Learning Inuktitut, Gutob or Lunda to help your research

‘Language is the key to a culture’

Sometimes, the only way to do your work as a researcher is to learn a language that almost no one speaks. Without the help of textbooks or DuoLingo. ‘I have to be able to understand what’s going on without getting in people’s way.’
13 April om 16:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 April 2021
om 11:22 uur.
April 13 at 16:32 PM.
Last modified on April 16, 2021
at 11:22 AM.
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Door Yelena Kilina

13 April om 16:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 April 2021
om 11:22 uur.
Avatar photo

By Yelena Kilina

April 13 at 16:32 PM.
Last modified on April 16, 2021
at 11:22 AM.
Avatar photo

Yelena Kilina

International editor Volledig bio International editor Full bio

The rocky beach of the small Arctic island of Uglit looked tranquil under the midnight sun. Ethnoarchaeology postdoc Sean Desjardins spotted geese nesting here and there, but there were no walruses in sight. Yet he was sure it was the right site to dig in the permafrost for walrus remains. ‘Just the fact that it’s called Uglit, which means ‘a place where walruses come out of the water’, signaled to me that people used to hunt for walruses here in the past.’ 

Digging centimetre by centimetre around ancient sod houses and rubbish pits, Desjardins proved himself right. ‘We recovered tons of walrus remains we could use to study the archaeological culture history of the Arctic.’

Desjardins was only able to identify the right place to dig because he knew some basic Inuktitut, a minority language spoken by Inuit. Only thirty thousand people in Northern Canada still speak it and their number is declining fast. The language is extremely complex, but there are hardly any opportunities to learn it in a systematic way. ‘There is no Duolingo or Rosetta Stone for Inuktitut’, Desjardins says.

Hunting with the Inuit

He took a basic introductory course offered by a non-Inuit teacher in Quebec, but that didn’t help much. He read some textbooks produced by the Nunavut Arctic College, but those weren’t very useful either. The only way to master the language is spending a lot of time in the area with the Inuit hunters, he says.

The language is key to a culture

‘When we went out hunting, someone would point to the water and say atii. By the way other Inuit reacted to the word, I started to realise it meant “Let’s go there”. I was back in the position of being a child and having to piece things together from context.’

Word for word, Desjardins compiled his very own dictionary with terms and phrases relevant to his research: from hunting techniques (natsiqsiuriaqtuq for ‘seal hunting’) and animals (tuktu for ‘caribou’), to words for family members and household items. 

Knowing key words in Inuktitut helps Desjardins to observe and document hunting practices in a less intrusive way, he says. ‘When on a hunt, people are really focused on what they’re doing and their adrenalin is up. I have to be able to understand what is going on without getting in their way.’ 

Three languages

‘The language is the key to a culture’, agrees anthropologist Peter Berger. If you’re a researcher working in a remote area, you’ll often have to put in extra effort to really understand the environment you’re researching. Berger spent years in Odisha, Eastern India, to study the religion and rituals of a small ethnic group called the Senior Gadaba. To be able to talk to them, he ended up learning three languages from two language families. 

The first was Odia, the official language of Odisha, which he learned in order to prepare for the fieldwork. But when he arrived in the region, he found that while the locals could understand him, he couldn’t understand what they were saying. The Senior Gadaba people didn’t speak the state language of Odia, but its dialect, called Desia.

In addition, they also speak their own language, Gutob, which belongs to a different, Austroasiatic language family. ‘Linguistic diversity is a challenge for anthropologists in the region’, says Berger. Eventually, he decided to focus on Desia, ‘because it’s the regional lingua franca’, although he managed to pick up Gutob as well. 

Local point of view

Like Desjardins, Berger had to learn the oral languages by immersing himself in the community and pointing to things. It was a lot of work, but he has no regrets. He simply couldn’t have conducted his research without speaking Desia and Gutob. ‘As an anthropologist, I’m interested in local people’s ideas. You don’t get the local point of view without speaking the language.’

What Berger especially likes about Desia is that you can form a complete sentence and even tell a story just by combining different verbs. It shows that the language is focused on doing, just as their religion is, he says. When the Senior Gadaba talk about their gods, they introduce them by explaining what food the gods eat. ‘The sacrificial food epitomises their society.’

Gaining trust

But learning a language doesn’t just have practical benefits. It’s also vital for gaining the trust of the people you work with, as assistant history professor Iva Pesa found.

She had to conduct interviews in one of the minority languages of Zambia, Lunda. But she only really learned something of use once she stayed in the district of Mwinilunga for a couple of months and lived with people who barely spoke any English. Speaking their language made interviewees open up to Pesa more easily. ‘They showed trust towards me.’ 

It was also very useful for her research to know what people were talking about, rather than having to rely on interpreters. ‘Asking follow-up questions went much more smoothly than if I had been forced to use a translator’, she explains.

Participants, not subjects

For Matt Coler, associate professor of language and technology, speaking the minority language of the South American Aymara people helped him to break down the barrier of being an outsider. It also changed the whole research dynamic, he says. ‘Instead of being subjects of the research, the locals became participants, helping me learn and document their language more fully.’

Even though Aymara is not really an endangered language – it’s spoken by 1.5 million people – it is increasingly losing ground to Spanish, and many local varieties are at risk of extinction. That’s why Coler wanted to document the variety spoken in the remote Andean village of Muylaque, Peru.

Instead of asking locals to translate from Spanish, he tried to do his research in Aymara. With his recorder on, Coler would ask an elder: ‘Can you tell me the story about what life was like in the past?’ This way, he collected more genuine and complex data to analyse. ‘Letting the speakers decide what to tell me, especially when I could ask them in Aymara, even with my thick American accent, made me more approachable and the research more impactful.’


After four years spent in Peru, Coler mastered the language well enough to complete his dissertation and, five years later, write a book, A Grammar of Muylaq’ Aymara: Aymara as Spoken in Southern Peru. But he wants his findings to also impact the community where he worked. To that end, he’s now working with the Aymara community to publish a children’s story book, to give the data he collected back to the locals.

Not promoting a language is also a way to let it die

Desjardins also wants his Inuit research partners to be able to read the results. He is now co-editing a special issue of the Études/Inuit/Studies journal in which articles will be published in the Inuktitut dialects. ‘I believe this might be the first time we’re publishing full articles, not just abstracts, in the Arctic languages, so they can enter academia.’ 

It may not be their goal, but when researchers learn the languages of the people they study and publish about them, it gives those languages some prestige. And that is a part of what they need to survive, says assistant professor of language and society Aurélie Joubert, because it’s easier to protect a language when it’s officially recognised. ‘The position of a minority language is more a question of power rather than the number of speakers.’ 

As a French speaker with a command of Spanish and Italian, Joubert was always interested in how closely related those Romance languages are. But when her professor mentioned that there are more Romance languages in her home country of France, she wondered why she didn’t know about that. ‘I felt I was lacking education about my own country.’ And so she started studying minority languages that are in decline.  

Today, she not only studies Occitan as an endangered language in the south of France, but also enjoys speaking it. ‘Not promoting a language is also a way to let it die. So I practise what I preach, in a way.’