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.

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

Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning

Photograph: Trans performer, model, and AIDS educator, Octavia St. Laurent walking in a ball in Miramax film, Paris is Burning. 


I’ve used clips from the ethnographic documentary Paris is Burning (1990) in undergraduate anthropology courses, as well as a graduate-level linguistic anthropology course, to teach linguistic concepts of speech acts and speech communities. The film presents an intimate portrayal of drag “ball” culture in New York in the 1980s. In one scene, drag performer Dorian Corey explains the nuanced difference between “reading” and “shade.” Reading is the art of playful insult, considered somewhat of an art form in this community. Shade, on the other hand, is considered to be the nonverbal counterpart to reading; it includes alluding to flaws with gestures or ignoring a person altogether. The way these forms of speech are portrayed in the film can not only be used to discuss Bauman’s speech acts, but also how language can illuminate or build speech communities.

Here’s a link to the specific clip I’ve used: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnVSklVO-t4

There is also potential for it to be used to teach gender and kinship, and it would be a brilliant addition to an undergraduate cultural anthropology course syllabus. The drag performers in the film are frequently working to enact an authentic gender performance on stage, which they dub “realness” (as in “butch queen realness,” or the performance by gay men of male heterosexuality). The film simultaneously portrays the daily struggles of gay men of color and trans women of color to perform gender off stage. It is through these struggles, along with the shared experiences of homophobia, transphobia, racism, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and homelessness, that this community is able to fashion forms of alternative kinship and intentional families. Various individuals in the film discuss these topics outright, providing ample scaffolding for students to get a basic sense of these ideas before discussing them more in depth.

The film is 78 minutes long. If used in class to discuss language, I would recommend finding relevant clips online (like the one posted above), providing some background on the film, its cast of characters, and the significance before showing them. If used in class to discuss gender performance and alternative kinship, I think it’s worthy of being shown in full.

As of 09/21/18 Paris is Burning is available to watch on Netflix and on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/199274267.

Other resources (specifically for graduate-level courses):

  1. If you’re planning on teaching Paris is Burning at the graduate level, I’d recommend pairing it with chapters from this book which provides further context, analysis, and critique.
  2. For a critique of the film from multiple angles (e.g., the position of the documentarian, drag in the film as misogynistic), see:
    • hooks, bell. 1992. “Is Paris Burning?.” Black looks: Race and representation. 145-156.
  3. For an exploration of authenticity in gender performance, see:
    • Butler, Judith. 1997. “Gender is burning: Questions of appropriation and subversion.”  Cultural Politics 11:381-395.

Teaching Resource Contributed by: Evan P. Conaway, University of California, Irvine

Evan P. Conaway is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Irvine. His dissertation work examines how computer servers shape the way gamers experience place, memory, and law. With funding from an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, he is exploring the experiences of gamers, companies, and museums who are using servers to preserve, memorialize, and resurrect online game worlds. He is also a Contributing Editor at Platypus, the official blog of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing