Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

I am Linguist, Hear me Roar

As a Fulbright Teaching Assistant, my primary duty here in Germany is to help little Krauts learn English. But that´s not the real reason I´m here. The real reason I´m here is to conduct linguistic fieldwork.

Linguistic fieldwork, for those of you who aren´t 'in the know,' is when a linguist visits a community and attempts to document the way the community speaks, usually using tape-recorders. Depending on which language variety is being studied, this might entail a year spent among headhunters in highland New Guinea who practice ritual cannibalism. Or it might just mean cornering your German professor and twisting her arm until she agrees to tape record her mom and stepdad for you the next time she heads home to Idaho.

In my case, I came here to document Sorbian as it is spoken in the Catholic villages west of Bautzen. Specifically I want to scientifically analyze people´s pronunciation using computer programs-- acoustic phonetics, to use the technical term.

The broken ankle delayed my plans for several months. Until I could walk again, I was really in no position to ride buses to remote villages and coerce children and old ladies to talk into my tape recorder. But I´m better now, and I finally got started yesterday!

My first informant is a middle-aged woman who works for a Sorbian children´s magazine. She was recommended to me as an informant by her daughter, who is also a linguistics student. So, yesterday I took the bus to Bautzen and spent about an hour with Mrs. S. Her job was to translate banal German sentences into colloquial Sorbian. She found this deathly boring, of course. 'So, does everybody end up with an apple?' she asked, after forming an umpteenth sentence including the phrase ' ______ dam jabuko.´ She had to translate sentences in which she gave an apple to the old man, the old woman, her sister, her father, her brother, etc.

The boredom factor is kind of unavoidable, since linguists are advised to start out eliciting everyday vocabulary that their informants are sure to know: kinship terms, verbs like 'give,' 'eat,' and 'hit,' numbers from 1-1o, colors, etc. I suppose I could have made the exercise more interesting by asking for words like gallstone or witchdoctor, but then she might not have been able to translate them.

Doing fieldwork is exciting for me. I finally feel like a 'real linguist'. My work may not be groundbreaking, but it´s legitimate scientific research and will contribute to the documentation of colloquial Sorbian. I´m a scientist!!!

Next week I´m going to a Sorbian Mittelschule in a Catholic village to tape record three or four students, and possibly a teacher or two. The principal of the school was very eager to help me.
In return for helping out in three English lessons on Fridays (my day off), I can tape record their students. This will start next Friday (January 21st).

Wish me luck!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like things are going better already! Yay!



2:46 AM  
Blogger Ada said...

Yep, things have definitely improved. I´m glad I stuck it out!

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that you define fieldwork with the use of a tape-recorder. In my training of fieldwork that is strictly forbidden. Dependence on recording takes away from the genuine interaction between linguist and informant, which deprives the linguist of real data. It takes one hour to transcribe 1 minute of recording. And of course your task is more important than documenting the language on tape.

Anyway, I came across your entry because I did an undergrad project on Sorbian and found the available resources extremely limited and extremely weak. I am moving to Berlin in December. Hopefully one day to contribute to the work you are also engaging with.

7:23 PM  

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