I am a linguist who works on speech production (how people talk) and speech perception (how people listen). In October 2019 I was invited to talk at a ‘Linguistics in The Pub’ event in Melbourne, Australia (where I am from). The topic was Engaging young people in linguistic research and documentation, something I am involved in but not as my main activity. I had some ideas about what worked and didn’t work for me, in the Australian context, but I decided to do an informal survey with researchers around the world who were kind enough to offer their opinions on this topic. I received numerous responses, especially relating to research and documentation outcomes, as well as advice surrounding school and technology in particular.

I am sharing these ideas with you, and there are also references further below – one from each of the contributors to my survey.

The main points that came across were:

Be sensitive to the audience.

Be flexible and engaged yourself to get the best out of the people you want to work with.

Take into account their age and their situation.

The following sections, more specifically describing “what works” and “what doesn’t work”, are of course tendencies and may not be suitable in all contexts.

What works

Be authentic and show who you are



Involving young people in the research design

Let them know that you know that they have knowledge

Establishing contact before experiments / recording

Be involved in activities they like, where feasible

Be involved in “their world” – engage with what interests them

Offer a range of options for participation, and a range of options for dissemination (go beyond academic articles – for example visual media, artworks, etc).

Be trustworthy

For some young people – school (you can find them there, can tie into literacy)

What doesn’t work

For some young people – school. Marginalised youth will tend not to engage with institutions for example.

Acting like their parents

In language documentation situations, don’t do what someone can do themselves. Sit back and let them do it!

Not pitching activities appropriately

In the middle

Sometimes it is important to gauge responses from elders and the wider community. This depends on the cultural context.

View an example of collaborative work I have done. There are some beautiful posters made with young people who produced most of the artwork, as well as collaboration with elders and some other adults who worked with us on the language.

My thanks to the people listed below (mostly, but not solely, linguists) for answering questions about working with young people and helping me make the above recommendations. There are a few references listed that will give an insight into their work – this is by no means exhaustive.

John Mansfield (Murinpatha youth)

University of Melbourne

Mansifeld, J. (2018). ‘Murinpatha personhood, other humans and contemporary youth’. In D. Austin-Broos & F. Merlan (Eds.) People and Change in Indigenous Australia. 117-129. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Felicity Meakins (Gurindji Kriol)

University of Queensland

Meakins, F. (2011) Case-marking in contact: The development and function of case morphology in Gurindji Kriol. John Benjamins.

Carmel O’Shannesy (Light Warlpiri) ANU

O’Shannessy, C. (2005). Light Warlpiri: A new language. Australian Journal of Linguistics. 25 (1): 31-57.

Ake Nicholls (Cook Islands Maori)

Massey University Auckland

Lingthusiasm Pop culture in Cook islands Maori – Interview with Ake Nichols (episode number 31)

(many associated references and resources available via podcast – highly recommended)

Catalina Torres Orjuela (Drehu youth)

University of Melbourne – see her publications at https://unimelb.academia.edu/CatalinaTorres

Penelope Eckert (Jocks and Burnouts in

Stanford University

Eckert, P. (1989) Jocks and Burnouts: social categories and identites in the high school. New York, NY, US: Teachers College Press.

Hanane Sarnou (Algerian youth)

Abdelhamin Inbadis University, Algeria

Sarnou, H. (2015). ‘ICTs use on linguistic change and identity’ Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences. 195: 850-855.

Nicoleta Bateman (Language article about middle school collaboration)

California State University San Marcos

Bateman, N. (2019). ‘Linguistics in middle school: incorporating linguistics into project-based learning’. Language. 95 (2): e300-e326.

Katie Drager (sociophonetics, NZ girls’ high school)

University of Hawai’i, Manoa

Drager, Katie (2015) Linguistic Variation, Identity Construction and Cognition. Berlin: Language Science Press. Open access – highly recommended!!

Dawn Mannay

Cardiff University, Wales

Mannay, D. (2016) “To understand what young people think, speak their language” The Conversation. Sept 7. (article 63556) http://theconversation.com/to-understand-what-young-people-think-speak-their-language-63556

Some other references

Linguistics Roadshow (online resources / survey) produced by the 2015 Linguistics Roadshow team (Katie Jepson, Jill Vaughan and Rosey Billington, mapping help from Lauren Gawne). https://lingroadshow.com;


McCulloch, G. & L. Gawne Lingthusiasm “Kids these days aren’t ruining language” (episode number 7).

Mendoza-Denton, N. (2008). Homegirls: Language and cultural practice among Latina youth gangs. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Debbie Loakes

University of Melbourne