Linguists estimate that there are around 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. And in only about 10 percent of them did someone go to the trouble of writing down grammar rules and extensive lists of vocabulary. According to the Ethnologue database, 82 percent of languages are spoken by communities with fewer than 100,000 members, while 40 percent even have fewer than 10,000 speakers.
Nick Enfield knows only too well what it means to study languages like Kri, which is spoken by only 300 people living in a remote part of Southeast Asia. Enfield’s office contains photos of colorfully dressed speakers of the language to remind him of the annual “field season,” the time when he leaves the Netherlands to spend a few weeks in the foreign culture. Early on, he was surprised by the distinct hierarchies that manifested themselves in each apparently insignificant exchange of banter: the senior person sat virtually enthroned above whoever the dialog partner was – even if it meant that the latter had to literally kneel out in the street.
The scientists follow the everyday lives of the people in Asia or Africa with a video camera. Who initiates a conversation, where are they looking when they do so, how and when does the other person respond? “You can’t avoid becoming a part of the foreign society when you do this,” explains Enfield. “After all, we live among the people we study, we eat with them, we join in their celebrations.” Test conditions of this kind are a nightmare for psychologists, he says, because they are difficult to control. Since everything is happening in real time, a situation can never be repeated exactly.
The researchers eventually get back to their desks with hundreds of hours of video recordings. That’s when the most time-consuming part of the work begins. Like zoologists who return home from an excursion and need to examine under the microscope the legs of the beetles they collected and measure them down to the last millimeter, the psycholinguists transform their video recordings into annotated records, transcribing everything precisely, right down to the last millisecond. Those who refer back to their notes are amazed at how incomplete the sentences in a conversation usually are. The researchers do not skip a single pause or a single stammer, but this degree of meticulousness takes time: the accurate transcription of one minute of video recordings takes about two hours.
Sometimes Enfield feels like a deepsea researcher discovering a strange world of exotic species: creatures that look totally different than anything they have seen before but that, like all organisms, nevertheless pursue the objective of surviving and reproducing. It’s similar with the languages of the world, says Enfield. Structural similarities between a Western European language and Kri will be hard to find, but in the highly industrialized West as in the Asian jungle, the respective language serves to organize interhuman activities.
If, however, the quest is to exchange factual information and nothing else, the spoken language, at least, is not always necessary, comments Enfield. The scientist knows this from his own experience of visiting a foreign country for the first time and having to come to grips with the new language before anything else. “It’s always challenging, but it’s fun,” he says. “You know you’ll make progress just as soon as you invest some time in it.”