Field Trips

Find out about our adventure and stories from LingDig field trips!
Estonia (November 2021)

The first (hopefully of many) LingDig field trip took place in early November 2021. Our destination was Estonia – a multilingual country where the balance between different languages can differ not only from region to region but even among the districts of one city.  Besides, amidst the pandemic, it seemed like a relatively safe option, epidemiologically speaking. The team consisted of two organizers, Ksenia Shagal and Mari Saraheimo, and seven students representing different Master’s programmes at the University of Helsinki. Our base camp was in Tallinn, but over the course of one week we also managed to spend some time in Tartu, Narva, and Narva-Jõesuu. The research topics explored by the team members included sociolinguistics, linguistic landscapes, grammar of Estonian, Southern Estonian, and Erzya, as well as phonetics of the Russian language spoken in Estonia. Altogether, we interviewed around 80 people in six different languages (Estonian, English, Finnish, Russian, Southern Estonian, and Erzya), which resulted in hours of records, pages of notes, and, most importantly, invaluable experience that cannot be measured.

by Suvi Vuorinen and Vili Salmi

We arrived in Tallinn in the evening of Sunday the 31st of October and headed straight to the hotel. Next morning, on Monday the 1st of November, we got together and headed to the city. We divided into small groups and took photos concerning linguistic landscapes in Tallinn together with Kapitolina Fedorova, the Professor of Russian Studies at Tallinn University.

After strolling around the city, most of us gathered to a café and shared our material and views about it.

There were interviews already during Monday. While other people met different kind of informants in a café, one student from Finno-Ugric studies went to meet an Erzyan from Eesti-Mordva Selts (organization for Mordvin people living in Estonia). There was an intention to interview multiple Erzyan people living in Tallinn, but because of the pandemic situation in the city during our visit, the older informants didn’t dare to come to the interviews. Plans had to be changed, but thankfully there are speakers of other languages too in Estonia.

For Tuesday the whole group headed for Tartu. While some of us stayed there, some returned to Tallinn. On Wednesday we had a private reservation to a café where we could arrange many interviews at the same time. Some interviews were longer and more meandering discussions, some were shorter and more structured. Everybody seemed to be quite happy with their meetings. And for the surprise of the interviewers, three Russian-speaking girls would have shared their views on language attitudes and identities for hours and hours if there would have been time and place for it. It seemed like these were topics that at least younger people gladly talked about. The girls were motivated to participate in the interview also because they benefited from it too; they wanted to train their English skills.

The contrast between older and younger people was huge regarding their capability to speak English. Most of the time it was possible to engage in customer service situations by using English but not always. For example while asking for help to find pens and notebooks in a supermarket the worker’s instant reaction to English language being spoken to him was to ask another young customer whether she could help by translating. Similar situations took place every now and then and most of the time the other party in conversation was at least approaching middle age. One exception to this, however, was in McDonald’s where it took three workers to make ordering food possible.

Most of the interviews were conducted so that the participants were booked in advance but one of us wanted to try out also approaching passersby. One of the obstacles in doing so was a language barrier which limited the amount and diversity of possible participants. When it became apparent that the communication might be problematic with the older generation, using a fellow student as a translator seemed worth giving a shot and it indeed was but only to some extent. The contrast between the young and the old in the willingness to participate was quite significant as older people were likely to be “busy” whereas younger people sometimes even asked if we would be willing to ask even more questions and properly go to discuss the topics in a café for example. All in all, interviewing passersby was even more fruitful than expected as some of the interviews were not only informative but also genuinely enjoyable normal human-to-human discussions.

By far the best “hunting grounds” for searching for non-booked participants were parks and places where people were waiting for a train for example. Luckily our hotel was located next to the railway station so doing research even after midnight was an option. Quite sadly though, also businesses such as restaurants and cafes were good places to look for people to interview as many of them were quite empty. Although we may not know how busy the same restaurants and cafes would normally be without corona, the coronavirus seemed to have hit businesses quite hard. It was also easy to understand why the corona situation was not ideal in Estonia as many of the participants didn't really care about it due to various reasons even though on the surface everyone seemed to follow the regulations regarding the usage of masks. 

Wednesday and Friday were quite similar and could possibly be described as “average” days of the trip. That included planned interviews but also time for improvising by interviewing people spontaneously and on top of that, delicious meals such as the one after the long interviews on Wednesday we went to a nearby restaurant. We got savory surprises which had been recommended by the prime minister of Estonia herself.

We had dinner together on Saturday evening as it was the last night while everyone was in Tallinn. After the dinner some of us went to check the local Depeche Mode Baar where there were surprisingly eager Estonians ready to be interviewed. On Sunday people explored the sights of Tallinn, so we enjoyed the museums, little shops and other places. It was not a weekend off but in comparison with the start of the trip the weekend was much more chilled out.

On Monday we still had some time before boarding the ship back to Finland and we visited some shops that we still hadn’t found the time for earlier. It could be assumed that any more special kind of activities would have been even too much for the last day as all of us were quite tired on the ship, although some old fashioned Bingo still managed to get our hearts racing.

by Sara Carrier-Bordeleau

Prior to preparing for the field trip, I wouldn’t have thought of Tallinn as a particularly multilingual place. After all, Estonia only has one official language – Estonian. But knowing a little about its history leaves no doubt that it has been at least bilingual for centuries. Tallinn, previously known as Reval, used to be part of the Hanseatic league. Boats brought merchandise and Middle Saxon to its harbours. Later on, it became part of the Russian empire, and then the Soviet Union, bringing Russian to the city. My research on Tallinn’s linguistic landscape showed that Tallinn remains largely multilingual, bustling with Estonian, Russian and English. Finnish and German also make appearances here and there, and contra to expectations, not exclusively in touristic areas. I conducted my research by visiting all of Tallinn’s districts and taking pictures of texts in public spaces, such as store signs, advertisements, and informative posters. I was interested in how the distribution of different languages might vary between parts of Tallinn.

Kesklinn was by far the most visibly multilingual district of Tallinn, as it houses the city’s urban center. It is not an area with a large proportion of Russian residents, but Russian is a common sight because the landscape caters to commuters and tourists. Vanalinn, one of its sub-districts, is a charming historical site lined with cobble stones, old churches and boutiques trying to reel in tourists. Storefronts did not only feature the three main languages, but often included snippets in other languages (Finnish, German, French, Spanish, ...). The tourists themselves contributed to the area’s multilingualism by leaving stickers; I found one in Basque! The residents of Tallinn mainly speak Estonian or Russian as their native language. Some areas have a majority of native Estonian speakers, whereas others have a more or less even mix of Estonian and Russian speakers. The most Russian-dominant district was Lasnamäe, where 60% of the residents speak Russian according to a census from 2013. Mustamäe, Haabersti and Põhja-Tallinn are also mixed districts. Stepping foot in Lasnamäe and Mustamäe, one is greeted by Soviet-era brutalist apartment buildings. Although these districts aren’t adjacent, they look and feel extremely similar, and bilingual Estonian-Russian signs were relatively common there. Põhja-Tallinn was completely different. I visited Kalamaja, one of its seaside neighbourhoods with a jolly mix of wooden houses, industrial-area smokestacks and glass-and-steel condos. It had the most stratified landscape I encountered; store names were largely in English to signal trendiness, Estonian was used to communicate more concrete information, and Russian was conspicuously absent despite it being the mother tongue of 40% of Põhja-Tallinn residents. I explain the relative absence of Russian through the fact that Kalamaja is gentrifying, and that its working-class Russian-speaking residents are getting pushed out. Haabersti was also low on Estonian-Russian bilingualism, but less so than Põhja-Tallinn, presumably because it is more demographically stable. Haabersti has a ton of beaches, an open air museum where one can visit historical buildings, and a subdistrict with an Italian name (Rocca al Mare), for some reason. Not at its best in rainy November, but interesting nonetheless.

Pirita, Kristiine and Nõmme were more Estonian-dominant residential neighbourhoods. They all had landscapes that skewed towards a high presence of Estonian and English, and not much, but some, Russian. Kristiine and Nõmme both reminded me of Helsinki’s suburbs; so generic they are hard to describe. Pirita is full of modern buildings and forests, with a sprawling botanical garden and the remains of an immense convent. Kadriorg, with its Russian Empire-era palace and garden is right next to Pirita. I particularly enjoyed visiting these two areas.

All in all, wherever I went, there was some degree of trilingualism. Whether Russian or English was given the most prominence after Estonian was variable, and some English was present even in suburbs, albeit with a more symbolic role. There is little historical presence of German in Tallinn’s landscape nowadays, because these have largely been destroyed during the Soviet era. German remains visible in Tallinn mainly through signs aimed at German-speaking tourists, some place names and as a superstate in Estonian. Finnish is a more recent arrival, and concentrated in touristic areas, but sometimes present even in places where few tourists would go, because many Finnish companies operate in Estonia. As a result, you might see some Finnish in a suburban mall 20 kilometers away from downtown – on any Itella machine, for example.

This trip to Tallinn would have been even more fascinating if Estonian and Russian had been part of my repertoire; I wasn’t able to pick up on any so-called bilingual winks that make Tallinn’s landscape similar to Montreal’s, my hometown, or appreciate the full semiotic effect of script-mixing I encountered. Nonetheless, I had a great time visiting the town, paying close attention to the environment, looking for patterns in linguistic distribution, trying to understand Estonian by leveraging my Finnish skills (and succeeding enough to spot a few correspondences, like Finnish diphtongs › Estonian long vowels; puoti›pood, kieli›keel, yö›öö, etc.),... I’m grateful to LingDig and particularly Ksenia Shagal for organizing this trip!

by Marie Mäkinen

A few people from our group spent four days in total in Tartu. During that time, it was great to get to know the city a little bit deeper. Located in the Southern Estonia, Tartu is a very charming and sympathetic town, with lots of historical statues, beautiful architecture, picturesque Emajõgi river and fascinating botanical garden. There’s a lot of history to research even in the center of the city, for example, the town hall square with a beautiful fountain, “The Kissing Students”. Every day at 12 o’clock the town hall’s bells start to play an interesting melody, which is definitely something to be remembered as a visitor. Since Tartu is geographically closer to the Latvian border than Tallinn, the city might be also more closely connected to the neighbour country; at least the president of Estonia had his Latvian equivalent as his guest in Tartu at the time we were visiting the city. Not only the Southern neighbour country can be seen in Tartu, but also Finnish culture is represented in the very center of the city, since Soome Instituut (Finnish Institute in Tartu) has its library located almost next to the main building of the university.

by Alma Tuokko

My goals for the field trip were to get material for my master’s thesis and also practise how field work is done, because I had never done it before. My study was about the terminative case and other possible terminative constructions in Southern Estonian.

Before the trip I had asked for informants from the trip’s organizers and also my former Estonian and Southern Estonian teacher, who nowadays works in University of Tartu. I got most of my informants from my former Estonian teacher, and started to settle the schedule with the informants via email as late as on Monday 1.11. This was a little bit stressful, because I had to settle the first interviews already to the next day. Luckily all of my informants answered relatively quickly, so the schedule was settled quite easily. I also had no idea how long my interviews were going to take, so I told them in the beginning that it’ll take two hours, when in reality it took 30–45 minutes per interview.

I did the interviews at the University of Tartu, from where my teacher had booked me a seminar room to use. Two of my informants weren’t able to attend, and one I had to reschedule because of some confusion, but all in all I had ten informants of whom I met nine in Tartu and one via Zoom on Saturday, back in Tallinn. Originally the plan was that I’ll have two or three interviews in a day, but because of the confusions and reschedules I had three interviews on Tuesday, one on Wednesday, two on Thursday, three on Friday and then one via Zoom on Saturday.

For my interviews I had prepared 8 drawings, 14 parallel sentences and then a story by using a childrens’ picture book. From my study’s point of view the parallel sentences worked the best, but from the drawings and the picture book I also got something to work with.

I started every interview by introducing myself, where I’m from and what I’m doing, but didn’t tell what my research questions are or what my thesis is about, because that could’ve manipulated the informants’ answers. First I asked them to tell me everything what they see in the drawings using Southern Estonian. Secondly I asked them to evaluate if the parallel sentences represent the same meaning as the numbered sentences, if they are grammatically correct in their opinion and if there’s some other way to indicate the same meaning. Lastly I asked them to tell me the story from the picture book.

When the interview was over, I thanked the informants and then offered them some chocolate which I had brought from Finland. I used Northern Estonian with the informants and asked them to talk Southern Estonian back, but they also used Northern Estonian with me if there was something we needed to discuss. This was because I can only speak Northern Estonian but not Southern.

Overall I think that the trip was an excellent experience and very instructive on how field work is actually done. Even though everything felt kind of scary and stressful in the very beginning, it all turned out well in the end. But next time when I do field work I will start doing the preparations and scheduling somewhat earlier than this time.

 by Héloïse Calame

On Thursday, we stood up early to take the first train to Narva. This city lays two and a half hours away from Tallinn, right at the Eastern border to Russia. After preparing our daily elicitations and checking our interview program for the day, we came to this small city and separated in two groups of two, since we had different interviews at the same time.

Two of us had to go to Muna Kohvik – the egg coffee place – to interview students of the local university. We had not thought of downloading the map of Narva to our phones before arriving, but Ksenia’s explanations seemed sufficient for us to find our way. Unfortunately, we walked into the wrong road at the very first intersection. We continued walking, pretty sure that, if we were on the right path, the coffee place should be somewhere on our left, and if we were wrong, it would simply be on the left. However, it came out that the wrong path we took had brought us further away than we thought. We decided to ask somebody for the way, and since I do not speak any Russian, and neither of us speak any Estonian, Vili had to use his school knowledge of Russian to talk to the first person we encountered. She was a more or less eighty years old Russian speaker, and she didn’t know the place we were searching and told us there is no coffee place in this whole area, but the street name we mentioned – the only one we remembered to be more or less close to the coffee place – was probably somewhere on the right side, which matched our intuition. The second person we encountered didn’t know the coffee place either, but he told us how to go to the next university building. We were not entirely sure whether we understood the directions correctly, but in the end, we did find the place and our first informant waiting for us.

Vili started the interview with his questionnaire about multilingualism and language ideologies. It was really interesting to talk about these topics with our young Estonian speaking informants. Although the area of Narva is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, they told us that it is not a problem not to speak any Russian, and that, if you speak Estonian in a shop, the employees would answer in Estonian too. Interestingly, at the exact same time, the other group was interviewing a Russian speaker, who asserted that there is nobody in Narva who is not fluent in Russian, and that it could be impossible to get customer service in Estonian.

After this sociolinguistics interview, Vili interviewed his second informant, and I continued with our first informant with my negation questionnaire. At this point, I had already used it in six elicitations. Therefore, I had some expectations about what our informant could say, and didn’t struggle so much about Estonian phonology anymore (the three-way length distinction of voiceless stops is as difficult to distinguish as it sounds, and the vowels <e, ä ,a> seem to me as one and the same thing in fluent speech). Nonetheless, it was a really interesting interview in the sense that there is diversity in pronounciation, in word order, and sometimes in the negation structure used by different speakers. Whether these distinctions are individual or dialectal, is still unclear, but each informant added precious data to this investigation. After that, my informant went back to study, and I started digitalising the notes of the elicitation in the database with the other informants’ sentences, copying the recording to my laptop and listening to it to check my transcriptions and anotate anything unexpected.

Then, we met again with the other group and took a taxi to Narva-Jõesuu, a village at the Northern end of the Estonian-Russian border. We went for a walk on the beach, which looks like an interesting mix of Mediteranean sandy beach and Finnish woods reaching almost up to the shore. We ate a really good piece of cake and discussed all kind of topics related to tourism and history of the region, as well as Russian datchas and architecture. On the way back to Narva, driving along the Estonian side of the border river, there is a big amount of memorials all the way long. Back in Narva, we ate dinner and interviewed our last informant of the day. One interesting thing about having only one interview with a lot of different people – and not a serie of interviews with the same informant – is that every person is different and their interests in participating differ too. It is a challenge, but it makes every elicitation session really interesting at the same time, since no session will ever be the same.

In the end, after this long day with one to three interviews for each of us, we took the train back to Tallinn and played some card games all way long.

by Anna Busheva

Thursday was dedicated entirely to a trip to Narva. Not many people have been bold enough to join our group, since Narva is a predominantly populated by Russian speakers, who rarely speak any other languages, as we have discovered later. So our party consisted only of Ksenia and myself – Russian native speakers, Vili, who knows some Russian and was primarily interested in sociolinguistics, and Héloïse, who was just brave enough to join us.

Narva is located quite far away from Tallinn, at the eastern border of Estonia, so it has taken us more than two hours to get there by train (and even more to get back to Tallinn!). The town itself turned out to be more lively and interesting than I would have imagined – in the middle of a regular Soviet city you could see some ancient walls and even a castle, and the view of the river and the Russian border town Ivangorod was quite picturesque. However, the main sightseeing destination would be the seaside, but more on that later.

In Narva we were lucky to meet some very interesting informants: Ksenia and I were interviewing a bilingual Estonian-Russian girl, who identified as Estonian. She was able to tell us a lot about the life of Estonians in Narva, where they are a minority: where they study, how they communicate in their everyday life and how they survive in a Russian-speaking region; also she contributed to our understanding of some social problems both Russian and Estonian citizens of Narva face when communicating with each other. It was enlightening to hear her thoughts on the cultural paradox that has emerged in that region, even though her opinion directly contradicted what we have heard from other Estonian participants that day.

After the first set of interviews we have reunited with Vili and Héloïse, who were interviewing the students of Narva College, and together we went to Narva-Jõesuu – a resort on the shore of the Baltic sea. The destination might seem odd for a linguistic trip, but there were several good reasons to visit this place. First of all, it is stunningly beautiful – the sea, the pines, the buildings of all sorts of styles and purposes – everything creates a perfect atmosphere for a long walk along the beach. And the architecture is very interesting – old northern-European houses are mingled with over-the-top Russian Empire dachas, and modernist sanatoriums are being replaced with modern hotels – all that reflects the evolution of the cultural landscape, and the triste state of some older buildings contributes to the atmosphere of a romanticist painting. Frankly, it was very pleasant to discuss the interviews and such eating delicious cake by the sea rather than in a hotel lobby. In addition, it was surprisingly informative to observe the people on the bus on our way back: what languages they were speaking inside and between groups and what was unusual about their speech.

In the evening we had our last interview with our last informant of the day, who has provided some food for thought for our whole trip back to Tallinn, and that concluded our time in Narva. All in all, it was an interesting and informative experience.

India (December 2022)

This field trip took place in December 2022, as a part of the Approaches to Digital Language Typology project. It is a collaboration between teams and specialists from two institutions: the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati (IITG), India, and the University of Helsinki (UH), Finland. Both groups are working on research & teachings in language prosody and the application of machine learning techniques for typological research. 

Check out their blog and Instagram for more exciting stories!

Romania (March 2023)

The LingDig field trip to Romania took place in March 2023. The city of Timișoara and the wider Banat region are the most multilingual area of Romania, with several languages having been spoken there for centuries. Our team spent most of the time between the 5th and 11th of March in Timișoara, but there were also two day trips to the town of Nădlac. The team consisted of organizers Ekaterina Gruzdeva, Jonathan Banks, and Andrei Dumitrescu, as well as six students representing three study tracks of the LingDig programme – general linguistics, language technology, and phonetics.

The languages under investigation were Hungarian, Serbian, Slovak, German – including both the standard variety and the local Swabian dialects – as well as Romanian. One central research topic that involved most of our team was a sociolinguistic study of language use and attitudes of the students of four different high schools where the language of instruction is one of the aforementioned minority languages. Other research topics were the broader sociolinguistic situation of minority languages, as well as some phonetic and morphosyntactic features of the local varieties of these languages. - by Andrei Dumitrescu

by Kristina Sherrill

The name Timișoara, known as Temesvár by the Hungarians, comes from the Hungarian words referring to a castle (vár) on the Timiș River (Temes). The city has a long multicultural history, a special characteristic that drew us to study and explore the nature of multilingualism in the region. Hungarians have been present in the region for centuries, and though their numbers have declined over the last several decades, there are still some 8,300 ethnic Hungarians in Timișoara today (about 3.3% of the population and the largest minority). My main focus of the trip was to get to know the minority Hungarian community and understand how the Hungarian language is maintained, why it is important, and how individual speakers navigate their multilingual environments.

On the first day, we enjoyed a scenic stroll around the beautiful city filled with Secessionist architecture. Some of us explored different areas, taking in our initial impressions of the linguistic landscape. In the afternoon, we all had the pleasure of meeting the head of German studies at the local university, as well as several students and researchers. After our initial meeting and tour of the university, we celebrated our arrival to the city by enjoying a tasty lunch, drinks, and interesting chats with our newfound colleagues. In the evening, many of us went to the city center to experience the nightlife in Timișoara!

In preparation for the trip, we contacted several Hungarians living in Timișoara. On our second day there, we met with a Hungarian speaker from Újszentes (Dumbrăviţa in Romanian), a town just north of Timișoara. He agreed to be interviewed for our project and provided some very interesting perspectives. We gained insights into the life of an average ethnic Hungarian living in the Banat region and the common linguistic values from the minority perspective. In our free time, many of us enjoyed exploring the city, seeing performances at the opera, getting lost in the beautiful side streets, and wandering into enchanting local shops and restaurants.

Day 3 was a very important day! A large part of our research was centered around the minority high schools in Timișoara. Our group was divided into smaller teams, and each team investigated the linguistic landscapes and attitudes of one local high school (Slovak, Hungarian, and Serbian). We prepared an online questionnaire for students to fill out, and we translated them into each language so that we could compare the data and results cross-linguistically. On my visit to the Hungarian high school, I met with the principal and top administrators first for a tour, then to discuss my research, ask questions, and gain insights into how the school is run. They were very curious and had many questions for us as well! Then the questionnaire was distributed to the students – in the end we received over 100 responses! Lastly, I had the pleasure of interviewing several students who volunteered to share their thoughts and experiences as Hungarians in the Banat region. It was such a pleasure to meet such interesting and inspiring young people, and I learned so much about their perspectives! From our interviews and questionnaires, we found that there is minimal regional variation in the Hungarian spoken in Timișoara versus the Hungarian spoken in Hungary. In fact, many participants noted that the biggest linguistic differences are not between Timișoara vs. Budapest, but rather city vs. country living, and many linguistic attitudes are divided across this line as well. Many students come from mixed Romanian-Hungarian families where multilingualism is the norm, and where motivation to use and maintain Hungarian mostly comes from (strong) familial connections. The other teams found similar results from their school questionnaires and interviews, with the most notable differences being in how language speakers claim their “mother tongue” and the various “proficiency” levels. Most students at the Hungarian high school claim either Hungarian, or both Hungarian and Romanian as their mother tongues, and self-assessed as “fluent” in both. In other schools with smaller minority speakers like Slovak and Serbian, more students claimed Romanian as their mother tongue, and if they claimed the minority language as their mother tongue, they were less likely to self-assess as “fluent” in that language. That is, identity and belonging to a certain minority group plays a major role in linguistic attitudes and language maintenance.


On day 4 I visited the Hungarian Cultural Center of Timișoara, an organization with a long-standing history and an exciting, expanding future! I had the pleasure of meeting several members with various roles and enjoyed a lovely lunch interview with the head consulate, who was thrilled to discuss the history and happenings of the cultural center. I was given a tour of the beautiful building, which was in the process of being restored back to its original glory and will include the Hungarian consulate office, a ballroom, a café, a library, several multi-use rooms, and more. The Hungarian community is very much alive in Timișoara, and I hope to visit again in the future to see the progress it has made!