Language Learning and Language Competencies for Field Research in Eurasian Studies

June 15 – 16, 2023 | SRL 2023 Workshop

Co-moderators: Dr. Timothy K. Blauvelt (Ilia State University and American Councils) and Dr. Naira Sahakyan (The American University of Armenia and the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute)

Workshop Program

Registration is required:

In recent years there has been soul searching in ethnography about the challenges of “researching multilingually,” including calls for more reflection and openness about language learning and language competences for fieldwork. The anthropologist Axel Borchgrevink pointed out how the hegemonic “rules” of fieldwork as established by Bronislaw Malinowski – who supposedly “brought back . . . the secret of successful anthropological research” from the Trobriand Islands – create an often unattainable ideal by centering the mastery of vernacular languages during extended and immersive field research. The “mystique of fieldwork,” the “charter myth” and “central ritual of the tribe,” according to which local language fluency is the key to “getting on the inside” to understand the complex essence of other cultures – and also views translation assistance or interpretation as an abhorrent distortion – makes linguistic competence central to researchers’ professional reputation and personal authority. This results in a taboo on engaging in discussions about language acquisition and competencies, about what it actually means to “know” a language, about the use of translation, interpretation, and linguae francae in research, and about the ways in which research is often actually conducted in practice. Such questions are becoming even more relevant given recent developments in online language learning opportunities and advances in the capabilities of AI-assisted translation.

If anthropologists and ethnologists have been hesitant to bring up the challenges of language and research, in the other disciplines of Eurasian studies the discussion of such issues remains largely informal. Attitudes towards language and research surely differ by discipline, and in the other social sciences and some of the humanities there is even less of a tradition than in anthropology and ethnology of self-reflection about the actual practice of conducting field research. Political scientists in particular tend to prioritize other research skills over language study. Among historians there may or may not be a “charter myth” – as if Sheila Fitzpatrick, a la Malinowski, brought back the secret of archival research from Soviet Moscow – but here and in other disciplines there seems to be a similar “mystique of fieldwork” and a tendency to construe language ability as an element of scholarly competence and authority. It is notable that the discussions in the ethnography literature rarely touch on the role of language competence as a means to engage with the local scholarly community and academic contributions of the areas under study. Certainly nobody would deny that learning languages is a good thing or the benefit of language competence. Yet, as in ethnography, several key questions concerning language learning and competencies in field research in Eurasian studies are rarely addressed.

In this workshop the participants will be invited to explore a potential range of such questions: how to go about gaining language skills (especially for the less commonly taught languages); what level of proficiency is sufficient for which kinds of research; how might technology assist with research-related language challenges; what are the distortions of interpretation and translation (including machine-assisted translation) relative to distortions introduced by varying levels of language fluency; when and how is a lingua franca (especially Russian, the former imperial/colonial idiom of the Russian/Soviet empires) still useful for research; what are the trade-offs and inequities of opportunities involved in language acquisition; and many others. Such questions are perhaps now becoming more relevant than ever given recent calls to “de-center” the field and “decolonize the curriculum,” as well with current incentives to look more to the former imperial periphery for greater access to archives and other primary sources.

This workshop is a part of this year’s Summer Research Laboratory (SRL) in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hosted by the Russian East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC) and the Slavic Reference Service (SRS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For questions about the Summer Research Laboratory, funding, and information on other workshops, please see the main SRL page located here:

Suggested reading:

Borchgrevink, Axel, “Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters,” Ethnography, v. 4, n. 1 (2003): 95-121.

Burton, Sarah, “Becoming a Multilingual Researcher in Contemporary Academic Culture: Experiential Stories of (Not) learning and Using Languages,” in Robert  Gibb, Annabel Tremlett and Julien Danero Iglesias, eds. Learning and Using Languages in Ethnographic Research (Bristol, Blue Rudge Summit: Multilingual Matters, 2019), pp. 207-220.

Gibb, Robert and Julien Danero Iglesias, “Breaking the silence (again): on language learning and levels of fluency in ethnographic research,” The Sociological Review, v. 45, n. 1 (2017): 134:149.