January 27, 2011

Revitalizing languages may backfire

Author Examines the Social Roots and Practical Implications of Language Preservation Efforts

By Abby Mogoll├│nThe author succinctly and with good humor critiques language revitalization efforts, even while she is an active and enthusiastic participant in state-sanctioned revitalization efforts. “Generally, researchers have assumed that revaluing heritage languages and their speakers will always have a positive effect on revitalization efforts,” Meek writes, “but in the case of Kaska, the opposite appears to be true. The goal of trying to re-create Kaska as a legitimate, revitalized language has led to the emergence of specialized roles marked by linguistic expertise, thus restricting the production of Kaska to those select few—in particular, university-trained linguists and bureaucrats—who are authorized to manufacture it.” (p. 134)

In her book, Meek raises several provocative discussion points when considering endangered language revitalization efforts:

  • The problem of marginalizing potential speakers

  • Languages that become a “language of the elders”

  • Why the media talks about “the death of languages” and what that means for Native languages

  • The rhetoric of “saving” Native languages, relegating Indigenous languages to that of an object

  • Meek does not just offer critique. She also suggests ways communities can work to maintain their languages. Here are just a few of her suggestions:

  • See the age of 40 as the new 2 (remove the assumption that language must be learned in youth)

  • Find ways for elders and new speakers to weave together different events and experiences into a tapestry of on-going interpretation, rather than fixed conversations of passing down historical information

  • Redefine what we consider “success” in language revitalization
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