Fieldwork


This is evidently my first post in some six months and I have to confess, I have been thinking about throwing in the towel altogether. Two of the reasons for this were that I have been writing (although again, not lately) on Fully (sic), Crikey’s language blog, and that I was so busy teaching over the past few semesters in Sydney that I couldn’t put in the time or effort that this blog deserved.

But, a lot has changed in the past couple of months and I’ve been encouraged to get back into the whole writing thing. First and foremost, I am now enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, and the relatively light workload (compared with teaching undergraduate linguistics classes) allows me much more time to write. Also as a direct result of moving to Melbourne from Sydney to commence said PhD, my social life is far less active.

I wrote of my intentions to do a PhD well over a year ago but I only managed to commence last month. The reason being that I was unsuccessful in scoring a scholarship at the time, and so had to reconsider my plans – as I was unprepared to start a PhD without the security of a stipend. After some months of weighing up several possibilities, including enrolling part-time and working as much as I could, I was approached and asked to join the ARC research project on Aboriginal Child Language Acquisition and have the Tiwi Islands as my field site. After attending a couple of meetings with the other ACLA researchers, I decided it would be a good idea.

Thus far I have already been to the Tiwi Islands for a pilot trip; to garner support for the project from the community and various levels of government and administration and to gauge the linguistic situation as best I could in the two weeks1. I discovered that the award-winning Murrupurtiyanuwu Catholic School, which is a co-educational primary school that has been running a successful bilingual education program since 1974, has this year ceased the program. The decision is apparently not related to the NT’s first four hours in English policy, but I have yet to investigate2. But it is a fact that the independent school was not required by the government to cease its bilingual program.

Another thing that warrants a mention is the release of a volume on language maintenance and revitalisation that includes a chapter by me about the theory and practicalities of electronic dictionaries. The book is Re-Awakening Languages edited by John Hobson et al.3and my chapter is Electronic dictionaries for language reclamation.


  1. All this without actually doing any ‘research’ as such, as I didn’t yet have permission from the Tiwi Land Council to do so.
  2. I’m also careful not to go poking around before I have permission from all stake-holders to do my research
  3. Hobson J, Lowe K, Poetsch S & Walsh M (2010). Re-awakening languages: Theory and practice in the revitalisation of Australia’s Indigenous languages, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working my way through my several hours of Wagiman recordings from my recent fieldtrip, all the time remarking at how excellent they are. It’s a combination of a good recording device; a Roland Edirol R-4, a great microphone with a proven track record in the field; a Røde NT41, and experience in microphone placement and input gain control2. I’m finding the best tokens of all the words I recorded for eventual insertion into the electronic versions of the Wagiman dictionary, including a Kirrkirr instance, and a mobile phone dictionary.

Splitting the recordings into some 1500 individual sound files is a time-consuming occupation, and unfortunately, as it’s the only one of my many jobs that isn’t actually paying me anything, higher priority tasks often win out.

Eventually though, we’ll have a Wagiman electronic dictionary ready for distribution, and a down-sampled version of the same ready for installation on mobile phones. So keep posted!

[Cross-posted at pfed.info]


  1. Both of which were loaned from PARADISEC.
  2. Gain control was really key in the end, as it was raining most of the time,which would cause low-level hiss if the gain were set too high. Luckily my speaker didn’t mind talking directly and loudly into the microphone, so I was able to keep the gain right down to stop too much ambient noise getting in.

Well, my time in the Territory has come to an end, almost. I’m sitting in Darwin airport waiting for my flight. Not a lot to do in Darwin, so I pretty much came straight here after getting dinner in town. Luckily, I stumbled upon an ethernet port that was obviously for one of those airport internet kiosks – the ones that charge 2 bucks per 8 minutes – that the airport has evidently neglected to disable, meaning I have free broadband internet for the first time in a month!

I’ve got plenty of time to make use of it too; my flight isn’t for another 4 hours1. I intended to studiously listen to my recordings and split them into individual sound files, one per word, for eventual insertion into the Wagiman Electronic Dictionary, but catching up on old email correspondences, reading old xckd comics and Language Log posts and downloading the latest Herald cryptic crossword file have sadly taken priority.

My work up here slowed down a little lately, owing to a bunch of meetings in the community this week, and the fact that my informant and I have been getting a little tired of covering tthe same territory. I actually got caught short this week and didn’t get to finish off the checking of the dictionary content, but I’ll be able to do some final checks the next time I’m up here, probably in the middle of the year2.

As far as the dictionary goes, it’s progressing nicely. I’ve been able to make some additions, and get rid of some words that were always dubious. The more recent ethnobiology research from Glenn Wightmann will need to be integrated at some stage, but I can do that from Sydney. The software for mobile phone dictionaries is also going steadily, and you can read all, or mostly, about that at pfed.info, the website we’ve created for this project. Demo dictionaries can be downloaded or tested online at pfed.info/wksite, although it’s all still in its infancy.

The reaction to the mobile phone dictionary that I’ve been showing off up here has pretty much been universally positive. Everyone I’ve shown it to has been interested in it, even the adults in the community, although the teenagers took a particular liking to it. Not only does this stand to reason, but it bodes well for what we’re actually trying to achieve with this project; increased access to a dictionary of one’s language in a format that’s easy to use. I haven’t wasted any time in showing it to the linguists up here and they too have shown interest, so much in fact that we’ve gone on to wunderkam3 dictionaries of a further two languages: Dalabon and Bilinarra.

We have a couple of other ideas up our collective sleeve that would potentially aid in the wider use of electronic dictionaries of minority languages, but I don’t want to give anything away just yet4.


  1. Actually it’s only 3 by now, such is the time it takes me to write a post these days.
  2. So that I can escape the bitterst of Sydney’s winter, as well as having inadvertently escaped the worst of summer this time around.
  3. This is a backformation from Wunderkammer, the name that James came up with to cover the mobile phone dictionary software. So, what else does a Wunderkammer do if it doesn’t wunderkam? My intended meaning for this word is ‘to convert a dictionary into a mobile phone-ready format’. I felt I needed a new word, since a default ‘do’ would imply that we had a hand in producing the content, which would clearly detract from the hard work of the researchers, language workers and speakers.
  4. More accurately, I don’t want to promise anything that real-world constraints, such as computational impossibility or pecuniary limitations, would prevent me from being able to deliver, but ‘not spoiling the show’ sounds much better.

I can now confirm that I’ll be back in the territory in a little over a week’s time. It’s my first time back there in over 18 months, and it’ll be my first experience of a Northern Territory wet season, so I can’t wait.

The reason I’m going is to do some work for the electronic dictionary of Wagiman that James and I are producing, including a mobile phone version, using generously donated funds from the Hoffman Foundation. I’ll just be going over the revisions that need to be made to the current dictionary, record sounds and possibly take photos for inclusion into the dictionary, and discuss with the community how they’d like it to work.

For one thing, there are plenty of words that I know the older speakers don’t particularly want the younger kids to know about, so I’m guessing they’ll want such words ‘hidden’ from the kids’ version of the dictionary. However as James pointed out to me, the first words younger kids look up in dictionaries are swear words and taboo body parts, and having them there for them to gawk over provides a means with which the kids can relate to the dictionary matter.

Also, we’ve decided that it’s about time to set up a website and blog for the project, except we haven’t yet got around to installing the wordpress software. The site will contain information relating to the project, new releases of software, instructions on how to convert toolbox databases into other formats, and extensive documentation of the whole process.

<update>
The PFED website and blog is now up and running!
</update>

When collecting field recordings, always, always begin each audio file with a little blurb mentioning the date, the location, who’s present, and what language is being researched. It’ll cost you about 10 seconds of each recording and you’ll sound like a bit of a tool repeating yourself, but you’ll save yourself hours of work years later when you (finally) get around to archiving your recordings and you need to find all this information from other sources, like airline booking confirmation emails.

Oh, and transcribe your recordings while they’re fresh in your head, lest you find yourself devoting countless hours of unpaid work to do so when you have a brazillion1 other things to do.


  1. I’m alluding to a George W. Bush joke here:
    One of the president’s advisers rushes into the oval office and tells the president that there’s been a terrorist attack in Rio and that 2 Brazilians have been killed.
    “Oh my God!” Screams the president, to the astonishment of the advisor, who didn’t think the death of a mere 2 people would have fazed the president so much. “How many are in a brazillion?”