We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.

Review

We are Our Language: An Ethnography of Language Revitalization in a Northern Athabaskan Community

By Barbra A. Meek

March 6, 2014

Review By Ewa Czaykowska-Higgins

As laid out in the First Peoples’ Cultural Council Report on the Status of BC First Nations Languages (2010), since the 1800s, there has been “dramatic decline in the number of fluent speakers” of First Nations languages in British Columbia; as of 2010 only 5.1 percent of the population of BC First Nations are fluent speakers of their ancestral languages (5). This decline parallels drops in numbers of speakers of Indigenous languages around the world.[1] In response, Indigenous communities, supported by linguists, educators, language activists, and agencies such as UNESCO, are implementing efforts to maintain, reclaim, and revitalize their languages. Such efforts are frequently aligned with human rights movements attempting to reverse the effects of colonizing forces and/or discrimination. They can thus contribute, often significantly, to increasing people’s sense of identity and connection to their land, to the health of individuals, and to their communities, cultures, and economies.

Academics and non-academics are increasingly considering what factors — historical, social, political, educational, cultural — play a role in language revitalization. Barbra Meek’s We are Our Language, an ethnographic account of revitalization efforts in the Kaska-speaking community in the Yukon between 1998 and 2008, is an important academic contribution to this area of inquiry and action. Its detailed description and discussion of the historical and contemporary context of Kaska language use provide an illuminating picture of the successes, value, and challenges of language revitalization efforts for Kaska specifically, and for many other Indigenous languages more generally.

The primary purpose of Meek’s book is “to show how the practice and ideologization of Kaska have influenced Kaska language revitalization” (x). The first chapter presents the history of colonization in Canada pertaining to language shift, the history of language revitalization in the Yukon, and ways in which economic factors affect language use and revaluation in Kaska-Dene communities. Chapter 2 focuses on the role of social environment in language revitalization, considers literature on and theoretical background for language revitalization, including work from linguistic anthropology and language socialization research, and points out the extent to which social, political, and ideological considerations affect the outcomes of language revitalization efforts. Chapter 3 turns to an extended illustration of Kaska language use and roles, especially amongst children, at home, in public institutions, and in classrooms. In Chapter 4, the documentation of language, and the production of materials for language learning are considered, with particular attention to how language materials are presented and how this affects the use and valuing of Kaska, while Chapter 5 focuses on representations of language in programs and bureaucracies and considers how these affect revitalization goals. Chapter 6 concludes by asking how “we conceptualize language revitalization and success” (162).

Meek’s description and analysis centres on the notion of disjunctures, defined as “everyday points of discontinuity and contradiction — between social or linguistic groups, within discourses, practices or between them” (x). Her analysis raises crucial questions about gaps between the ideals of revitalization and its reality, and in the process provides insight into ways of critically evaluating and transforming the “sociolinguistic landscape” (163).

 

REEFERENCES

Amrhein, H., S. Gessner, T. Herbert, X. D. Daniels, M. Lappi, D. Hamilton-Evans, and A. Wadsworth (2010). Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages 2010. First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council. Brentwood Bay, BC.  Retrieved 3 March 2014, from http://www.fpcc.ca/language/status-report/

Nettle, D. and S. Romaine (2000). Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

UNESCO Web site. Endangered Languages page. Retrieved 3 March 2014, from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/

 


[1] See, for example, Nettle and Romaine 2000 and UNESCO’s website on Endangered Languages.

We are Our Language: An Ethnography of Language Revitalization in a Northern Athabaskan Community
Barbra A. Meek
Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010. 13 b/w photographs, 5 tables. 232 pp. $29.95 paper