Lausanne, 16-17 February 2018: Methodological approaches to synchronic and diachronic heritage language data

(I wrote this article for the CUSO English website.)

The workshop was organized by Prof. Anita Auer (Unil), Dr. Jennifer Thorburn (Unil), and Dr. Adina Staicov (Unizh) and was aimed at postgraduate students but, due to its content, it was also very useful for MA students who are thinking about working in sociolinguistics, language variation and language change. In fact, it was a very practical workshop where participants could understand how a study is planned, carried out, and how to overcome potential problems.

The first speaker, Prof. Naomy Nagy (University of Toronto), presented her project, which is focused on heritage languages spoken in Toronto (HLVC). She used her project as a guide to explain methodology and introduce theoretical questions. We discussed how to plan the study including field work, how to make contacts with the informants, and how to behave during an interview. We also talked about ethics, whose requirements vary from country to country. I, together with other participants, had the opportunity to present my own work and to explain how I organized it and the problems and solutions I found. We then discussed our different fieldwork experiences and our discoveries, depending on what stage of the study we were at.

In the afternoon, Dr. Adrian Leemann (Lancaster University) talked about theory and practice in sociophonetics, an emerging field of study. After a first session focused on theory, he illustrated methodology, data collection, data sampling, data analysis and reporting in detail. We could see how to use technology, i.e. smartphone apps, to collect data from speakers via the Internet (this was also the subject of our last session). Dr. Leemann’s presentation included several practical examples as well. The exhaustive part about reporting contained also a link to the Academic phrasebank, a very helpful page for any PhD student who needs to write a report.

On Saturday, we examined how to work on historical data, thanks to Dr. Markus Schiegg (FAU, Erlangen) who presented his project “Corpus of Patient Documents” (CoPaDocs). This project investigates old documents from psychiatric patients who lived in hospitals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The research examines language history “from below” instead of taking into consideration the standard imposed “from above”. Dr. Schiegg made us do an exercise on a scanned letter, so we could understand even the first practical difficulties related to this kind of research: transcribing an old letter without mistakes isn’t an easy task!

The last session was about crowdsourcing heritage language data. Here, Prof. Auer described how her project Swiss Islands in North America used a smartphone app in order to collect material from a distance. With this app, the informant can upload their voice recordings but also photos that express their Swiss identity. We concluded our workshop discussing the pros and cons of using crowdsourcing methods in linguistic research.

On behalf of all the participants, I want to thank CUSO, the organizers and the speakers who – very kindly – shared their papers with us. This was an extremely enriching workshop.