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date: 05 December 2023

Ideology and Practice in Academic Approaches to Language Revitalizationlocked

Ideology and Practice in Academic Approaches to Language Revitalizationlocked

  • Sarah ShulistSarah ShulistQueens University


“Language revitalization” is an umbrella term that captures a range of interventions and forms of language planning that endeavor to improve the future prospects of Indigenous and minority languages, which have been marginalized through colonial violence and political and economic imperialism. The study of how best to provide this kind of support has become a vital topic across several disciplines within academia, including most obviously linguistics, but also education, Indigenous studies, and anthropology. Language revitalization in the 21st century constitutes not only a topic of analysis but also a community of practice in its own right, which is shaped by cultural norms, values, and activities.

The community of practice constituted around the effort to support languages takes particular form in North American academic institutions, where Indigenous languages of the continent are the primary target for such interventions. As an area of work focusing heavily on language, revitalization initiatives rely on, transmit, and enhance specific language ideologies—culturally specific beliefs, values, and norms that not only help to articulate the value of language or different languages but also express different understandings of what language is, how it can or should be used, and what it means to speak in particular ways. While academic ways of understanding and discussing language are often treated as neutral, detached facts, they are in fact manifestations of language ideologies. These ideologies are expressed and transmitted within the ways that academic language revitalization work is accomplished, through the institutional structures (including university courses, training institutes, and other sites within academia) in which it is housed, and in the citational practices and narratives that are used to articulate and justify involvement in revitalization.

Several core language ideological beliefs shape the practice of academic language revitalization. The housing of language revitalization primarily within linguistics courses and programs, as well as some of the historical trajectory through which thought about language loss has come into academic interest, influence the way that language, rather than speakers or community, is treated as the target for support. Practices that emphasize the numerical assessment of the level of threat that a language faces rely on specific formulations of how language connects to identity, the role of literacy and writing, and the relationship between language and national-level politics. The circulation of the outcomes of subjective assessment practices as quantitative statements promotes their entextualization as though they were objective facts. Additional major areas of power and political influence that intersect with the practice of language revitalization—including religious missionary activities, the environmental preservation movement, and Indigenous decolonization initiatives—all influence and transform expectations about language work; these influences are sometimes rendered invisible in the academic discussion. Recognizing and attuning to these ideologies within the practice of language revitalization and seeing the work as situated through researcher positionality is necessary for a full understanding of the role that academics can and do play in shaping the futures of Indigenous languages.


  • Linguistic Anthropology

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