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November 2015

Topic     Here to help? – balancing research aims and community-oriented efforts in the field
    Tonya Stebbins (Monash University/Languagewise) will be leading the discussion, she has written widely on her experiences of doing fieldwork with a range of communities

Date       Tuesday 24th November

Time       6:00 - 8:00pm

Venue    University hotel (NOTE NEW VENUE)
              Function room (upstairs), 272 Lygon St, Carlton 3053 (03) 9347 7299
     (menu available online)

Contact  Ruth Singer if you have any questions


Field linguists are also often well-intentioned, hoping to contribute to the betterment of the world. This may be something they want to achieve only through their academic research and teaching. But many would also like to make a practical contribution to the community they research. Field linguists often work with communities who are disadvantaged and feel a strong desire to try and do something to redress the disadvantage. This can take the form of providing support for language maintenance activities (Newman 2003) or general volunteering such as collecting donations of secondhand clothes, helping out with classes at the local school or driving people to the next town.

There has been quite a bit written about these competing pressures and demands on a linguist. Newman suggests that due to time constraints on fieldwork “‘the good-hearted, well-meaning linguist, to whom we can all extend our admiration, will do less of a job of basic documentation than one would have hoped for’”(2000:6). Matras (2005) warns against the dangers of linguists taking the role of saviours, stepping in to ‘save’ a language. Stebbins (2012) agrees that the role of the linguist is highly contested and she looks at how power imbalances hamper linguists’ efforts to contribute positively to the community they work with. However Stebbins also argues that much what we do as linguists in the field is negotiable so there is the possibility of creating a third space between the community and academia, where people can engage on a more equal footing.


Background readings:
Matras, Yaron. 2005. Language contact, language endangerment, and the role of the “salvation linguist.” Language documentation and description 3. 225–251.

Newman P. 2003. The endangered language issue as a hopeless cause. In M. Janse and S. Tol (eds.) 2003. Language Death and Language Maintenance. Theoretical, Practical and Descriptive Approaches. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1-13.

Stebbins, Tonya. 2012. On Being a Linguist and Doing Linguistics: Negotiating Ideology through Performativity (29 October, 2015).

Walsh, Michael. 2005. Will Indigenous Languages Survive? Annual Review of Anthropology 34(1). 293–315. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.34.081804.120629.



LIP is an occasional gathering of language activists and linguists in Melbourne and is coordinated by the MLIP committee: Ruth Singer (Melbourne Uni), Harriet Sheppard, Jonathan Schlossberg, Alan Ray, Giordana Santosuosso and Jonathon Lum (Monash Uni)
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