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"Studying grandmother‚'s tongue‚": Heritage language and linguistics

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Item Summary

Title: "Studying grandmother‚'s tongue‚": Heritage language and linguistics
Authors: Crippen, James
Issue Date: 14 Mar 2009
Description: The concept of indigenous linguistics is not a new one, given that Franz Boas trained William Jones of the Fox nation to do linguistic description of his own language around the end of the 19th century. It is becoming increasingly emphasized today, particularly in projects aimed at educating native speakers of endangered and underdocumented languages so that they can document their own language and linguistic traditions. Concomitant although perhaps orthogonal with this is the idea of “heritage linguistics”, researching a language spoken by one’s family and society. This has been little discussed in linguistic circles, but is becoming more and more prominent particularly among documenters working on languages in developed countries. Working on one’s heritage language brings with it many joys, but also a host of problems. The heritage linguist does “homework” rather than fieldwork, living with family and friends in familiar surroundings. But as a member of the society, the researcher is not a neutral, independent observer. Instead, the heritage linguist can be easily drawn into unpleasant politics, be subject to unreasonable demands from community members, and be derided for failures in language policy. Carefully guarded material may be easily available to the heritage linguist but unusable in documentation efforts because of restrictions on distribution. Conversely, social and kinship relations may interfere in the interactions with native speakers. The weight of endangerment is particularly heavy, since community members expect the researcher to be active in revitalization and maintenance regardless of personal intentions, and a heritage linguist may suddenly find themselves as “the last living speaker” despite being a second language learner. The relatively impartial, data-driven observations of linguistics can conflict with community language beliefs, leaving the heritage linguist in the unpleasant position of contradicting the words of their elders and potentially alienating themselves from their own society. There are other more personal issues in studying one’s heritage language. The heritage linguist can become a community authority on language and cultural tradition which confers unexpected powers and responsibilities. Heritage linguists may suddenly find themselves in the uncomfortable and perhaps unwarranted position of becoming “young elders” out of their intimate study of language and traditions. The desire to pursue revitalization may conflict painfully with the desire for an academic career, since academia is often very distant from the homeland. Finally, lack of community support for language conservation can leave the heritage linguist disillusioned and dismayed with their own society.
URI/DOI: http://hdl.handle.net/10125/5097
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:1st International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)



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