Languages in the World: Writing the Book

by | January 7, 2016 |

Languages in the World. How History, Culture and Politics Shape Language began with a simple phone call.

In the Fall Semester of 2010, I was in Durham, North Carolina, where I teach at Duke University. Phillip Carter was living in Los Angeles, where he was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Linguistics Department at the University of Southern California. We were on the phone to speak about the pleasures and challenges of teaching a course called Languages of the World. We found ourselves in familiar conversational territory: lamenting the lack of materials for teaching the course in the interdisciplinary approach developed at Duke.

“Well,” Phillip said, “we could write our own book.”

I laughed, imagining the amount of work required to pull together a project of the magnitude necessary to capture the dynamics of the pedagogical approach I had helped to create.

But the seed had been planted. Only one question remained: could we do it?

Beginning in the mid-1990s, I had been teaching Languages of the World taught at Duke, which was pioneered by my colleague, Professor Edna Andrews in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies. We wanted our students to have a broad understanding of language. Thus, we balanced the traditional content of such a course – review of the language families of the world, emphasis on linguistic structures, historical reconstruction – with the many rich nonlinguistic contexts in which languages are actually used.

So, as students learned about the case and aspectual systems of Russian, for example, they also learned about the history of the Slavic language family, Cyrillic writing, Russian folk songs, and more. This approach required a great deal of work on our part, since no materials systematically crossing linguistic structural information with historical, sociocultural, and political contexts existed in one place.

Over time, the course became a resounding success with students, not only among Linguistics Majors, for whom it is a core course requirement, but also with students from across the Arts aLanguages in the World nd Sciences and even Engineering. The students came for what they heard would be a perspective-shifting and challenging experience. In retrospect, it is easy to understand why this course was so compelling to so many of our students.

Our approach does not abstract language away from speakers, but rather situates it around them. It does not abandon experience and affect but makes space to acknowledge that experience and affect are fundamental to understanding why speakers make the choices they make about language.

Thus, we shifted the title from Languages of the World to Languages in the World.

Once committed to writing our own materials Phillip and I met in New York City in the Fall Semester 2011 when I was teaching in the Duke in New York Arts and Media program. We went to work on a book proposal for Languages in the World. It was Phillip who sought out Wiley-Blackwell, and I give him credit for securing our contract. It’s been a pleasure to work with Wiley-Blackwell, and we’re pleased for the release of our book in January 2016.

In summer 2012, we found ourselves in a part of the world inspiring to both of us: Eastern Europe, with me in Romania and Phillip in Poland. We began to outline the book in Krakow, Poland where Phillip was attending Polish Language School, and we began writing the manuscript in Ukraine on a long train ride from Kiev to L’viv.

Our research and writing continued nonstop for the next two and a half years, and our project went where we went: Bucharest, Romania; Durham, North Carolina; Los Angeles; Miami; Madrid, Spain; New York City; Saigon, Vietnam; Ulan Batar, Mongolia.

During these years of writing, we endeavored to stretch intellectually as far beyond our own experiences as possible. Nevertheless, our personal experiences are clearly reflected in the pages of our book. The most obvious example is that we have written about the languages we know and have studied, which include English, French, German, Mongolian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili, and Vietnamese.

In addition to being professional linguists, we are committed to language learning, and our knowledge of other languages has given us wide canvases to paint on. For instance, the Language Profiles on Vietnamese in Chapter 8 and Mongolian in Chapter 11 are the direct result of my experiences living and studying in Vietnam and Mongolia during the writing of this book.

All our royalties go to the Endangered Language Fund.

See also: Languages in the World


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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