Challenges of linguistic data collection in Uruguay

Posted by Madeline Gilbert – PhD student in Linguistics at NYU

Tile street art in Rivera (yes, this is right-side up!)

I have now been in Uruguay for a bit over a month.  On one hand, it feels like I’ve accomplished quite a bit; on the other hand, there is a lifetime of research to be done here.  In the last blog post I talked a bit about the project itself, which involves looking at the language contact situation on the border between Uruguay and Brazil, site of the famous portuñol, which, in the popular conception, is neither Spanish nor Portuguese but a broken mixture of the two.  In this post, I want to talk a bit about the process of data collection, which is both full of challenges and very rewarding.

First: what kind of data am I collecting?  Because I’m interested in peoples’ use of language in daily life, I’m conducting (and recording) sociolinguistic interviews, asking people to read a word list, and fill out some demographic and language use questionnaires.  The process typically takes about 90 minutes.  Sociolinguistic interviews consist of talking with people about topics like childhood, family, school, hobbies, work, travels, and the like.  The goal is to elicit the most natural speech possible within the context of a recorded conversation.  The word list reflects a more careful speech style and was designed around some linguistic variables. I have reason to think might be interesting to compare between speakers from Rivera and Montevideo.  The demographic forms ask more explicitly about peoples’ linguistic history, places of residence, use of Spanish/Portuguese/other languages, and a little about their attitudes towards these languages.

I’ll start with the challenges—there are so many of these!  First of all, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that you can’t possibly learn how to do this kind of field work until you are in the field doing it.  This is a bit disconcerting at the beginning, but I have been reassured that this is normal and that during your first time at a field site, it is impossible to know exactly what kind of data you need from what kind of people.  Mostly, it comes down to not knowing the community well, and not knowing what’s going to be the most interesting variable to study.  For example, I aim to get people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, but I don’t know the community well enough to know which social factors are the crucial ones here.  This is one of the reasons the Tinker grant is great: because it’s designed specifically for preliminary research, it gives me the chance to get my feet on the ground, establish contacts, start exploring, and see what avenues are interesting and possible for future research.

I find that the field work challenges can be broken down into three categories: participant recruitment, scheduling, and the interviews themselves.  Here I’ll focus on recruitment and come back to the others in later blog posts.

Recruiting participants is difficult.  It’s hard enough in New York, where I have university and personal connections.  In Montevideo, I had contacts from my previous two stays, and they were extremely helpful in putting me in contact with their friends and family members.  My contacts there involved my host family, friends, the Middlebury College study abroad coordinator in Montevideo, a linguistics professor I stayed in contact with after my semester abroad there in 2012, and a Middlebury Spanish TA from my freshman year of college.

Rivera has been much more difficult.  I was lucky enough to have a lot of virtual contacts, which gave me a base to work from.  In 2015, I was a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Pato Branco, Brazil.  During our mid-year Fulbright seminar, I happened to meet a Uruguay ETA and the director of the Uruguay ETA program.  When I realized I was going to be coming to Rivera I contacted the ETA, knowing that the Uruguayan ETAs often work in different parts of the country throughout the year.  Sure enough, she knew one young woman here, who I met up with in Montevideo and who has been an irreplaceable source of support and contacts in Rivera.  I also overlapped with a current Fulbright ETA here in Rivera, and both he and his host professor have helped me recruit some students and let me use a room in the university for some interviews.

Brazilian and Uruguayan flags along the border during the World Cup

Once you have contacts, you have to convince them to participate.  When you tell people it takes 90 minutes and includes a 45-60 min recorded conversation, they sometimes (understandably) back away cautiously.  Asking people you don’t know to come over, tell you their life story, and agree to be recorded is a lot.  As a relatively reserved person myself, I’m not sure I would immediately say yes if someone in the US were to ask the same of me.  This is where social networking comes in: people are much more likely to say yes if they know and trust the person who puts them in contact with me.  Cultural experience is also important: people feel more comfortable if they can talk naturally to you, which means you have to have enough cultural knowledge about the city, language, traditions, customs, etc., to allow for natural interactions.  In Montevideo, I had this—I know how people complain about the fact that the 104 bus is always late, I know the abbreviations for common institutions, I know brand names, and I know the different parts of the city.  My Spanish is good enough to confuse people.  I didn’t realize that my previous two semesters in Montevideo were, unknown to me at the time, essential preparation to be able to do this kind of sociolinguistic research.  In Rivera, I lack this experience.  Some things transfer from Montevideo, but city-specific things do not.  This lack of cultural knowledge was painfully obvious during the first few interviews; it has been improving (slowly) since.

In short, I owe a lot of my contacts here to luck: luck in having met the Uruguay ETA in a food line in São Paulo and in remembering to contact her.  And what wasn’t luck was Uruguayans’ extraordinary willingness to use their contacts to help.  I have learned to shamelessly leverage all possible contacts, ask for help, and send Whatsapp messages cold to people I don’t know.  None of these are easy for introverted people like me, but such is the nature of field work!

This kind of work is draining.  It requires being constantly ‘on,’ both socially and academically.  Every social interactions is, in a way, part of the field work because it integrates you into the community.  One of the hardest parts for me has been drawing lines between field work and my personal space; maybe some people can live the field work experience as fully integrated with their personal lives, but I need some distance.  I have done about 20 interviews total so far, and hope to get 10-15 more in the remaining month here.  This kind of data is time/energy intensive to collect and analyze, and I’ve been able to record more already than I expected to do in the full two months.

But this work is also very rewarding.  In talking to people I don’t know and never would have met otherwise, I have learned so much about Uruguay, the border, attitudes towards both languages and portuñol.  I have talked with people who have never left their cities, who have traveled the world, who work as architects, artists, teachers, and a woman who was imprisoned during the dictatorship.  All of them have been so open and generous: in exchange for a cup of coffee or tea and my genuine interest in their lives (and language), they are willing to let me in.  I don’t remember the last time I’ve had this many extended face-to-face conversations and learned this much from Americans, let alone with people from other countries.

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