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Ideology and Practice in Academic Approaches to Language Revitalization  

Sarah Shulist

“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.


Language Socialization  

Shannon M. Ward

Language socialization is a theoretical and methodological paradigm that originated in the discipline of anthropology, with the goal of addressing the relationship between culture and language learning. Scholars of language socialization use methods from ethnography, field linguistics, and sociolinguistics to document and analyze patterns of language use in communities. In the 1980s, anthropologists developed the paradigm of language socialization in response to a lack of attention to the diversity of languages and cultures represented within the study of first-language acquisition. To center inquiries into language learning around cultural and linguistic diversity, language socialization attends to everyday practices of language and communication as well as to the enduring language attitudes and cultural belief systems that co-constitute language structures. Language socialization emphasizes that humans build social identities, cultural practices, and senses of belonging as they learn and use languages. While language socialization originated in the study of young children’s first-language acquisition, it has since expanded to examine broader contexts of language learning. Guided by the understanding that the structures of real-time interactions and social institutions mutually create one another, language socialization scholars have examined how our social roles in families, schools, and professions shape our language use across the lifespan. Since the 1990s, language socialization research has taken particular interest in the relationship between language and power, drawing from theories of language ideologies—or taken-for-granted beliefs about languages and their speakers—to address topics related to multilingualism, including code-mixing, second-language learning, heritage-language learning, and language shift and revitalization. In 2023, key debates in the field focus on defining learners’ identities and highlighting communicative diversity beyond spoken languages.


Language Ideologies  

Catherine R. Rhodes

Language ideologies are a mediating device that helps people make sense of the relationship between linguistic and other communicative patterns and socially salient categories. Language ideologies are used to evaluate socially perceivable behavior as meaningful with respect to issues of power, authority, and difference. They can be understood as a framework for linking certain uses of language (or other communicative forms) with certain social positionalities. The study of language ideologies involves examining the social work language users do through their behaviors, activities, and social relations. As a concept grounded in indexical processes, analyzing the social work of language ideologies requires a semiotic framework that can make clear how people evaluate context, which can also evidence their understanding of social distribution. This article defines key terms in language ideologies research, provides a brief history of the development of the concept, discusses methodological considerations when studying language ideologies, explores scholarship on the making of social difference through linguistic ideological work, and discusses key areas of research interest.


Language as Social Action  

Jillian R. Cavanaugh

Linguistic anthropology is the study of language as social action. Linguistic anthropologists study how people use language, and how, in using language, people are also defining and displaying who they are, enacting their membership in particular groups, and bringing various types of truths into being. Language, then, is a set of practices that people engage in every day in numerous forms, which helps to define their positions in their families, communities, workplaces, schools, and even nation-states. How one speaks is not only who one is—it is what one does. This is possible because language is multifunctional, that is, it works in many different ways to connect people, convey meanings and feelings, move people to action, and define who they are. The major functions of language are the referential function, the emotive function, the conative function, the poetic function, the phatic function, the metalinguistic function, and the indexical function, which often overlap when people use language and are shaped by language ideologies, that is, the beliefs and attitudes that shape speakers’ relationships to their own and others’ languages, mediating between the social practice of language and the socioeconomic, historical, and political structures within which it occurs. Language use is part of what makes humans human, and as anthropologists, focused on how humans live and make sense of each other and the world, language should always be part of what anthropologists attend to and investigate.


Language and White Supremacy  

Jennifer Roth-Gordon

White supremacy is a racial order that relies on a presumed “natural” superiority of whiteness and assigns to all groups racialized as non-white biological or cultural characteristics of inferiority. Despite decades of scientific studies refuting these claims, beliefs in racial difference continue to rely on ideas of innate or genetic differences between groups. Scholars now widely agree that race is a social, cultural, and political distinction that was and continues to be forged through relations of transatlantic slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. A focus on white supremacy does not limit scholars to the study of white supremacists, that is, those individuals and groups that outwardly espouse a racial order that privileges whiteness and white people and frequently endorse physical violence to maintain this order. Under white supremacy, societies privilege whiteness even in the absence of explicit laws and sometimes while promoting ideologies of racial inclusion and equality. Contexts of white supremacy feature the consolidation of white power and wealth at the expense of people of color—an arrangement that is maintained through racial capitalism, settler colonialism, anti-blackness, imperial conquest, Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, and xenophobic or anti-immigrant sentiment. Widespread awareness of linguistic difference can be mobilized to support these pillars of white supremacy through a range of official language policies and overt acts of linguistic suppression, as well as more covert or subtle language practices and ideologies. While the term “white supremacy” has gained broader circulation in the 21st century, these topics have been studied by linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists for decades under the more familiar headings of “race and language,” “racism and language,” and “raciolinguistics.” This scholarship examines how racial domination is consolidated, maintained, and justified through attention paid to language, but also the ways that marginalized speakers take up a broad range of linguistic practices to challenge assumptions about the superiority of whiteness and emphasize non-white racial pride, community ties, and cultural and linguistic heritage and traditions. Racial and linguistic hierarchies work together to falsely connect whiteness and the use of “standard” (officially sanctioned) language with rationality, intelligence, education, wealth, and higher status. Under these racial logics, speakers of languages associated with non-whiteness are readily linked to danger, criminality, a lack of intelligence or ability, primitivism, and foreignness. Together these ideologies naturalize connections between languages or specific linguistic practices and types of people, producing the conditions under which racialized speakers experience discrimination, marginalization, exclusion, oppression, and violence. At the same time, speakers challenge these power dynamics through linguistic practices that range from codeswitching, bilingualism and multilingualism, and language revitalization efforts, to verbal traditions both old and new, including social media genres. Though racial hierarchy continues to be bolstered by a linguistic hierarchy that assigns higher value to English as well as other European or colonial languages, linguistic variation persists, as speakers proudly embrace linguistic practices that defy the push to assimilate or submit to language loss. Beliefs in the superiority of whiteness have global resonance, but local specificities are important, and a majority of research has thus far been conducted within the context of the United States. Scholars who study language, racial inequality, and oppression continue to weigh in on public policies and debates in an attempt to raise awareness on these issues and advocate for racial and social justice.