- We Are Our Language: An Ethnography of Language Revitalization in a Northern Athabaskan Community
The volume is essential reading for those engaged in community language work, since it is one of the few works that focuses on the complex nature of language practices and ideologies in the wider context of language shift across multiple age groups and in both home and institutional settings. This is an ethnography of language revitalization efforts based on Barbra Meek’s doctoral dissertation research in Watson Lake, Yukon. Meek’s analysis utilizes the concept of disjunctures, which are characterized as points of discontinuity and contradiction between social and linguistic groups. She finds that, for Kaska as for many other groups in North America, language loss, a basic disjuncture in their linguistic practices, stemmed from forced assimilation that targeted indigenous languages through institutional education. In the Kaska case, language shift was implemented through the Indian residential schools that Kaska children were forced to attend after 1945.
Meek also argues that contemporary Kaska linguistic practices are characterized by several important disjunctures that constrain language revitalization efforts. One that she explores relates to the roles of Kaska elders in language revitalization. She says that as the Kaska language has become identified with older speakers, younger language learners feel alienated and are reluctant to make use of a code that is widely regarded as inappropriate for their age group. She argues that governmental support for language projects that gave prominence to elders as fluent speakers “created a new linguistic regime that excluded younger generations of potential Kaska speakers” (p. 30). Meek also argues that the Kaska language programs in Watson Lake schools have created another type of disjuncture. She finds that language teachers underestimate the children’s knowledge of Kaska and, through their use of a highly routinized and grammatically simplified style of Kaska, hinder students’ ability to develop a command of adultappropriate forms of the language. Meek provides extensive linguistic evidence that she obtained during her long-term participant observations in the community for the various disjunctures she reports.
While this ethnography is both thought-provoking and important for language revitalization efforts, some essential questions remain. Meek gives prominence to contemporary disjunctures, such as the association of the language with elders and the barriers posed by the use of a school style of Kaska, but it is not clear whether solutions to these problems would be sufficient to offset the wider social and ideological factors that motivated and continue to enforce language shift. Although it is undoubtedly possible to ameliorate the situations that Meek reports, language shift may inevitably entail disjunctures associated with an aging population of fluent speakers and the use of second language teaching methods. The extent of individual variation in response to disjunctures [End Page 291] is also unclear in Meek’s study. In Watson Lake, individuals of various age groups vary in the extent to which they use Kaska according to their life experiences, language ideologies, and the contexts of language use. Careful attention to the nature of variation in the community could provide a clearer sense of agency and the way individuals reproduce, resist, and alter language practices, ideologies, and disjunctures. This study provides an insightful analysis of Kaska language use that will interest both scholars and community members involved in language revitalization. [End Page 292]