Bringing the Field into the Classroom: A Field Methods Course on Saudi Arabian Sign Language

By Stephen, Anika; Mathur, Gaurav | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Bringing the Field into the Classroom: A Field Methods Course on Saudi Arabian Sign Language


Stephen, Anika, Mathur, Gaurav, Sign Language Studies


Abstract

The methodology used in one graduate-level linguistics field methods classroom is examined through the lens of the students' experiences. Four male Deaf individuals from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia served as the consultants for the course. After a brief background information about their country and its practices surrounding deaf education, both successful and less-than-successful attempts at elicitation are discussed, providing the impetus for the current article. The article concludes with constructive suggestions for future field methods classes. The article also serves as a preface to the other articles on Saudi Arabian Sign Language in this volume. The references for all the articles herein on Saudi Arabian Sign Language are at the end of this special section.

THE LINGUISTIC INVESTIGATIONS presented in this issue took place during a graduate-level field methods course in the Department of Linguistics at Gallaudet University. Instead of heading into the field to interact with language consultants, the "field" came to the class once a week from September 2010 through April 2011. The experiences within this class are not completely dissimilar to those reported by linguists who travel to their language consultants. This article outlines general methodological approaches to linguistic fieldwork undertaken in this course, while also offering a frank examination of the field methods classroom. We hope that, by the end of the article, the reader will have gained a sense of what it was like to undertake the task of researching a sign language that has been litde documented: the sign language of male Deaf individuals in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Historical Overview

We set the stage for the rest of the article by first providing a historical overview of field methods research. Then we turn to the context for the field methods course within which these linguistic investigations took place. Next, we explain how we arrived at the name of the language under study. Finally, we explain the origin of this article, which direcdy relates to the topic at hand, namely the course methodology.

A Historical Context for Field Methods

In the United States, early linguistic research consisted primarily of field linguists documenting languages. Researchers such as Franz Boas (an anthropologist), Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield worked with indigenous populations, describing the languages used by those groups and advocating a structural approach to linguistic theory. The work of these men was so influential that the name Bloomfield became synonymous with this perspective and the era during which the theory prevailed. However, in the 1950s, the generative approach began to gain popularity, propelled by the early publications of Noam Chomsky. Not until more recendy has there been a serious return to the field, due in large part to a desire to preserve endangered languages (Newman and Ratliff 2001). While it can be argued that some lesserused sign languages are under threat, just like spoken languages with a small number of speakers, language endangerment is not necessarily the impetus behind research taking place in a field methods course on sign languages. Rather, the fact that sign language linguistics is a small, relatively young subfield of a larger discipline encourages the participation of up-and-coming linguists as there are myriad phenomena occurring in sign languages that have yet to be identified and recorded.

The Setting for the Field Methods Course

As part of the master's program in linguistics at Gallaudet University, second-year students are required to participate in a yearlong field methods course, working with language consultants throughout the fell and spring semesters.1 The goal of the course is to provide students with direct experience in documenting a sign language with which they are unfamiliar. Under guidance from the instructor, the students engage in self-directed data collection and analysis related to the language's lexicon, morphology, phonology, syntax, nonmanual signals, and so on. …

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