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How do Linguistic Anthropologists Study Language?

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So, Linguistic Anthropologists study language. But how exactly do they do that? In this blog post, I will talk about how linguistic anthropologists study language. Now, there are entire courses about Linguistic Anthropology research methods, so this blog post cannot possibly teach you everything you need to know about doing research in linguistic anthropology. But I will go over some basic topics.

So how do linguistic anthropologists study language? Well, exactly what they do depends on what exactly about language they are studying. So I’ll give some general information on what happens. And if you want to know what kinds of research questions linguistic anthropologists study, check out this blog post.


Doing anthropological research is called “fieldwork,” or “going out into the field.” These are the terms for when an anthropologist goes into another culture to study it. And the specific kind of fieldwork anthropologists do is called participant observation. This means that the anthropologist lives in another culture, usually for about a year, and learns by observing and participating in daily life.

Background Work

But before the linguistic anthropologist enters the field, they need to do a lot of background work. They have to study all the research that has already been done on that language. They also need to study the history and culture of their field site (a field site is the location where they are doing the research). And, many times unless they are working through an interpreter, they need to learn at least some of the language they are studying.

There are also administrative things that need to be done before going into the field. For example, the linguistic anthropologist needs to find financial funding in order to pay for their research. And they need to get permission to do the research from their home institution, which is the university or organization they work for.

This includes getting IRB approval, which stands for Institutional Review Board. In the United States at least, you need the permission of an IRB to do any kind of research on humans. The IRB is a committee that is in charge of making sure all research on humans follows the laws on research ethics. The IRB inspects the anthropologist’s research application to make sure the people being studied will not be harmed in any way. For example, recording people without their permission is not ethical.

The linguistic anthropologist also needs to get permission from the community they are going to study. For example, if the linguistic anthropologist is going to study a small tribal community, they need permission from the tribal elders or other leaders in the community.

The linguistic anthropologist also needs to gather equipment and supplies that they might need in the field. For example, they will need something to record video and audio, along with things like microphones, cables, and tripods. They also may want to bring a computer, and solar chargers if the place they are going to doesn’t have electricity.

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In the Field

When the linguistic anthropologist finally enters the field, what exactly they do depends on the exact type of research they are doing. As I mentioned earlier in this lecture, linguistic anthropologists do something called participant observation, where they learn by being immersed in another culture. The linguistic anthropologist observes and participates in daily life in the community, and takes lots of notes on everything. They also may record and study naturally occurring conversations that happen in everyday life.

Sometimes the linguistic anthropologist is studying and learning the local language itself. So they sit down with a native speaker of that language and record the person speaking, and they also take notes, called fieldnotes. For example, the linguistic anthropologist may ask the person the words for body parts, or animals, or the terms used to describe family members. The anthropologist writes down the words, using the IPA chart, which is a linguistics chart that shows how to write down different sounds. Sometimes the anthropologist will have the person read a book and retell the story, or watch a movie and narrative what’s happening, or tell a traditional story. And sometimes the anthropologist will record conversations, either between themselves and the participant or between the participant and another person.

After the Research is Done

So now, the linguistic anthropologist has accumulated a lot of data, in the form of video recordings, audio recordings, notes, and so on. Now it is time to analyze the data. This involves things like transcribing interviews and conversations and rereading fieldnotes. The anthropologist then looks for patterns in the data that may help them answer whatever their research questions were.

Once the data has been analyzed, the linguistic anthropologist has to disseminate their results, which means they are expected to share their results with others. Many anthropologists will give a presentation about their research at an anthropological academic conference, and they will also publish a research article in an academic journal. They may even write a book on their research.

And then what do they do? Well, they start another research project!

Learn More

So what do Linguistic Anthropology methods look like in real life? Here’s one example. Daan Hovens did a research study in a metal foundry in the Dutch-German borderland, which is a blue-collar working environment where people speak different languages. According to the researcher, they “made 74 hours of audio recordings and 6.5 hours of video recordings of workplace interactions; … audio-recorded 11.5 hours of interviews; … took 139 photographs; … wrote approximately 150 pages of field notes, and … collected a wide range of other data.” You can read this open access research article, called “Workplace Learning through Human-Machine Interaction in a Transient Multilingual Blue-Collar Work Environment” at this link.

Thanks for reading!