intuitions about temporal structure? conducting interviews to approach the concept of “time” from a more anthropological perspective? — but I’m excited to try.