Languages in the World: The Textbook

by | August 15, 2016 |

As regular readers of this blog know, my latest academic book Languages of the World. How History, Culture and Politics Shape Language was published by Wiley-Blackwell in January of this year. Co-author Phillip M. Carter teaches at Florida International University in Miami.

For professors who are considering adopting the book for their courses this coming fall semester, Phillip has posted a sample syllabus as a guide to using this book effectively. Here’s the link.

This is the easiest book in the world to promote because Phillip and I are donating our royalties to the Endangered Language Fund. We’re on track to donate $2000 by the endhistory of languages introduction of this year. When I got my author copies from the publisher, I offered one to a colleague of mine at Duke who had read a couple of draft chapters. She said promptly, “Thank you but no, I want to buy it.”

People like to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Why care about endangered languages? Two reasons:

1) Most endangered languages are endangered because of a false ideology where language is imagined to be a zero sum game: if you give to one language, you are necessarily talking away from another. There is absolutely no merit to this idea.

Nevertheless, in the past two hundred years, nation-states have been founded on the principle of “one nation, one language” and the zero-sum-game ideology snuck in with it. In the 19th and 20th centuries, for instance, Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut and they were forbidden from speaking their tribal languages. The practice did not end until 1970. The aim was to “civilize” and “Christianize” them.

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania c. 1900

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania c. 1900

The point here is that you do not have to give up a language in order to learn another. You can have both. Human beings are biologically equipped to be multilingual. In fact, most people worldwide are. Monolinguals are in the minority.

2) If I tell you we need to preserve endangered languages for the rich and varied understandings of the world they give us, you will yawn. This argument has as much traction as me asking you to care about saving the whales.

However, if I point out that reviving endangered languages is a social and mental health issue then I can get your attention.

Two examples:

i) In the province of British Columbia, Canada, a study was done of Aboriginal youth suicide rates, which vary substantially from one community to another. Strikingly, in communities where at least half the members reported a conversational knowledge of their own native language, youth suicide rates dropped to zero. The study furthermore demonstrated that this simple language-use indicator proved to have predictive power in determining suicide rates over and above that of six other cultural continuity factors. Pretty fantastic.

Here’s the link to the study.

ii) In New Zealand in the 1970s, the government instituted an urbanization program for Māori youth. By the 1990s, and as a result of the young being separated from parents and grandparents, the Māori language was endangered, so the government started on revival efforts. Once the revival got underway, the health of the Māori community was seen to improve. There was less obesity, less hypertension, less disease overall.

LITW Maori

Māori exchanging the traditional greeting: sacred act of hongi, the breath of life

Language is as much about identity as it is about communication, both for the individual and the community. If your identity is threatened, if your linguistic relationship with your history, your culture and your fellow community members is broken, you are going to be stressed, and your health is going to suffer.

End of story.

Get your copy of Languages in the World or assign it as a textbook in one of your courses and contribute in your own way to social and mental health worldwide.


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This post was written by Julie Andresen

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