FLAS scholar studies nexus of language and traditional Zhuang singing

FLAS scholar studies nexus of language and traditional Zhuang singing

John Widman playing the “erhu,” a traditional, two-stringed Chinese instrument similar to the fiddle.(Photo provided by John Widman).

John Widman's research has taken him to the bridge between music and language. To cross it, he's blazing his own linguistic trail.

By John Wyman (UCLA 2017)

UCLA International Institute, January 11, 2016 – John Widman, a UCLA doctoral student in ethnomusicology, studies interesting musical styles around the globe. With the aid of two separate Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) grants* awarded by the Asia Institute, he spent the summers of 2014 and 2015 in China’s Guangxi province. There, he studied the Youjiang dialect of Zhuang, the language of the largest of China’s 55 officially recognized minority groups. 

For Widman, understanding Youjiang-Zhuang has become crucial to his research on Zhuang traditional music. When he began studying that music at Baise University in Guangxi prior to attending UCLA, he found English resources on the subject lacking. “Most of what was written [on Zhuang music] was pretty vague and published in Chinese; and even then, it was only broadly mentioned,” said Widman. But from the sources he did find, he noticed something that previous researchers of the music seemed to ignore.

Widman explained that, like many anthropologists, those researchers associated Zhuang songs with specific events: a drinking song with drinking, a wedding song with a marriage. “But what they weren’t saying is that for a given group of Zhuang, most of the time that melody is the same one," he continued. “What’s actually most important is the lyrics. What the Zhuang call a new song is a song with different lyrics.”

UCLA doctoral student John Widman. (Photo: John Wyman/ UCLA.) When Widman came to UCLA to begin his ethnomusicology studies, he brought recordings of traditional Zhuang songs with him to transcribe. While attempting to transcribe the traditional melody, he noticed tiny, almost imperceptible variations. Variations so slight that, according to Widman, they would not develop into a new melody, even after many years, making precise analysis of the music “almost a nightmare.”

Widman hypothesized that these variations were caused by the relationship between the rhythm of the lyrics and the tonal aspect of the language used by the singers. To confirm this suspicion, however, would require a high level of skill in the particular dialect used in the music he was analyzing: Youjiang-Zhuang. Without a foreign language center or dedicated foreign language training for the study of Youjiang-Zhuang, Widman realized that he would have to forge his own linguistic path if he was to continue his research.

With the help of the FLAS grants, he returned to Guangxi in 2014 and began studying the Youjiang-Zhuang dialect, drawing on the “Growing Participator Approach” designed by psycholinguist Greg Thompson. The approach focuses heavily on cultural immersion through the help of a native mediator, or language “nurturer,” and is effective for languages that are not well documented. Widman used the grant to hire a native Youjiang-Zhuang speaker and with the aid of a linguist colleague working in the area, immersed himself in the local culture. After only ten weeks of intense study, he achieved a basic conversational level in the language. A second summer immersion strengthened his linguistic skills.

While an impressive achievement, Widman knows that he will need to devote more time studying Youjiang-Zhuang in order to unravel the mystery of the variations in the Zhuang melody. He is now hoping to receive another FLAS grant, return to Guangxi next summer and continue his studies in Youjiang-Zhuang. In the meantime, he has been taking graduate-level coursework in linguistics to examine the relationship between music and language more closely. Widman feels that his linguistic education and experiences have had a great impact on him.

“Studying language helps you realize how arbitrary language is as a whole,” he said. “It helps me be careful not to judge how other people speak. It’s a very humbling experience.”

*The Asia Institute administers the FLAS Fellowship program for East Asia at UCLA, supporting graduate and undergraduate training in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean language and related area studies. FLAS fellowships are funded by the U.S. Department of Education International and Foreign Lanuguage Education program (Title VI). Applications for the summer 2016 and academic-year 2016-17 FLAS awards are currently being accepted, with the deadline of February 17, 2016. Visit the Asia Institute website for information and application instructions.

This article was first published on January 11, 2016, and updated on January 12.

Published: Monday, January 11, 2016