A fieldwork linguist’s guide to COVID-19

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The COVID-19 outbreak took us all by surprise, even though the first case was reported on December 31st in the city of Wuhan in China. By March 25th, 2020, more than 416 916 cases of COVID-19 were reported worldwide in more than 150 countries. This means that essentially every country in the world is now affected by this pandemic.

This caused a massive disruption in almost every imaginable sector including education. Over 160 countries have implemented nationwide closures of academic institutions, impacting over 87% of the world’s student population. Colleges, universities and research centers worldwide are struggling to adapt to this new reality by moving their activities completely online when this is viable option.

Besides this immediate disruption, COVID-19 will have consequences in the long run as well. One of those consequences is how we, as fieldwork linguists, are going to be able to carry out fieldwork from now on.

Fieldwork linguists collect primary data on language facts/practices from speakers/informants/collaborators in a relatively natural setting. This means that a fieldwork linguists interact with individuals within a community or group of people. Sometimes it is within their own community, but most often fieldwork linguists travel from other countries/areas to the fieldsite.

For language documenters like me, the fieldsite is a rural community where a critically endangered language is spoken. In the world, there are approximately 577 critically endangered languages, making up almost 10% of the world’s 6,000+ languages (Moseley, 2010). These languages are only spoken by a few elders (Rangel, 2019). I will address this further in a future post.

As we have seen over the last weeks, travel contributed significantly to the spread of COVID-19. This directly concerns fieldwork linguists, since travelling is fundamental for our work. As such, we need to start thinking about guidelines to minimize the risks for us and for the communities we travel to, especially when these communities are marginalized and with limited access to healthcare, as is often the case of critically endangered language communities (Rangel, 2019).

Here are some preliminary guidelines I have been thinking about for fieldwork linguists in the context of COVID-19.

For fieldwork linguists


  1. Avoid travelling at all during the peak crisis. We all agree that lives matters more than data. 
  2. Once the peak of the crisis is over, fieldwork linguists should be vaccinated for COVID-19 (when vaccines are available) before going to the fieldsite.
  3. Budget for 15 days of quarantine when travelling to the fieldsite and another 15 days when returning. These 30 days of quarantine should be part of every fieldwork planning.
  4. If soap is not readily available in your fieldsite, consider bringing your own soap and/or antibacterial gel.

During fieldwork

  1. Once the peak of the crisis is over, a mandatory quarantine of 15 days after immediate travelling should be observed before being in contact with any community member. As has being documented, someone could develop symptoms within 14 days of being exposed to COVID-19
  2. Alternative to 1. Purchase a personal Corona-test and make sure you are tested negative the day before entering the community ( Magnus Pharao’s proposition).
  3. You should continue with the preventive measures such as regularly washing your hands, not touching your face, and keeping a safe distance from the people you interact with within the community.
  4. Prioritize working with speakers/collaborators/informants in 1-to-1 settings, avoiding large groups whenever possible.
  5. If recording devices or materials are shared by multiple collaborators, properly disinfect them between each use.
  6. Avoid going to the fieldsite at all if you are sick. This seems like a common sense point, but you would be amazed by the stories I’ve heard about fieldworkers going to the fieldsite burning up with a fever (not cool)!


  1. Quarantine for 15 days before coming back to the school/university/research center, especially when coming back from a high risk zone. 
  2. Alternative to 1. Purchase a personal Corona-test and make sure you are tested negative the day before coming back to the  school/university/research (based on Magnus Pharao’s idea).
  3. Avoid coming back to the school/university/research center at all if you are sick.

For communities

  1. If a fieldworker comes from a zone of risk, make sure he/she observes the 15 days of quarantine before being in direct contact with community members.
  2. Continue with the preventive measures such as regularly washing your hands, not touching your face, and keeping a safe distance from the fieldworker.

For universities and research centers

  1. Ban any field work-related travel during the peak crisis.
  2. Once the peak of the crisis is over, COVID-19 vaccinations (once available) should be mandatory to any field worker before departure.
  3. A mandatory 15 days outbound (before going to the fieldsite) and 15 days inbound (before returning to the university/research center) quarantaine should be observed by the fieldworker. 
  4. Alternative to 3. Fieldworker should be tested negative for COVID-19 the day before coming back to the school/university/research.
  5. Be flexible enough with the absence of field workers as, on top of the actual time of fieldwork, they will have to add another 30 days of quarantaine total.

These are just some general and preliminary guidelines focusing on fieldwork linguists, and I’m sure I’m missing some. So feel free to reach out if you want to include any others, whether for linguists or field workers from other domains. I will update this post accordingly.


Moseley, C. (2010). UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Online version: http://www.unesco.org/culture/en/ endangeredlanguages/atlas

Rangel, J. (2019). Variations linguistiques et langue en danger. Le cas du numte oote ou zoque ayapaneco dans l’´etat de Tabasco, Mexique. Thèese de doctorat, INALCO.

Citar este post
Jhonnatan Rangel (2020, 26 marzo). A fieldwork linguist’s guide to COVID-19. Where's the last speaker? Recuperado 18 de mayo de 2024, de https://doi.org/10.58079/vaqe

Jhonnatan Rangel

Postdoc at the INALCO-SeDyL in Paris, my research focuses on the documentation, description and revitalization of critically endangered languages. Postdoctorant à l’Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO) et SeDyL (CNRS), je m'intéresse à la documentation, description et revitalisation du zoque ayapaneco, une langue sérieusement en danger parlée au Mexique.

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  1. 14/04/2020

    […] Desde México/Francia, Jhonnatan Rangel comparte algunas reflexiones sobre el trabajo de campo en tiempos de COVID-19. […]

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