Linguistics Fieldwork

Working alongside remote speech communities to document languages


For many CoEDL researchers engaged in the documentation and description of language, linguistics fieldwork was an essential aspect of their work. About half of the world’s 7,000 languages are un- or under-documented, and many of these languages are spoken by small speech communities in remote areas. Fieldwork sees linguists travel to and work with these communities to record their languages.

Fieldwork facilitates many different types of linguistic work, from corpus building to acquisition and processing studies, to compiling reference grammars and dictionaries — of which CoEDL researchers produced 19 and 13, respectively — to the repatriation and preservation of language materials and more.

The stories shared below give a taste of the rich experiences that CoEDL members gained through their fieldwork. Their reflections reveal the centrality of community collaboration to CoEDL’s research practice and the dedication required by both the community and the researcher to conduct this work through difficult circumstances in the name of preserving and documenting some of the world’s least understood and most endangered languages.

Tina Gregor

When Nick Evans pointed to a small dot at the south-western end of New Guinea and said, “This language needs attention,” I was prepared to just go to the place he had pointed to and try to find some speakers of the language.

I knew it would be difficult due to the small size of the speech community. The global language reference resource Ethnologue reported 400 speakers in the 1950s and this language was considered very endangered, hence the urgency. I knew the name of the language — Yelmek — and the names of a few villages.

“Not much to go on,” I complained to a friend back in Leipzig, Germany, where I was finishing my Master’s in Linguistics at the time. She shrugged and suggested posting something about it to a Facebook group for people from West-Papua in Leipzig. I could hardly believe it when a Yelmek speaker actually replied. Marselino Gebze had come to Leipzig on an Indonesian scholarship to study computer science. I soon recorded my first words in Yelmek, but more importantly, I’d made my first connection with the speech community.

When I arrived in Merauke (Papua) about a year later, I was met at the airport by Marselino’s sister and shortly after by his uncle, who was keen to start working on Yelmek straight away. By that time, I had started my PhD at CoEDL’s ANU node, supervised by Nick Evans and AI I Wayan Arka.

I started the project in a very modern way, by social media, but at the other end of the spectrum, my fieldwork experience also included staying in a wooden hut without running water or electricity. From meeting Marselino in Germany, to seeing the poverty in which so many Papuans live, this work never failed to amaze and humble me.

Altogether, I did 12 months of fieldwork over 4 trips for my thesis, “A documentation and description of Yelmek.” With this research I discovered that Yelmek uses verbal suppletion to mark grammatical gender [1], a linguistic feature typologically so rare that it has not been described in detail for any other language.

Doing fieldwork on an endangered and previously under-described language was very rewarding. I am very grateful to CoEDL for supporting my work and providing a nurturing environment. Many thanks as well to all Yelmek speakers who helped in any way and to my patient supervisory panel.

Rosey Billington, with Jonathan Moodie

Since the early 2010s, CoEDL Affiliate Jonathan Moodie and I have been learning about Lopit, a Nilotic language of South Sudan, thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of Lopit speakers in the diaspora.

After meeting members of the Lopit community in Melbourne, Australia, I started a PhD project focused on the phonetics and phonology of Lopit in 2011. From 2012 Jonathan began Honours, and later a PhD, research on the grammar of the language.

South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011, after decades of civil war, millions of lives lost and millions more people displaced from their homelands. In the wake of independence, we hoped to undertake fieldwork in South Sudan, to build on the knowledge that members of the Melbourne Lopit community had shared with us. Unfortunately, due to instability and more warfare, this has still not been possible.

However, in 2017, when I was a CoEDL postdoc, we visited the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya, home to a community of around 1,000 Lopit people.

This trip was supported by CoEDL Language Documentation funding and was planned in close collaboration with members of the Kakuma Lopit community. The community is dedicated to documenting their knowledge of Lopit cultural practices, history, and traditional narratives to pass on to their children growing up away from the Lopit Mountains.

We undertook intensive training — on video recording, audio recording, and management of data, metadata and permissions — with 10 community-selected Lopit speakers and had many meetings and discussions with people across the community.

This visit coincided with the opening of the first Lopit library, a hub for language and cultural activities that housed a small collection of Lopit-language books. The motivation and dedication of the community in documenting their cultural heritage, and their resilience and resourcefulness in the face of extreme difficulty, blew us away. We were immensely proud of what they achieved, especially when members of the Lopit recording team later undertook their own field trip, returning to South Sudan to document an initiation ceremony that only occurs every 12 years.

Beyond learning about language and culture, the Lopit community in Kakuma also gave us a deeper understanding of their priorities in language and cultural documentation, strategies for managing collaborations between many people and how enormously valuable these kinds of activities are for fostering in diaspora communities the strong sense of identity and connection to cultural heritage that is felt by Lopit people.

Kristina Gallego

I came back to the Philippines — my home country — in February 2020 to do the second major fieldwork stint for my PhD. My first step was to conduct a workshop at the Linguistic Society of the Philippines International Conference, which helped me conceptualise and design a questionnaire I meant to use in the field. But a few days after the workshop, a COVID-19 lockdown in Metro Manila was enforced, postponing my fieldwork which was initially scheduled for March.

My field site was Babuyan Claro, a remote island with a unique multilingual landscape in the far-north of the Philippines. Luckily, I had already developed trusting relationships with people on the island through previous trips. So, around June 2020, I arranged to send some basic recording equipment (a video camera, an audio recorder, some memory cards, a tablet and an external hard drive) and questionnaires to my host sister, Baby Anne (B-Anne) Tomas. B-Anne made recordings and helped with data collection, working with project participants who already knew me and the research I was trying to do.

Still, working remotely was difficult. Babuyan Claro has no stable mobile phone or internet access. My contacts on the island mainly rely on satellite internet to communicate, but it’s very costly and they had limited time to talk. Sending equipment and instructions by post helped, but it took careful planning and organisation. I had to think through everything B-Anne might need to know and explain it all in a simple but concise way.

From this experience, I learned to take a more relaxed approach to my project. While it delayed my research for at least a year, the pandemic gave me time to develop my ideas and to think more carefully about the design of my questionnaires. In the past, I had often felt rushed. But being forced to sit down and think about my data collection more carefully made me more confident about the quality of the data.

I also learned what collaboration truly means and deeply appreciate how people are willing to help me out with my research. Working with B-Anne to handle data collection gave me a different kind of data and empowered people from the community to do research themselves. I also had great support from CI Beth Evans (my primary supervisor) and my other supervisors at the Australian National University.


Further infromation

To learn more about these and other CoEDL work, explore the Connections data in map or list form.


Hero image: Participants in a CoEDL-supported Transdisciplinary and Innovation workshop in Katherine, Northern Territory, 2016. Image: Carmel O’Shannessy.

Image 1: Tina Gregor at her field site in Papua New Guinea with members of the Yelmek community. Image: Tina Gregor.

Image 2: Rosey Billington and Jonathan Moodie with members of the Lopit community at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya, 2017. Image: Rosey Billington/Jonathan Moodie.

Image 3: Kristina Gallego (centre) on a boat with her host family during fieldwork in Babuyan Claro. Image: Kristina Gallego.


[1] Gregor, Tina. Submitted. Suppletion in languages of New Guinea. To appear in: Nicholas Evans Sebastian Fedden (eds.), The Oxford Guide to the Papuan Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gallego, Maria Kristina. 2020. "Ibatan of Babuyan Claro (Philippines) – Language Contexts." Language Documentation and Description. 17: 87-110.

Gallego, Maria Kristina. 29 Jan 2021: Public lecture at Polytechnic University of the Philippines on COVID-19 and language, part of an online forum entitled ‘#SupportLocal: Amplifying the Philippine languages through new media’

Gallego, Maria Kristina. 29 Aug 2020: Language Warriors PH talk, part of the ‘Language issues amidst a global health crisis: Insights and experiences on the ground’ forum by the University of the Philippines Diliman

Gregor, Tina. 2021. A documentation and description of Yelmek. Doctoral dissertation. The Australian National University, Canberra. https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/220032

Gregor, Tina. 2021. A phonetic description of Yelmek. Language Documentation & Conservation Special Issues on phonologies of southern New Guinea.

Gray, James and Gregor, Tina. 2019. Gender/number syncretism in Yelmek verbal suppletion. Proceedings of the 12th Generative Linguistics in the Old World & the 21st Seoul International Conference on Generative Grammar, pp. 111-125.

Moodie, Jonathan, and Rosey Billington. A Grammar of Lopit: An Eastern Nilotic Language of South Sudan. Brill, 2020,https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004430679