Book Review: “Bringing Our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families”

Disclaimer: This post was written as part of my ANTH 321: Language Revitalization requirements in Winter 2017.

The book which I am writing on is “Bringing Our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families.” This is an anthology edited “with a How-to Guide for Parents” by Leanne Hinton. Chapters are grouped by topic headings (ex. Part II: Learning from the Elders, Part V: Family Language-Learning Programs, etc), with each chapter is written by a different author. In choosing this topic for this book review I found myself reflecting on my own experience of dealing with the absolute slew of paperwork involved in language revitalization work (I was an office admin). When people are reduced to paper figures it becomes difficult to imagine the lived effects of something like language schooling. It is one thing to see how something exists through forms and paper—and as anthropologists looking into the recent past this is a skill I believe is necessary for us to acquire and hone—and entirely another to see how people take those experience which are reduced to boxes on paper and implement them into their lived experiences. As per the cover and introduction the intended audience for this book is parents interested in language revitalization. While this is an “academic book review” I thus would be remiss in not commenting as to whether or not “Bringing our Languages Home” has the possibility of being accessible and engaging for such communities of people in addition to academics (and the intersections of the two). In the introduction Hinton explains that the format of this anthology began with a thought: “’And who am I,’ [Hinton] thought, ‘who never braved raising a child to speak an endangered language, to write for people who might want to do this?’ […] [T]he simple answer […] dawned on me: why should I write this book at all? It was the families who had done it themselves who should write it” (Hinton 2013, ix). This allows the book to remain primarily within the first-person, giving spotlight to specific insights into the challenges and celebrations of “raising a child to speak an endangered language.”

The first of the three chapters which I will be focusing on is “Mohawk: Our Kanien’kéha Language,” written by Margaret and Theodore Peters. This chapter is arranged as a series of vignettes written by Margaret and Theodore Peters respectively. They parent their children together and have similar difficulties in getting their daughters to speak the language with not only one another and their brother but also themselves, in addition to having similar relationships to Kanien’kéha and cultural traditions (61-63). The split narration of this chapter supports a clarity of concept: while parents may work congruently to raise children, and may have uniform goals, how they come to those positions of labour and goals may differ greatly. In using the split narration Margaret and Theodore are not only able to express their difficulties and celebrations with regard to their children, but also with regard to one another. While it would be easy to say that language endangerment and revitalization are addressed in this chapter solely by virtue of the authors speaking to their personal experiences of language there are several spheres of influence which need to be addressed: the personal, the filial, and the educational. While other spheres of influence are hinted at in this chapter, it is these three which are most predominant in their call for attention. Margaret and Theodore both obviously have personal relationships to their language. This extends to their home life with their children, where their first two children (their daughters) were raised speaking English and it is only with their third child (their son) that they decide to speak the language in the home (62-65, 71-74). As the chapter progresses this moves into the realm of the educational, in that not only is Margaret a teacher in a language program, but she feels guilt over not being egalitarian in her treatment of her language teachings towards her daughters compared to her son: “I felt very ashamed. The parents at the Ahkwesáhsne Freedom School were paying me to teach their children to learn their inherent language, and here I had it and wasn’t teaching it to my own, except for our little experiment Nihahsennà:a” (66). While originally she and her husband excluded their daughters due to their seeming disinterest combined with the cost, as she is a language teacher herself she cannot reconcile her role as an educator of the language with her role as an English-speaking mother. As the maxim goes: “It’s always more complicated than that.”

The second chapter I will be focusing on is “Māori: My Language Story,” written by Hana O’Regan. This chapter is written as a single-person monologue by the author. O’Regan begins by detailing her journey in defining her Māori identity (through self-image) comparatively to how her children define their own Māori identities (through language): “I didn’t stop, back then, to consider that what I heard, as opposed to what I saw, might define my Māoriness in time” (82). O’Regan continues by speaking to her struggles in implementing language policy when parents are seemingly unwilling to speak Māori in the home, then in having children of her own discovering the difficulties herself—while it is one thing to speak the language with regard to social or academic interactions, it is wholly another to speak it with regard to children (ex songs, baby speak, etc) (88-89). O’Regan details her struggles with getting other parents to incorporate language protocols into their homes with the inclusion of commentary of her work with the “Kāi Tahu language strategic vision, Kotahi Mano Kāika—Kotahi Mani Wawata: A Thousand Homes—A Thousand Dreams. The goal was to have at least one thousand home-speaking te reo by the year 2025, and that would then be the realization of one thousand aspirations” (88). O’Regan comes to an understanding for the parents she once struggled to inspire for this program, as she herself struggles with implementing a consistent language protocol into her home. In implementing the “OPOL (one-parent, one-language) practice of bilingualism” (91) O’regan speaks to her challenges in maintaining a good record of single-language immersion. This said, she expresses anxiety and frustration in hearing her children grow up speak English due to their attendance at a bilingual English-Māori school (93). Although she notes that much of her anxiety is not wholly founded as her children speak to one another in Māori when they are alone, she comments to the personal effect such an anxiety has upon not only her as a mother but also as a language activist (96). The format of this chapter is very accessible and easy to understand. While O’Regan comments to systemic causes and outcomes of language endangerment and revitalization efforts, she is consistent in retaining a connection to how such systems effect her home life.

Lastly I will be focusing on “Irish: Belfast’s Neo-Gaeltacht,” written by Aodán Mac Póilin. To begin with a definition: “The word Gaeltacht, which originally meant something like ‘Gael-dom,’ has now become what could be described as a geo-linguistic term. It usually refers to those scattered areas—mainly in the west of Ireland—where the thread of linguistic continuity has never been broken, where the language has been passed on from one generation to the next for thousands of years” (143). Mac Póilin clearly situates himself outside of the original construction context of the Gaeltacht and neo-Gaeltacht, and instead posits a historicizing view. While providing information and context for these types of communities, Mac Póilin is careful to point out that little data is available for this type of revitalization effort, and that such community building efforts should rather be considered experiments as opposed to guides for other communities to follow (142-143). Mac Póilin keeps a consistent voice in describing the events which have led to the construction and maintenance of several neo-Gaeltacht. In providing personal anecdotes Mac Póilin also centers the use of such communities in actual practice. Describing his own summary as “a rather sketchy overview of a complex subject,” (162) it can be very easy to lose sight of the human agents Mac Póilin describes even as he is describing them. That being said in speaking to the contributions of specific families and family members there is a returning to form. In this chapter the most obvious innovation which is brought to the scholarship on language endangerment and revitalization is the historicization of the Gaeltacht. In providing a historical context for these language communities and contextualizing the labour/s involved in their creation and maintenance Mac Póilin is effective in providing reference for those with questions as to whether or not such efforts are valid (author’s note: They Are Valid).

In situating “Bringing our Languages Home” within our course discussions I find myself returning to a Thomas Hardy quote I hold pretty dear: “The art of observation (during travel, etc.) consists in this: the seeing of great things in little things, the whole in the part — even the infinitesimal part” (Sherman 1976, 346). Dr. Shulist has spoken before about how we may ask questions of people, and their answers may be unexpected. In fact, their answers may be long-winding stories on topics we cannot seem to connect back to our original question at all. Chapters speak to specific language interactions between parents and children, siblings, etc, and in “little” moments we, as readers, must remain vigilant to observe the “great” moments—the systemic implications of familial interactions. Thus while the chapters in “Bringing our Languages Home” hold the thread of language revitalization methods in home-based contexts, they are also personal narratives of family, community, and social life. I specifically chose “Part 3: Families and communities working together” as a set of chapters to focus on as I found that it touched most on the difficulty in finding the crux of filial relationships and otherwise-social relationships surrounding language endangerment. While this is obviously a thread which runs through the book as a whole, in these chapters specifically I found there to be more a focus on “soft” interactions between family members, or otherwise interactions which may (at first glance) to not be predicated by language endangerment or revitalization. These interactions are important to note in my estimation because they mark the basest levels of interaction people have in a language–it’s easy (author’s note: I’m being sarcastic) to create laws and systemic frameworks by which language revitalization may occur, but if no one is actually speaking the language then those efforts are for naught. While “talking about it” is often derided as a non-solution to a problem, the frustrations expressed by parents in these chapters and their subsequent methods for overcoming said frustrations is Action in that it shows other parents—in readers of this book—that their problems are shared amongst a larger community of language activists.


Author: B

I'm a 20-something university student with a blog.

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