Learning a Field Language as a Research Method

Next month I will complete 13 months of studying my field language. While I’ve been in the field studying this language, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about why I would choose to learn this language and what actual purpose it holds, since English is commonly and widely spoken in my fieldsite. For many anthropologists learning another language or at least using another language in addition to English in field work is commonplace. In this post I’ll expand on some of my experiences learning my field language- Marathi, in Pune, India and explain why language learning is also a method of research.

First of all, I’m very grateful for my opportunity to study Marathi, the regional language of Maharashtra, thanks to a year-long grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies. I am the only student this term and I study with two highly qualified Marathi teachers in Pune. I’ve highlighted the fact that for my research I will need this language to conduct interviews, understand Marathi lessons in schools, and to generally interact with a public, and they’ve tailored my course to meet these needs. In my research with school teachers and middle class families, I’ve found that I can usually converse with others to a comfortable degree in English, which, while I was at the beginning of my lessons, allowed me to speak more fluently and get more out of interviews than my Marathi did at the time. As a result, many of these individuals asked why I was learning Marathi.

In a city where a large number of individuals are trilingual, learning Marathi has had many advantages for my research. Because I am studying with teachers who are native Marathi speakers from Pune, I’ve been able to learn about society and how the language is used in an urban setting along with the intricacies of the language and grammar through my courses.

Studying a language with local teachers means getting to know nuances of the language and how it is used in real life. Just today one of my course readings mentioned at least four different words for the concept “to cut” and two different meanings for the word “cut” or kapne in Marathi. For example, kapne can be used to describe a tremble in hands or voice or to say “cut in large pieces.” But if you’re going to talk about cutting vegetables, you need to use the world chirne.  In addition to learning new vocabulary, the teacher guiding my reading lesson expressed to me the author’s sense of losing a rich Marathi vocabulary and how certain words and phrases are changing in the daily spoken language.

Similarly, as I’m learning a new language I want to use it as much as I can. But I learned quickly that the Marathi used in an urban setting includes a large amount of English and by trying to use Marathi as much as I could, I was actually hindering my communication because I was remaining unintelligible due to my vocabulary choices. My teachers later explained to me which words I had learned in a classroom setting should remain in the classroom. For example, the word building (imarat), glass (pela), and practice (sarao) are words I frequently used but was getting laughed at for using. I’ve since learned how to try and incorporate English into my Marathi as locals do.   

Additionally, through my course I’ve been put in contact with people who are helpful for my research. Our program does a great deal to cater our lessons to our research interests. I’ve had lectures and meetings facilitated through my classes with people who work on topics similar to mine who I have remained in contact with. Also through spending a long time studying this language in one program I’ve grown very fond of my teachers and have been able to spend time with them outside of the classroom to not only learn about their lives and families but also their views on my research topics. 

Learning my field language also grants me access to social circles. I am able to gain access to groups of people in different ways than how I would have interacted with these groups and individuals if I had not been learning their mother tongue. I’ve had some very pleasant rickshaw rides with talkative and friendly drivers, I am able to have friendly conversations with the fruit and vegetable vendors and shopkeepers, and I’m able to go fearlessly into largely Marathi speaking spaces and neighborhoods knowing that I can communicate and relate to those sharing the space with me. I’ve been invited to hang out and spend time in places where people will fluidly mix English and Marathi and my hosts know that I will not feel left out or confused, which puts all of us at ease and lets them off the hook for constantly translating for me. When some people I’ve met learn that I speak Marathi, I’ve seen a smile spread across faces and in that moment I know I’ve begun to forge a connection based on the fact that I’m making efforts to learn their language. Many people are happy but also confused that I’m working so hard to learn Marathi though I’m a guest in their country, especially when many in their country work hard to learn and use my native language which is seen as a language of power and access. Overall the people I meet are very friendly, interested, and often offer their help to me in my efforts at learning Marathi which is a great way to begin conversations and make connections and friends, especially when my research deals with language- a topic on which everyone has something to say.

On a more practical note, since my research will largely take place in social spaces where Marathi is spoken, I need to understand it for when I will do observations in my research. Since it’s something people in my field use, I therefore should also use it- even if many people insist that I could speak and interact in Pune just fine without it. Learning Marathi has completely changed how I interact in Pune in ways that deepen and enrich connections to my host community and my research. My research isn’t about only asking questions and getting answers; it’s about understanding and being able to analyze the interactions of others around me.


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