January 27, 2011

Revitalizing languages may backfire

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

By Abby MogollónThe 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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