The documentary linguist as facilitator: The view from Trung (Dulong)

Perlin, Ross
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Few questions in the emerging field of documentary and descriptive linguistics have received as much attention as the changing role of the linguist. Is she an expert, collaborator, advocate, activist, stakeholder, employee, hired hand, a project manager, or some combination of these, depending on the circumstances? Several terms sharing a family resemblance—participatory action research, community-based research, community-centered research, collaborative research—point to a widespread unease with the ostensibly traditional notion of the linguist as a detached expert, but there is continuing debate as to whether any particular descriptor for the linguist’s role should stick (Rice 2009). Several commentators have raised the prospect of the documentary linguist as a facilitator, albeit without providing much theorization of that term (e.g. Grenoble 2010). Facilitation may be a particularly appropriate model if, in the terms of one formulation, empowering research (on, for, and with the speech community) represents in certain respects an advance beyond ethical research practiced on speakers and advocacy research on and for them (Cameron, D., E. Frazer, P. Harvey, M.B.H. Rampton, and K. Richardson 1992). Yet documentary linguistics has seldom drawn on the increasingly sophisticated theorization of the facilitator’s role in the context of management science, decision theory, and related fields. Facilitators are now widely used in areas such as conflict resolution and environmental policy. This paper will discuss facilitation practices as they might apply to linguistics and compare them with the best practices identified by Penfield, Serratos, Tucker, Flores, Harper, Hill & Vasquez (2008), including a focus on process and group dynamics, impartiality or neutrality, the evoking of participation, the building of consensus and trust, and the bringing together of a diverse set of existing resources and stakeholders (e.g. Schwarz 1994). My own fieldwork experience, undertaking a documentation and description of Trung (Dulong), a Tibeto-Burman language of southwest China, inadvertently thrust me into a facilitation role (as I only realized later). An informal dictionary group (myself and three community members) became a ketizu (formal study group) whose progress I had to facilitate. Informally, I also took on the role of convener of meetings and aggregator of resources, gathering materials from different sources and processing distributing, and archiving them as appropriate. Facilitation suggested itself as a natural approach given Trung’s increasing visibility inside and outside the community and the resulting interest from a growing, diverse body of stakeholders—a situation faced by many documentary linguists.
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