Teaching the Sociopolitical Complexities of Endangered Language Preservation using “The Linguists”

Movie poster for The Linguists, from Ironbound Films

Ideal for introductory linguistic as well as cultural anthropology classes focused on the nation-state or childhood, this 104 minute documentary film helps students better understand the real-world complexities of conducting anthropological fieldwork with a focus on the documentation and preservation of endangered languages. In multiple arrival stories, we see how two linguists, David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, struggle to locate the ever-decreasing speakers of endangered languages in Siberia, India, and Bolivia. While preliminary research helps them select a region as well as connect with key informants, they also depend on snowball sampling as they rush to track down native speakers with whom they conduct exploratory interviews. This documentary highlights how the production of anthropological knowledge is shaped by the relationships between local indigenous communities around the world and nation-states. Documenting endangered languages, as the film illustrates, also necessitates studying the forms of oppression that endanger them.

The film stresses that the generational decline of people who speak endangered languages is often the result of forced assimilation projects like the state-driven separations of indigenous children from their communities. Places like boarding schools where teachers shame children for speaking indigenous languages decreases the likelihood these children will teach them to future generations.

The film could also complement anthropology of childhood classes because it calls attention to the agential roles children play in language acquisition and transmission. We see this in India where students from the Bonda tribe are required to learn English, which is perceived as a money-making language that promises children and their families a better future.

How languages become linked with the past, present, and the future is key to addressing the ways in which power-dynamics prioritize learning imperialist languages exclusively. The film underscores the point that language preservation efforts will not be successful if they are only driven by Western academics. Addressing the diminishment of linguistic diversity requires a much more systemic approach, such as the active participation of indigenous communities in language preservation projects, as well as widespread political reforms that, for instance, require national educational systems to bolster multi-language learning. The linguists emphasize that collective action is needed now because the world is losing indigenous languages at exponential rates. And the risks for losing humanity’s linguistic diversity are profound because when languages become endangered the diverse ways people understand and experience the world become endangered as well.

Check out the trailer for The Linguists on Youtube. To view the complete movie, see if you can access it through a library or purchase a copy directly from the Ironbound Films production company’s website here

PBS also has complementary resources for teaching the film on their website. They introduce the topic of language loss, give examples of how words can reflect unique worldviews, offer opportunities to hear them spoken, define key linguistic terms, and provide references for further reading on endangered languages. They also offer a teaching guide and unit focused on teaching students in high school or college about language loss.  

Resource contributed by: Megan Neal, University of California, Irvine

Megan Neal is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine. Her research centers on how disabled citizens in La Paz, Bolivia challenge normative understandings of development, the senses, and political participation. She also serves as the Web Content Producer for the Teaching and Learning Anthropology Journal’s website.

Learn Genetics

Learn Genetics

The Learn.Genetics website created by the Genetic Science Learning Center offers a wealth of free educational resources on genetics for students and teachers alike. The resources can all be used to complement a classroom lecture, activity, or demonstration. Students can also use the resources independently. The resources focus on basic genetics and cover such as chromosomes, inheritance, proteins, RNA, mutation, and observable human traits. Using pigeons as an example, students can also learn about the intricacies of inheritance in fun, easy to understand lessons and activities. There are also lessons and activities on epigenetics and genetic science.

There is an additional classroom materials section where educators can explore active learning activities covering translation, mutation, inheritance, and DNA structure.

Note: Some of the interactive resources require a flash plug-in, like the free one offered by adobe, downloaded onto your browser.


Resource Contributed By: Megan Danielle Neal, University of California, Irvine

Interactive Digs from Around the World

Thanks to the Archaeological Institute of America and Archaeology Magazine, your students can virtually join archaeologists on digs around the world! The Interactive Digs website enables students to learn about digs currently happening in Ireland, Greece, Italy, the United States, and Suriname. Each dig has field reports, videos, photos, interviews with the archeologists, and notebook entries that can deepen how students understand the complexity of real-world archeological investigations. Explore the website and you will also find these multimedia resources for sixteen additional past digs in places like Guatemala, Turkey, Crimea, and Bolivia.


Teaching Resource Contributed By: Megan Danielle Neal

Linguistics Challenge Puzzles

Hosted by the Princeton Linguistics Club, the Linguistics Challenge website hosts a series of puzzles in different languages. The puzzles have four levels of difficulty and are designed with native English speakers in mind. The puzzles encourage players to learn about languages like Agta, Hawaiian, Georgian, and Thai. Just as every language is unique, players need to develop distinct approaches to solving the puzzles. 


Resource Contributed by: Megan Daniel Neal, University of California, Irvine

Dig into History: Mesopotamia

In their project, Dig Into History, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago gives students the opportunity to learn how archeologists work while taking a closer look at the rich history of Mesopotamia. Students begin by participating in a virtual dig in Iraq where they travel to find priceless artifacts. Once they are assembled, students will curate a museum where they have the chance to analyze and write about the artifacts as they learn more about everyday life in Mesopotamia.

These activities require you to have a flash plug-in, like the free one offered by adobe, downloaded onto your browser.


Resource Contributed by: Megan Daniel Neal, University of California, Irvine