Advice for recording a dying language
February 26, 2010 2:07 PM   Subscribe

My grandmother's first language is nearly extinct. I'd like to record an interview with her for archival purposes; how should I go about it?

My grandmother, a Turkish Sephardi, is a native speaker of Ladino (a.k.a. Judaeo-Spanish). Centuries ago, Ladino was one of the most widely spoken languages among the world's Jews, perhaps the most widely spoken. There aren't many speakers left, though -- only 100,000 worldwide, and only 300 in the United States. Worse, all (or essentially all) Ladino speakers are elderly. In 30 years, the language will likely be extinct.

I stumbled upon this comment a few weeks ago:

Seriously, if you have any language data sitting around, even if it is your grandpa speaking Navajo, please send it to the OLAC archive.

and it piqued my interest in getting a recording of my grandma speaking Ladino while she's still around. She's enthusiastic about the idea, and we're planning an interview for the next time we see each other.

I'd like to know how to approach this in the most useful manner. Specifically, I'd like to know:
  • Should I study field linguistics techniques before doing this, or would that be unhelpful for the casual, conversational recording we want to make?
  • What questions should I ask her to elicit the best responses (in terms of content)? Does anyone here know what aspects of spoken Ladino are well-documented and which could use more data? (I realize that second part is a bit of a longshot, but it couldn't hurt to ask -- the broad range of expertise on display here always surprises me.)
  • As noted in the Chabad article above, many Ladino speakers no longer have a great command of the language. My grandmother might well fall into this category; she spoke it at home growing up, but hasn't used it as her primary language for almost sixty years. That said, would a recording still be valuable?
  • Where exactly should I send it? Alison's comment, quoted above, says "the OLAC archive," but OLAC is a collection of separate archives. This gateway webpage exhorts anyone with data to sign up as an archive, but, with only one recording, shouldn't I be submitting it to a larger collection instead?
  • Am I somehow, in general, going about this all wrong?
I'm linguistically literate, but far from an expert, so advice from anyone with linguistics experience (particularly field lingustics) is especially appreciated. Thanks in advance for your input.
posted by decagon to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I'd google Ladino and .edu and see if there are any linguists that would be interested in helping you.

Here are a few places to start:

Varis, Erika
Phonology, Historical Linguistics, Sociolinguistics, SLA, Bilingualism, Ladino

And here is a program based in Israel, but they may be able to help you.

UPenn has a course, as does Tufts.
posted by k8t at 2:17 PM on February 26, 2010

Sarah Bunin Benor might be able to aim you to the right person as well. You can also check for linguistics programs near where your grandmother lives and look for faculty who do a lot of fieldwork -- they or a grad student might be able to help you out with this.
posted by jeather at 2:34 PM on February 26, 2010

Do it. Don't agonize about getting it perfect. It might be helpful, it might not but you don't necessarily have a long time window to do this and it is certainly not going to be unhelpful. Besides, it sounds like something she wants to do.
posted by chairface at 2:35 PM on February 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some scholars may be just as interested in her story as in her language, so why not do a general "life history" recording with perhaps some sections where she tells stories, signs songs, etc., in Ladino. (I suspect that songs, nursery rhymes, and the like are probably extremely valuable to scholars.) Storycorps has a nice "Great Questions" list that can help you get started.

As an aside, if your grandmother has any insights to offer into the fate of the Sephardi community during the Holocaust, let me know. We may be interested in the oral history for our collections at the Holocaust Museum.
posted by arco at 2:48 PM on February 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Coming from the point of view of oral history and family history (rather than linguistics) I would ask her about any stories or songs she knew as a child, food, religious and cultural practices (what were their Seders like when she was little? what about Sabbath observances?), and household life.

Also, when I've interviewed older family members, it has helped to do multiple, shorter sessions, rather than one marathon interview. The first session gets them started, then they (and you) have a break to rest and to ruminate on what you've already talked about. The downtime may allow them to remember something that they'll bring up at the next session, or for you to process a story and realize there's a detail you want clarified or expanded upon.

And whatever you use to record her voice, make sure you've got the technical kinks worked out before you get started with her. Once she's there and talking, the less fussing with the recording device, the better -- it distracts an interview subject and can make them self-conscious. Ideally she'll forget she's even being recorded and just talk to you naturally, while still being picked up by the microphone.
posted by katemonster at 3:00 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

What would be really great is to collect narratives, rather than elicitations (but do both if you can). Have her tell stories. It could be anything. From her trip to the store last week to what her childhood was like. These types of recordings allow linguists to see the full structure of the language, in context, rich with pragmatic nuances, discourse markers, cultural references, etc. And it will help people (and you) connect with her, and her people, long after Ladino is gone.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:05 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the recommendations regarding people to contact -- I meant to solicit recommendations for that in the original post. Thanks also for the suggestion of approaching it from an oral-history angle; she can talk lucidly about her family and childhood for hours on end.

chairface: We're absolutely going to make the recording. I just want to make sure it ends up being useful for future researchers. If it can't be, I'll just save it as a keepsake rather than submitting it somewhere it isn't needed.

arco: She grew up in the United States, and no longer had any living relatives across the Atlantic by the 1940s, so she doesn't have any Holocaust stories to offer. My other grandmother did, and I would have treasured the chance to hear oral history from her. But she never spoke much about her past, and she died when I was very young.
posted by decagon at 3:11 PM on February 26, 2010

I worked with a group that was recording one of the last speakers of the Mandan Indian language. The big thing that they were concerned about was the recording method.

Use No Compression. Can't stress this highly enough. Your recordings must be uncompressed. If you record to MP3 or whatever perceptual encoding scheme, you will lose phonetic information.

Get a compact flash or SD based recorder which records to uncompressed .WAV. In this way, linguistics people will be able to analyze the phonemes/spectral content of her voice, which is hugely valuable. I recommend the Marantz PDM620, we used the PDM660.
posted by fake at 3:14 PM on February 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

fake: I was planning to use my laptop; I have a low-noise USB interface and a good dynamic microphone. Would a compact recorder still be better?
posted by decagon at 3:22 PM on February 26, 2010

I'd definitely get in touch with a linguistics professor. This sort of thing is a gold mine for them. A professor might have a student looking for a thesis project who'd jump at the chance to study an endangered language 'live.' A linguist could systematically collect useful, interesting language 'data' from her in a way you might not think to.
posted by sunnichka at 3:53 PM on February 26, 2010

I did some volunteer work with an organization that recorded video and some audio of Holocaust survivors. Fake's advice is spot on. I'd add that audio is great, but video would be even better, especially video of her mouth/face (for pronunciation purposes). Our organization had an ongoing project that used volunteers to transcribe the video and audio interviews, so it would not be unreasonable to assume that some future academic or researcher might find an interest in your recordings. Structuring it as a broad interview with pre-planned questions might help frame the conversation and make it less rambling. Also putting together a brief CV of her life story would be helpful for those that want to use this later.

I think it's awesome of you to consider doing this, and I hope it is fruitful!
posted by mosk at 4:03 PM on February 26, 2010

I just want to make sure it ends up being useful for future researchers. If it can't be, I'll just save it as a keepsake rather than submitting it somewhere it isn't needed.

If it's a file of someone speaking a nearly dead language, it'll be useful to someone somehow, even in ways we cannot know now.
posted by Jon_Evil at 4:45 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

fake: I was planning to use my laptop; I have a low-noise USB interface and a good dynamic microphone. Would a compact recorder still be better?

Remember that laptop noise and mic handling noise can be an issue, and they can be troublesome/unreliable on site. It's also sweet to have in your pocket for impromptu/unplanned recordings, which are often the best. Our speaker read from a script, but his eyes were in tough shape so it was hard for him; when he'd speak normally I was so glad I just had the recorder running continuously.

I've found that people seem much more willing to speak to a little recorder than to a laptop rig, but aside from those two problems, you should be just fine with that hardware. You can set the sample rate high enough (44.1 or 48khz) and the bit depth 16 bits or higher (16 should be fine).

The recorders I mentioned hold their resale value well, consider the possibility buying them just for convenience/awesomeness of your project and then selling them when you're done recording.
posted by fake at 4:56 PM on February 26, 2010

I don't think the number of Ladino speakers ever came remotely close to the number of Yiddish speakers, but it still has the benefits of having a real literature of its own (many endangered languages don't) and fairly intensive documentation. So while I am no expert on what aspects of Ladino need to be better documented specifically, you can bet that it's in far better shape in terms of preservation than many other languages - there are grammars, dictionaries, detailed histories on how the language changed over time and all that. You don't need to worry too much about the basic linguistic questions, it's been largely taken care of.

Consequentally, what you should probably be doing is simply documenting as much personal lore as possible. Arco has it right; it would be great to preserve childhood songs and rhymes, funny anecdotes, nicknames and family stories that are of a personal enough nature to possibly be unique. If it were me, I'd just dream up about a million questions and ask her to reply to them in great detail in Ladino. Get it all on video too. Finding someone who will use this can be done later, but your grandmother could pass away tomorrow (though I hope not) and so hop on it!

I just read that there are only five Ladino speakers left in my hometown of Sarajevo. It's sad to see a culture disappear - we Sarajevans are mostly Muslim but very proud of our long-standing open society, and Ladino-speakers have lived there for centuries from the time they were welcomed when they were forced out of Iberia. (Sarajevo's most treasured display in our museum is one of the world's oldest Haggadahs, with an interesting story.) So I really wish you good luck on preserving your grandmother's story and culture.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:18 PM on February 26, 2010

Also, if you can find a copy of the indie documentary, The Linguists, you'll get a really good picture of what language documentation is all about, how it's done, and why it's so crucial to preserve as much of these dying cultures' heritage and language. It's such an excellent film; I can't recommend it enough.

(It used to be available online to watch for free, but alas, I can no longer find it. It's worth finding though.)
posted by iamkimiam at 6:41 PM on February 26, 2010

While field linguistics is a fairly complex field of study, it basically boils down to recording the following: you will say a word or sentence in English out loud, and she will repeat what you said translated into Ladino. That's it.

There are a couple of resources that you can use to help guide the kinds of things you should be asking her to say:

1. The Sawdesh List: This is a list of basic words that can be found in most languages. It's good for helping to determine phonemes. Its best to ask each word individually and then get a translation of the word in a sentence. This will give your word context. Don't be surprised if the word by itself is different from it in a sentence.

2. The Comrie-Smith Questionnaire: This list is a bit much for a non-linguist to wade through, but it's a good reference

3. Stories and more stories: This is more a suggestion than a resource, but one of the most useful resources for linguistic study are traditional stories. They're great for learning discourse markers and revealing a bit about the underlying culture. Just have her tell a story in her native language and then repeat the story as closely as possible in English. If it's longer than two minutes have her tell it in parts with English translations in between. If I recall correctly, there are some good ones in the Kyardild archive that will give you some ideas for content and length. You might even want to do this first to help your grandmother get warmed up.

OLAC is a very good source for learning how to apply metadata that will make your recordings more helpful to researchers. However, they prefer to have everything accompanied a text transcript. If you're not familiar with transcribing recordings in the IPA, don't bother. It's tough to get right without lots of training, so seek help, probably from an interested graduate student.

If you want to add something within another archive rather than on your own, the Rosetta Project and the Linguist List Archive are staffed by smart, helpful people. I would start with them.

And if none of those archives want your recordings do it anyway. You will still be doing a service to humankind and be preserving a little piece of our language history. It doesn't matter if there are already a dozen Ladino recordings; everyone is different and your recordings are bound to capture something special.

PM me if you want help getting started.
posted by Alison at 7:48 PM on February 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Another resource would be a fieldwork textbook. The one I've seen the most is Claire Bowern's Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide. I must have 2 disclosures here: 1. I know Claire personally/professionally (but gain nothing by recommending the book) 1. I've only flipped through it. That said, it is the textbook for the undergraduate field methods course in the Ling department at my University, and Claire is not a faculty member here.
posted by knile at 7:51 PM on February 26, 2010

Claire Bowern is indeed an expert on this; you might try contacting her and asking if she has any suggestions. Also, I'll post this on my blog and report any useful ideas here.
posted by languagehat at 10:08 AM on February 27, 2010

A useful comment from my site:
I second the "no compression" recommendation. PCM Wave (PC) or AIFF (Mac), 44.1 kHz, 16-bit sample is about right for speech. On Macs, one should be careful to distinguish between uncompressed AIFF and compressed AIFF-C. As for hardware, that's a different story. Basically any decent recorder that records uncompressed audio will do, but a separate microphone is a must. Some knowledgeable people swear by Audio-Technica's products, especially their less-expensive lapel mics.
posted by languagehat at 3:00 PM on February 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Two excellent comments by linguists from the LH thread (go there for more). From Claire Bowern:
To go back to the original topic (of decagon recording his grandmother), here are a couple of things to keep in mind other than the recording device.

. If decagon's grandmother hasn't spoken the language for a long time, asking for paradigms, translation, and that sort of thing is likely to be counterproductive. It's hard enough for fluent speakers. Rather, the first priority as part of making a documentation with someone who hasn't spoken the language for a long time is creating an environment where she's comfortable talking the language. Decagon's going to be better at that than an outsider.
. Does she have any friends who might be speakers? Getting several speakers together to talk can be very helpful in getting the linguistic juices flowing (Sally Thomason and Marianne Mithun have talked about this).
. Don't get discouraged! it might be hard for everyone initially. Don't worry if a lot of the early interview is in English (or whatever language you commonly use together) - you can start things going by asking for the Ladino words for things that come up in the interview, then building larger sentences and going from there.
. If she grew up speaking it, probably the easiest things to start with would be memories of growing up, describing her memories of the town she grew up in, and so on.
. OLAC unfortunately has terribly opaque documentation about how to become affiliated with them. Another option might be a university with a substantial Judaic studies program (here's a list pulled off google:
. I'd say you wouldn't need to do a lot of linguistics in advance, but do have a set of things in mind that you'd like to ask about, and asking for clarification for things you don't understand will also go a long way to documenting the recordings.
. Speaking of documenting the recordings, it's a good idea to keep a record of what you talk about, the date, who's there, and so on. (This is called 'metadata'.)
. Regarding documentation of Ladino, I don't know, but I'd suggest anything your grandmother wants to talk about will be worth recording.

Good luck! Sounds like a great project
Feel free to email me.
(I don't have a metafilter acct but I do read languagehat)
Posted by: Claire Bowern at February 28, 2010 06:35 PM
And from a French linguist:
I will add to Claire's excellent suggestions:

- Content: I absolutely agree that trying to elicit verb forms, etc, in an abstract manner is a turnoff for even a very fluent speaker (they want to actually speak, not recite grammatical forms). If in doubt about what to start with, one subject which is always good for starters is food! Everyone has a largish vocabulary connected with the topic, which is also sure to bring back memories of childhood, siblings, grandparents, etc. Asked for a word, the person might not remember, but the word might pop up in a sentence later if the person's mind if focused on a reminiscence which brings up the word naturally. For instance, the person might not remember how to say "to fry", but remembering her grandmother preparing some fried food or other might bring back the word without specific prompting.

- Asking someone to translate sentences can be a turnoff, and it can also lead to unnatural speech as the person will often strive to imitate what you have just said. It is better to describe a situation and say "what would you say in such a case?" or "How would you answer?" "What if you wanted to answer No?" etc.

- Let the tape run and record both you and your grandmother. Don't worry about a lot of English, as it will provide context without which you might not find your way on the tape later. Try to listen after each session. If you only record and don't listen for a long time, there will be a lot that you can't recognize afterwards. You don't have to transcribe everything right away (once you get past individual words and short sentences, it can take a lot of time), but the more you listen, the more you will eventually recognize. Also, if there are things you find impossible to recognize or transcribe, you can ask about them at the next session. But you don't want to be left with a whole bunch of untranscribed tapes and little idea of what is on them. This is especially true if you have more than one person - in a group there are always some interruptions, people starting to talk at the same time or too fast, laughter, etc which make understanding very difficult, especially long after the session.

Posted by: marie-lucie at February 28, 2010 10:37 PM
Good luck, and please let us know how it goes! (Or just e-mail me if the thread is closed by then.)
posted by languagehat at 7:22 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I saw my family briefly on Sunday and I got to talk to my grandma about the project. She told me a few stories about her childhood and sang me a bawdy song that she learned from her parents. (Unfortunately, my knowledge of Castilian Spanish isn't quite sufficient to understand Ladino, so, much to her embarrassment, she had to render it into vulgar English for me.)

Next time we see each other for a solid, uninterrupted block of time, I'll make the recording (or perhaps the first of several recordings). It'll be within the next few months for sure, so I'll be able to post an update in this thread. Thanks for the help, everyone!
posted by decagon at 1:50 PM on March 4, 2010

You should really get in touch with the World Oral Literature Project and try to contact Dr Mark Turin at Cambridge University.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:41 AM on March 15, 2010

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