Linguistic fieldwork in a pandemic: Supervised data collection combining smartphone recordings and videoconferencing

Linguistic data collection typically involves conducting interviews with participants in close proximity. The safety precautions related to the COVID-19 pandemic brought such data collection to an abrupt halt: Social distancing forced linguistic fieldwork into involuntary hibernation in many parts of the world, as it did with our project on ‘Swiss German Dialects Across Time and Space‘ (, Leemann et al. 2020) at the University of Bern.

Such hardship, however, can inspire innovation. In this contribution, we present an approach that – we believe – enables a reliable switch from in-person, face-to-face interviews to virtual, online data collection: participants remain at home and navigate a smartphone application, enabling high-quality audio recordings and multisensory presentation of linguistic material, while they are being supervised via videoconferencing (Zoom 2020). The smartphone app and the infrastructure presented are open source (GNU GPL-3.0), accessible, and adaptable to researchers’ specific needs. There are a number of benefits of the type of data collection proposed (e.g. cost-effectiveness and time-saving) but also bears potential pitfalls (revolving around rapport building, internet connectivity, computer literacy, recording quality, and room acoustics).

To explore whether participants’ experiences of in-person data collection are different from participation in a virtual setting, we conducted a study with 36 participants. Overall, findings revealed a substantial degree of overlap in interview experience, setting a methodological baseline for future work.

This research has thrown up a number of questions in need of further investigation. For one, it will be worthwhile pursuing whether there are measurable differences in linguistic behavior that might stem from a difference in elicitation mode (in-person vs. online). The online-only cohort, for example, reported they felt they had accommodated less to the interviewers. How this can be corrected in subsequent analyses must be addressed in future studies.


Leemann, A., Jeszenszky, P., Steiner, C., Studerus, M., Messerli, J. (2020). Linguistic fieldwork in a pandemic: Supervised data collection combining smartphone recordings and videoconferencing. Linguistics Vanguard, 6.3.

Zoom (2020). (accessed 28.10.2020).

See also: Poster