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.

The University as Community and Field Site: Experiential Learning About Qualitative Research Methods

This resource is a multi-week group assignment to practice a range of qualitative research methods. The assignment is to conduct preliminary research about an issue affecting the university community, in order to identify research and policy priorities about that topic. We developed this assignment as a group project for a ten-week course on community-based research at the University of California, Irvine, but it could be adapted as a shorter or longer-term project for similar courses on ethnographic methods, qualitative research, or applied anthropology.

In small groups of about six, students conducted informal research about issue or problem that affects their shared community: the college or university. Through a series of in-class and take-home activities over several weeks, students gain experience in various stages of the ethnographic research process. In particular, this sequence of assignments highlights the iterative, reflexive, and collaborative aspects of ethnographic research.

The modules are as follows: First, students identify a university-based research topic and community of concern. Second, they practice writing and revising research questions about that topic or group. These research questions are then used to guide an instructor-facilitated focus group. During the focus group, students record data using a variety of different note-taking techniques. After the focus group, students practice coding their data in class. These assignments together provide scaffolding for the final assignment, in which students conduct and analyze an individual interview and present their findings to the group.

Framing the university as “the community” or “the field site” can help unsettle students’ preconceptions about the imagined sites and subjects of anthropological inquiry as “elsewhere.” It also introduces the conceptual and ethical challenges of defining “community” in community-based research. In our experience, it led to fruitful discussions about issues of authority and representation in ethnographic practice, and about the role of researchers’ personal experiences and values in motivating particular research questions.

The project builds students’ practical research skills through experiential learning, preparing them for a variety of academic and professional opportunities. After the course, one student reported how helpful the activity had been in preparing her to carry out an undergraduate thesis project on health care access among older college students. Another student wrote to tell us that she draws upon her experience from the class to conduct stakeholder focus groups in her new job at a large non-profit organization.

In this document, we suggest four potential module topics, activities, and assignments to be carried out sequentially over several weeks, along with examples from our students’ group project. These meetings and assignments can complement additional course content, including readings and lectures about research ethics, methods, and/or ethnographic case studies. In our class, students engaged in Think-Pair-Share activities as well as wrote weekly reflective journal entries on the research process and its connection to course readings.

Instructor’s notes from a focus group with first-generation university students about their pre-college motivations to pursue a college education.
Instructor’s notes from a focus group with first-generation university students about their current motivation to continue their college education.

Teaching Resource Contributed By: Kathryn Cox and Connie McGuire, PhD, University of California, Irvine

Kathryn Cox is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research and teaching interests include environmental health, ethnographic methods, and anthropologies of medicine and science. Her dissertation research examines how environmental health scientists operationalize problems of race and justice in public health research in Southern California.

Connie McGuire, PhD, is the Director of Community Relationships with the Engagement Initiative at the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California, Irvine where she conducts, studies, and teaches about community-engaged research. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist with specializations in Latin American and Feminist Studies.