Working with diaspora populations should be acceptable in Linguistics

I began working with the Sizang language in 2014-15 and I began working on it while I was still in the United States, before I had ever actually stepped foot in Burma. I got quite a few materials from Kosei OTSUKA during a SEALS Conference in Yangon. Luckily, he and I were staying at the same hotel, so it was easy to exchange files with a simple thumbdrive! Before then, I only had a worn-out copy of Rundall’s A Manual of The Siyin Dialect, which was published in 1891 and long out-of-copyright. The next largest out-of-copyright Sizang work was Naylor (1924). Rundall and Naylor’s books were the most-comprehensive materials available to me at the time, until I got ahold of better works through filesharing means — I certainly did not have the necessary funds to purchase copies of the academic journals which contained articles on Sizang. However, the files that I had accumulated simply weren’t enough.

While it is not necessary to speak a field language to do research on it (I would still argue that most Linguists in Western academia couldn’t even properly ask for a glass of water in their target research languages), it is certainly helpful. That is why I began to meet with Sizang people who lived either in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, out-of-state, or online. At this point, 4G communication was not as ubiquitous in Burma as it was when I began doing fieldwork there in 2016. So, the majority of Sizang who could communicate with me on a moment’s notice were those who lived either in Yangon (the economic capital of Burma) or in a foreign country, such as the U.S. or Australia. Speaking and sounding ideas off of these expats was vital and immensely helpful to many points of my analysis. I’m forever grateful for their support.

Fast forward to 2021 and there is now a military coup in Burma. I left the country in mid-April 2021 and I am currently in Thailand. As of now, it is extremely difficult to get a visa to re-enter Burma, unless you’re Chinese, I guess. Between COVID and the coup, I had no opportunities in all of 2020 and the little bit of 2021 in which I was still in the country. I last went to the field in December of 2019, and I had to go to work shortly after in January. So, the argument can’t be made that I did not try. (It should be stated, however, that my December trip to the field was actually for relationship-building purposes, and not for research. I was always on school or work business before when I went, so I wanted to go, just once, for enjoyment. It’s bittersweet that that was the last time I would see the field for a while.)

Here’s the dilemma: According to a lot of linguists with tenure and some letters after their names, the best data for research is the data acquired in the field itself and not from outside of the field. This mindset, I suppose, comes from the idea that language is most-natural in its native context, where landmarks, climate, wildlife, etc., are typical for what a speaker would be able to describe in their language. For me, it is certainly true that I better understand the narratives told to me now that I have visited the field a few times. However, the Sizang are migrating out of their natural area for many reasons: economic, educational, health, disdain, you name it. They do, however, tend to take their language with them wherever they go. Perhaps it is not the classically pure Sizang that was spoken in the colonial times over four generations ago, but it is still Sizang. I can play an audio clip of someone that I recorded from the field and my friend in Maryland understands it just fine. Likewise, my friends in Yangon were able to help me transcribe and translate recordings I had made back in Maryland.

With COVID inconveniencing everyone’s lives and making travel even more inaccessible to the American lower-middle class than it already was, you would think that the ever-tolerant Linguistics community would be accepting of data collected in diaspora. I mean, sure, a linguist should specifically state that the data came from a diaspora community in the metadata. Nothing wrong with that! But to stipulate that data from a diaspora is less valuable and less reliable than data from the field seems a little — dare I say — prescriptivist. That means the ones who are now most-likely to get data are the ones who have (I’m speaking in a 2021 U.S. context here) been able to receive the COVID jab(s), secure a visa to re-enter the country where their field is located, have the means to keep language consultants safe from possible viral transmission, and have the money to do it all.

Now, I may be attacking a huge strawman here, and I hope I am. I hope that Field Linguistics has evolved away from being an observatory art/science to being more participatory and flexible.

Since I can’t get back to Burma, my plan is to try to work with some Sizang in Maryland and Indiana to continue the work that I haven’t been able to do for nearly two years. One good thing about not being currently enrolled in a programme or employed at a faculty, is that I have no one to answer to and I am able to put things out as I wish. I hope more linguists will do the same. Virus or no virus, coup or no coup, language documentation is a very important art/science and it should continue.’

Maybe I’ll write more informatively and less rant-like in an upcoming post.

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