Language Learning and Ethnographic Fieldwork

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course

Description of Activity

Inarticulateness in the field: The ethnographer’s linguistic incompetence as key to listening in a new way.

I have conducted ethnographic research in Hungary from 2004-5 and then again in 2013, always in Hungarian (without an interpreter) which I starting learning from 2000. During my fieldwork I have always reflected on what I can understand and how I interpret my findings. A big part of that reflection is concerned with what I can claim to know. As a researcher on local identities, including Roma minority identities, I have always been very aware of the dangers of essentialising ‘the Gypsies’ and do not want my empirical research to contribute to misrepresentations.
The experience of language and communication have been central to what I can claim to know, and I have written about the way I learnt Hungarian and the challenges I faced. I have argued that being aware of my status as ‘less-than-fluent’ in Hungarian has made me more critical and reflexive, which has not only led me to certain choices in methods, but also has influenced the way I present my findings to academic and other audiences (Tremlett 2009).

In this paper I move my reflection to look at specific moments of misunderstanding or inarticulateness through my fieldnotes and recorded interactions. As Rampton has noted, many researchers centre their analysis positively on the different communicative strategies that people use to “accomplish understanding” (2013: 3). However, what we need to look hard for and think about is not what is said, but what is left unsaid. Rampton draws on McDermott’s account of ‘inarticulateness’, in which moments others would consider a breakdown in communication may actually lead to ‘breakthroughs’ in which “words flow, new things are said, and the world is temporarily altered” (McDermott 1988: 40, quoted in Rampton 2013: 3). Both Rampton and McDermott analyse inarticulate moments that occur amongst their participants. In this paper, I move the focus to myself as the ethnographer, asking what my inarticulate moments in my fieldwork reveal about my relationship to the people and places involved in my research. Through in-depth analysis of moments of breakdowns in communication, I ask what can be learnt about ethnographic claims of knowing in fieldwork.
Period11 Apr 201612 Apr 2017
Event typeWorkshop
LocationGlasgow, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Language learning
  • Second Language Acquisition
  • Ethnography
  • listening skills
  • translating cultures
  • multilingualism
  • Roma
  • Hungarian
  • Gypsy