Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Linguistic anthropologists and language activists face a dilemma when it comes to studying multilingual indigenous communities. What language should they choose when speaking with research participants and community members? This decision matters. In many cases, the language that a researcher chooses to open an interaction will determine how they are perceived, as well as the response. A greeting, question, or claim made in one language is likely to be answered in that language. Given that such decisions will, inevitably, shape the analysis and documentation of indigenous languages, we need to better understand their influence. In this paper, I suggest a way forward. I argue that researchers should embrace the so-called “observer’s paradox” that accompanies language choice in multilingual indigenous communities. Doing so requires acknowledging that a researcher’s identity, speech, and affordances will shape their impressions of a particular linguistic environment. Only by foregrounding these considerations, I argue, can we begin to develop new approaches and research strategies. I begin to explore these strategies drawing on my experiences as a native bilingual anthropologist studying language mixing among my own “natives” – the Sakha people. In particular, I examine the extent to which my positionality shaped ethnographic data that I collected during yearlong fieldwork in Yakutsk, Russia’s Far East. By varying my choices of language when interacting with participants, and by appreciating how these variations can affect the outcome of an interaction, I show how researchers can leverage the observer’s paradox to gain deeper insight into the linguistic practices of indigenous communities.