Elicitation tips

These “tips” are some thoughts on one-on-one elicitation based on my experiences, and with input from my primary Scottish Gaelic consultant. Many thanks to her! One could write a whole book (for example) about how to describe and document languages; the tips here are merely meant to be thinking points for those starting out or revisiting their practices. – Dr. Schreiner

1. Be prepared.

Always approach an elicitation session with a plan. When you are starting out, you will need a more detailed plan than you may later on. You will probably get through a lot less material than you think you might be able to each session–this is to be expected. But it’s always better to have extra material planned than not enough.

You will figure out what kind of plan works best for you–do you do best if you write out each incarnation of a particular stimulus (sound, word, inflection pattern, sentence, etc.)? Or do you work better with an outline of your basic goals for the elicitation with a few examples that you will expand upon? Again, it’s best to aim for more detail than less at the beginning.

Even though you will have a (slightly, somewhat, relatively, or very) detailed plan, don’t let it restrict you if the elicitation session needs to go in another direction. If you have prepared beforehand, you will have in mind the directions that you’re interested in going, so that if your consultant gets “off track,” (see “Adapt” below for what this really means) you can make the most of it.

And remember, it’s your job to figure out how the language works (whichever sub-part of it you are working on). If the speaker gives you two different sentences and says they mean the same thing, don’t ask “why?” or “what’s the difference between the two?” Instead, you need to figure out how to get at this information indirectly. This takes some practice.

2. Adapt.

With my consultant, the best way to elicit anything (words, sentences, stories) ended up being a process involving a story. The story might be very short or rather long, depending on how complex the construction I have in mind. This may or may not work for your consultant; the key is to listen and adapt.

Your consultant may prefer sentence continuation, telling their own stories, a fill-in-the-blanks strategy, or something else. Adapting also comes into play when you run into a word your speaker does not know. If you are interested in a particular construction and not the word itself, be ready to provide a synonym for your speaker.

You may also run into taboo words, topics, or other things that your consultant is uncomfortable discussing. Be ready to find another word, topic, or approach.

Here is an example of the kind of story-telling I do. (I used this particular one when asking for a sentence over email.) I was looking for a very specific construction, and wanted to make sure I got the correct interpretation of the English. (If you’re interested, I was interested in stage-level vs. individual-level predicates; Gaelic has both a copula and a verb ‘to be’ which are used differently in the different predicates. So I wanted to make sure I was conveying the interpretation that I wanted.)

So, I have a friend named Lachy. He is a farmer now, but he didn’t start out that way. When he was young, he wanted to be a doctor. So he went away to medical school and learned all the stuff and did his residency, but as things went along he liked it less and less. He finally finished all his training and got a job at a big hospital, but he only lasted there a week before he got fed up and left. One day I’m trying to set up my friend with Lachy, who is now a successful and happy farmer. She says, “What does he do for a living?” I say, “Well, he was a doctor for a week, but now he is a farmer.”How would I say, “Well, he was a doctor for a week, but now he is a farmer.”? If you can think of more than one way, you can give me all of them.

Sometimes (or often) during a session, your consultant may want to talk about something other than the exact sound/word/pattern/sentence that you’re trying to get at. Maybe they’ve been reminded of a story that someone once told them, or maybe they’ll remember a related word, or maybe they just can’t make sense of the particular type of sounds/words/patterns/sentences that you’ve been working on anymore. Don’t let this kind of lateral movement make you feel like you’re getting off track–lateral movement is still movement. Maybe your consultant gives you a sentence construction that you aren’t looking for at the moment. Don’t fret, and certainly don’t ignore it. If it’s merely a side note, record it and move on; if your consultant is excited about it, go with it. You’ll get much better data if the speaker is enthusiastic and engaged. Even if you don’t think you can use the data now, you (or at the very least, someone) will be able to use it later.

The moral is, stay on your toes and pay attention to the needs of your speaker. If one approach isn’t working, try something else. Don’t keep trying the same thing (the same sentence, the same word, the same approach) and expect a different result.

3. Be patient.

Have you ever had someone ask you the name of an actor in a famous movie, or the intersection for a restaurant you’ve only been to a couple times? It might be right on the tip of your tongue–you might be just about to get it out–but if they interrupt you, poof! There goes the name. If they had just been patient, they would have the information they wanted. The same principle applies during elicitation (except it’s even more important). Once you’ve asked your speaker a question, or given them a sentence to complete, or what have you, be patient. Sit quietly while your speaker thinks. If he or she asks you for more information, by all means answer–but until then (or some other appropriate time–use your judgment), keep quiet and let her or him think.

In the same vein, do not rush your speaker (or yourself, for that matter). Take some time at the beginning and end of the session to socialize, if appropriate, or at least to make sure that everyone is comfortable and ready. If you are on friendly terms with your consultant and it is appropriate, chatting (either in the contact language or the target language) can be very useful for helping the speaker feel comfortable and at ease.

4. Keep the speaker (and yourself) comfortable and happy.

No one thinks well when they are uncomfortable–physically, mentally, or otherwise. If your consultant is coming to your space, take the time to make sure it is as comfortable as possible (this will mean different things depending on whether you are working in an air-conditioned office, in the field, etc.); that you and your consultant have access to water, etc., if appropriate; etc.

When it comes to mental comfort, keep in mind that your consultant is (a) almost certainly not a linguist; (b) probably not familiar with grammatical terms (even the ones you think are “simple”); (c) possibly uncomfortable making decisions about what is “right” in their language; (d) possibly uncomfortable producing marginally grammatical (or pragmatically odd, or socially odd) sentences; (e) possibly nervous about how they sound/come off/appear to you; (f) possibly nervous about the whole process. Given this, it is nearly always helpful to explain the basics of any part of the process as it happens (or before it happens). For example: explain how the digital recorder works; show how the speaker can stop it if they need to (if appropriate). Explain (in very general terms) what kind of sounds/words/sentences you are interested in.

If you can, and if appropriate, use authentic people/place names. This will help your consultant get into/stay in the mode of the target language.

Finally, know when to stop. It’s tempting to keep an elicitation session going for too long, especially when you’re getting a lot of interesting data. But remember, your consultant is above all a person, not a data-generator, and people get tired. If the speaker is tired, the data will suffer, and the speaker may be less inclined to participate in the future. Make sure you’re not too tired, either–if you are, you may miss important signals from your consultant.