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Review of  Bringing Our Languages Home

Reviewer: Mara R Barbosa
Book Title: Bringing Our Languages Home
Book Author: Leanne Hinton
Publisher: Heyday
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Anthropological Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Cypriot
Gaelic, Scottish
Ojibwa, Northwestern
Issue Number: 24.5240

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Leanne Hinton’s “Bringing our Languages Home” collects biographies of language activists who have struggled to revive and maintain their endangered heritage languages. Hinton gains insights from people who have more than theoretical knowledge about how to reclaim a language and keep it in a family or community. What unites the central figures in this book is the belief that the family must be the root of any process of language revitalization and maintenance.

Anyone interested in language revitalization and maintenance will find the book worth reading, from linguists to language activists working in the field to those who may not classify themselves as linguists or activists, but who also do not want languages to be lost or killed by the hegemony of other cultures and languages. The volume is particularly important for people who are or want to be involved with language maintenance efforts, since the narratives are filled with advice and strategies that can be applied to one’s own situation.

The book is divided into five parts, plus an introduction and a conclusion written by the editor, with chapters 2 to 13 addressing biographies of language activists and their struggles to save their endangered languages.

Hinton’s introduction gives an overview of how languages are threatened by conflicts among civilizations and by the fear that majority populations have of other languages and cultures menacing their hegemony. The introduction informs the reader about the situation of the endangered Indigenous languages; especially in North America, Europe and Australia. It also introduces the reader to the movements dedicated to the reclamation of such languages, and demonstrates well how valuable they are.

The chapters in part I, “Starting from Zero”, tell stories of families working on the revitalization of languages with no living native speakers. Chapter 1, “Miami: myaamiaataweenki oowaaha: Miami spoken here” by Daryl, Karen, Jessie, and Jarrid Baldwin, tells the story of the Baldwin family, and how the father learned his heritage language, widely known as Miami, and engaged his whole family in the task. There were many challenges in the process of learning a no-longer-spoken language; Daryl had to become a linguist and learn the language by himself. Currently, he directs a project at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio that offers language camps for children, and Miami language and cultural education for people of Myaamia heritage. A project that was started by a single family now impacts the whole Myaamia community and a language that had not been spoken for generations was reclaimed and is now spoken again.

In chapter 2 “Wampanoag: How Did This Happen to my Language?”, jessie little doe baird tells how she assumed responsibility for her lost language by going back to school and becoming a linguist. With her knowledge, she started to reconstruct the language and learn it by herself. Among her steps has been raising her daughter as a Wampanoag native speaker, and founding the Wampanoag Language Revitalization Project (WLRP), which aims to increase the population of fluent speakers through medium charter and immersion schools.

The two chapters in part II, “Learning from the Elders”, are about families working to revitalize languages with few native speakers left. Elaina and Phil Albers narrate their story of learning the Karuk language from Auntie Violet. They describe how their emotional connection to the Karuk language was tied to Auntie Violet, and how they lost motivation to speak it when she passed away. They regained it through a desire to see their children speak the language, bringing it back to their family. Probably the most efficient strategy that the Albers used was trying to always stay one step ahead of their children. This is a situation that affects most parents aiming to revitalize a language: kids learn fast, and it is hard for parents to stay ahead of them.

The revitalization of a hard-to-reconstruct language is described in chapter 4, “Yuchi: Family Language without a Language Family” by Richard A. Grounds and Renée T. Grounds. For this family who learned about Yuchi from the elders, the biggest challenge was not having a sister language to help reconstruct the Yuchi forms. Other challenges were the small number of native speakers (only 5), the lack of recognition of Yuchi as a nation, and, because of this, the lack of funding to support revitalization. The most interesting strategy used was taking children out of public school completely, and taking them to a daily conversation with Yuchi native speakers. Consistency also played an important role in Richard families’ language learning. For everything they knew how to say in Yuchi, they would say it only in Yuchi and abandon the English equivalent.

Part III, “Families and Communities Working Together”, includes chapters 5 through 9 and presents stories of families working with the support of their communities to save endangered languages from becoming extinct. The first is of Margaret and Theodore Peters. In chapter 5 “Mohawk: Our Kanien’kéha Language”, Margaret describes the challenges of being a teacher in a school without governmental support for its non-English programs. She gives examples of students who participated in the immersion program and are now successful at what they do in their lives and careers, which shows that it is possible to succeed while preserving their native languages.

Hana O’Regan tells her story of struggle, at home and within her community, to revitalize her heritage language in Chapter 6 “Māori: My Language Story”. Hana’s target was to have 1000 homes speaking Māori. When she became a mother and saw all the difficulties in teaching her child her heritage language, her goal for the community seemed further away than ever. For her, the successful strategy was the one-parent, one-language method. With this approach she succeeded in having her child’s first words be in Māori.

Chapter 7 “Hawaiian: E Paepae Hou ‘Ia Ka Pōhaku: Reset the Stones of the Hawaiian House Platform”, by William H. Wilson and Kauanoe Kamanā, presents the story of how a family fighting against language extinction successfully gained the support of the academic community. William and Kauanoe were engaged in teaching and promoting the Hawaiian language since they were in graduate school. They were the first couple in their community to start speaking solely Hawaiian at home and raise their children as Hawaiian first language speakers. When they both became professors, they founded a Hawaiian academic department and established a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian. Currently there are at least 50 homes in their community in which at least one parent speaks solely in Hawaiian to the children.

Margaret Noori tells the story of her campaign to revitalize the Anishinaabemowin language in chapter 8 “Language, Family, and Community”. She and a friend are language activists and teachers who share the belief that language revitalization must have its roots in the speakers’ families. Their strategies include extending the concept of family; they see any person close to them as family, and therefore as someone who has potential to help in the language revitalization process. Visitors to their homes are invited to learn a few words of Anishinaabemowin if they do not know the language.

A comparison of two efforts to revitalize the Irish language is presented in chapter 9 “Belfast’s Neo-Gaeltacht”, by Aodán Mac Póilin. He reports on a government effort to keep the Irish language alive, where the main strategy was to teach the language in schools, along with English. The project was not successful in language revitalization, because even though the language was taught, it was not used by the community. Póilin, on the other hand, started a small community where children are raised speaking exclusively Irish. Now non-Irish speakers are starting to join the community. There is no way to predict if the Irish language will prevail there, but the efforts have shown positive results so far.

Part IV, “Variations on a Theme”, presents two different cases in chapters 10 and 11: in the first, a family tells how they decided to move from the US to Cyprus, so that their son would have more contact with the language. In the second, a man talks about his experience learning Walrpiri in the U.S. and using it to communicate only with his father.

In chapter 10, “Making Choices: Enriching Life”, Aigli Pittaka and Brian Bielenberg talk about the challenges they faced trying to raise their child as a first-language speaker of Kypriaka, a dialect of Greek unintelligible to Greek speakers in a mainly English-speaking country -- the U.S. Educators told them that the child would develop better if he was raised speaking English only, yet maintaining their language was important to them. This is the first chapter to mention a challenge we would expect many parents in this situation to face: the fear that their children could avoid speaking the minority language to better fit in with the majority. In response to their desire to maintain their family language, the family chose to move to Cyprus.

Chapter 11, “About Dad”, is a tribute to the linguist Ken Hale, written by his son Ezra Hale. Ezra reports his father’s passion for Warlpiri, a language with around 300 speakers in Central Australia. He also tells how his father would speak only Warlpiri to him and his brother, and how proud they were of speaking it. Warlpiri was not a heritage language to Ezra or Ken Hale, but it is a language that Ken learned and shared with his sons. They used the language mainly for jokes, contributing to a different connection among them.

In Part V, “Family Language-Learning Programs”, chapters 12 and 13 introduce programs for language revitalization in communities through language classes and orientation for families who want to participate in the process of language revitalization. Chapter 12, “The Kawaiisu Language Program at Home” by Laura Grant and Julie Turner, describes the Language at Home Program with its challenges and successes. The Kawaiisu group trains a person who will promote language learning in her own family. Teachers are encouraged to develop everyday activities with the family, using the Kawaiisu language. This way, speaking the language and passing it along to other generations becomes something natural.

Chapter 13, “Taic/CNSA and Scottish Gaelic” by Finlay M. Macleoid, describes the efforts of dedicated activists to save the Gaelic language and culture through the development of stimulating and innovative resources. In 1982 they created the Comhairle Nan Sgoiltean Araich (CNSA) organization with the following aims: to bring language back to people’s everyday life, to promote Gaelic language and culture, to provide children with good Gaelic-medium education, and to create learning materials that families could use at home.

Chapter 14, “Bringing Your Language into Your Own Home”, concludes with a guide for parents who want to raise their children speaking an endangered language. Leanne Hinton draws on the experiences described throughout other chapters. For each issue, she discusses how the contributors to the book felt and what they did about it. The author also reflects on how the contributors created opportunities for the use of the target language in several family activities. A list of the possible activities using the target language in which one can engage the family is presented. It includes games, songs, chores, and many other activities that families generally do, all designed to enhance proficiency in the target language

Hinton’s book covers a multitude of topics relevant to endangered language activists, providing examples of activist efforts working with Kawaiisu, Scottish Gaelic, Hawaiian, among others. It does not present much information about how extinguished languages were reconstructed as language systems. However it is an enjoyable read for linguists and non-linguists interested in the strategies people use to bring back their languages, and how successful they can be.

The author achieves her goal of telling the stories of families working to revitalize their endangered languages. These families decide to reclaim their heritage languages because of their personal and sentimental values. While the author could have written the stories herself, she asked the families to participate in the writing process, including the families’ own voices and emotions towards their beloved languages. Her aim of encouraging readers who want to participate in the process of reclaiming their endangered or dormant languages is also supported by the reported successes of the contributors.

The diversity of experiences presented in the chapters about extinguished languages and endangered languages is of great exemplary and instructional value. Each story represents a fight for a similar cause, yet each story depicts the particularities of specific situations and unique relationships that people have with their languages. The emotional connection between people and their languages is often the biggest motivation for their activism.

In addition to family stories, the details of the individual stories guide families through the reclamation process, and the book concludes by addressing the realities of “Bringing your language into your own home”. The conclusion exposes possible problems and obstacles that parents may encounter upon bringing a language into the home and draws examples from the chapters to explain how such problems may be overcome.

The collection offers insights to facilitate language maintenance and revitalization for those committed to bringing their languages back. Yet, in some chapters there could be more information about the language programs and their results. Macleoid’s chapter about the Taic programs, for example, presents a thorough description of the programs, their motivations and approaches, but doesn’t report results.

The book gathers a series of works in the field of language revitalization. While the academic field has witnessed important work by respected scholars, such as Williams 2000 and Meek 2012, the time has come to hear the voices of non-linguist language activists in the discussion. This gap is filled by “Bringing Our Languages Home”.

Hinton, Leanne. (ed.). 2013. Bringing Our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families. Berkeley: Heyday Books.

Meek, Barbra A. 2012. We Are Our Language: An Ethnography of Language Revitalization in a Northern Athabaskan Community. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Williams, Colin H. (ed.). 2000. Language Revitalization: Policy and Planning in Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Mara Barbosa is a PhD student in Spanish Applied Linguistics at Purdue University. Her research interests include the effects of language prejudice on Spanish heritage language maintenance in the U.S.

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