Find a Good Storyteller

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People vary in their ability to speak their own language, be expressive, and tell a good story. They also differ in their capacity to understand how they can help you. When you know the features that characterize good language assistants and storytellers and how to identify them in a person, you will be better able to find the person who will give you the best text possible.

Characteristics of Good Storytellers

  • Is respected in the community – though no one may recognize the person's voice in the recording, his or her identity will often become known during the selection and recording process. If the storyteller has a good standing, it may give the testing process and your research more credibility, interest, and cooperation.
  • Has been judged as a representative speaker – sometimes people in the community feel that a person doesn't quite speak the local lect the way they feel it is generally spoken. If there are idiosyncrasies in a person's speech, then it is best not to elicit a test text from that person.
  • Is not missing many teeth – it sounds like a joke, but teeth play an important role in pronunciation. If you select someone without teeth you have introduced a predictable source of error to the test. You won't know if people failed to understand the story because the lect was different or because they couldn't make out what the speaker was saying.
  • Speaks distinctly – it's possible for someone to speak his or her language well but indistinctly. The clearer the speaker's voice, the more readily a test subject will recognize speech forms that are the same as or similar to his or her own.
  • Is from the area – people often move from one area to another, and you want to be sure that the storyteller is actually from the place where the test lect is spoken.
  • Lived in the area nearly all of his or her life – some people spend large amounts of their life in another place for employment or other reasons. When this happens, it's possible that speaking another language, perhaps a related one, has influenced the way this person speaks.
  • Has parents from the area – it's possible that one or both parents are not mother tongue speakers of the test lect, and that their other languages have influenced the speech of the person you are considering.
  • Is considered a good storyteller – successful storytelling depends in part on holding interest and evoking a response, two activities that will help improve your recorded text test. A person who is interested in the story is more likely to remember the details that will be questioned. If a text evokes a response, it often provides an indication of understanding equal to the correct answer to a question.
  • Someone who understands what you need – when you find a person who quickly grasps the nature and purpose of the text you want, you will probably shorten the time it takes to elicit a text and improve its quality.

Examples from the Field

  • Making an initial sociolinguistic or anthropological assessment of the locale may help you eliminate the need to screen people individually. For example, during one survey in Ethiopia the researchers discovered that married women came from other areas and each spoke a variety different from the one being surveyed. As a result, only an unmarried woman could have provided a useful text.
  • This technique was used in Togo and Benin:
"We explained to the chief / major / village secretary the kind of story and storyteller we were looking for and asked him to gather a small group of good storytellers and explain to them the kind of story we were looking for. Once they were gathered, the team explained to them the kind of story we were looking for and then asked everyone to give a brief summary of the story they'd like to tell. Based on their summaries and further based on the requirements regarding the characteristics of a good storyteller, we chose two or three of the gathered story tellers and had them tell their story. Our translator gave brief summaries of each story and then we chose two stories: a longer one as the actual text test and a shorter one as the practice story.
This approach has two advantages: (1) we can be pretty sure that only well respected people who speak the language well and are from the area are chosen as potential story tellers; (2) the storyteller has a natural audience for telling his story which most likely increases the naturalness of his speech during the recording."