Hello! I’m Colleen Alena O'Brien, a linguist, political anthropologist, and filmmaker.


Welcome! I am a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Linguistics and Language Technology at the Universität des Saarlandes in Germany. My research is directed in four main areas: (1) language use and attitudes among speakers of Indigenous languages; (2) political discourse in conflict regions; (3) ethnographic filmmaking as a tool for peacebuilding; and (4) anthropological approaches to studying transitional justice. My expertise is in the study of minority languages, specifically Kamsá (Colombia) and Gorontalo (Indonesia), as well as the political, social, and cultural implications of language use in regions experiencing armed conflict. For a copy of my CV, click here.

I earned my PhD in Linguistics from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in 2018. My dissertation remains the most comprehensive grammatical description of Kamsá, an Indigenous language spoken in southern Colombia. As a language isolate (i.e., not related to any other language in the world), Kamsá is of particular value to linguistic typology, language contact, and linguistic anthropology, three fields to which I contribute in my research. I have also investigated how language policy affects marginalized populations in Colombia incorporating a social perspective into my research on linguistic structure and discourse. My ongoing project with Gustavo Rojas Páez, a Colombian legal scholar, compares Indigenous communities’ views about preserving their cultures and languages with the discourse surrounding the intersection of language policy and transitional justice.

Colleen Alena O'Brien Fieldwork

Indigenous communities, such as Kamsá, have been disproportionately affected by the Colombian conflict. In 2021, I released Stranger to Peace, a documentary film that follows the personal stories of three individual ex-guerillas from the FARC: Dayana, a market vendor navigating her identity as a transwoman; Ricardo, a young father secretly clinging to his leftist ideology; and Alexandra, an Indigenous child soldier who was forced to leave her family behind in the Amazon. Stranger to Peace had its world premiere at the Miami Film Festival and has screened at 20 film festivals in the US, Europe, the Caribbean, and South America. It has won several awards, including the Václav Havel Jury Award for Best Film (for outstanding contribution to human rights) at the 2023 One World Festival in Prague. In addition to my work in Colombia, I am conducting a language documentation and description project of the Gorontalo language spoken in northern Sulawesi, Indonesia. I collaborate with local community members to record the language and analyze its grammatical structure.

Colleen Alena O'Brien Fieldwork

Currently, I am using the film as a tool for research, education, and outreach. I have been screening it as part of Conflict Resolution programs in Europe, including at a workshop at ETH Zurich for mid-career conflict mediators. As part of these screenings, I facilitate in- depth conversations with the audience and am in discussions with UN staff and politicians about incorporating the film as part of their conflict resolution training. I also participated in a policy-making workshop at the London School of Economics in 2023 to engage with politicians and Ukrainian fighters to discuss policy plans for reintegrating Ukranian combatants.

Colleen Alena O'Brien Fieldwork

I am an active member of the International Association for Reconciliation Studies. I was co-chair of the organizing committee for the annual conference in Kibuye, Rwanda, in 2023 (with Maximilian Schell) and am co-chair again (with Davide Tacchini) for the 2024 conference in Assisi, Italy. I am also the founding editor (with Davide Tacchini) of the Journal of Reconciliation Studies.

Over the years, I have secured funding for my research projects from organizations including the American Philosophical Society, the Fulbright Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the International Peace Research Association Foundation, the American Association for University Women, and the U.S. Department of Education (FLAS).