January 10, 2017

Language Matters - a review (thanks Qantas!)

I managed to have a proper holiday and went to Perth for a few days, switching off entirely from work and linguistics which was much needed. Flying back to Darwin though, I had the most pleasurable easing back into the world of languages when I happened across the doco Language Matters on my little back-of-the-chair Qantas Inflight entertainment screen.

Look who's on my Qantas flight!
Nick Evans in Language Matters
I was aware of Language Matters but I'd also kinda forgotten about it. Filmed in 2013 , it was made for PBS (Public TV) in America and I don't actually know anyone who has seen it. The only reason I knew of it was because it features my at-the-time PhD supervisor Nick Evans and I remember him talking about it (see also this mention in an old ANU newsletter). So what a pleasant surprise to be reminded of its existence by Qantas and then be able to spend the next two hours watching it while zooming over Australia.

It turns out, Language Matters is wonderful. It's a documentary triptych, if you will: three panels comprising Warruwi (Goulburn Island, off the Arnhem Land coast), Wales and Hawai'i. Each panel conveys the importance of language to culture and identity. Each panel stoically damning hegemonic monolingualism and each panel explores language loss, maintenance and revitalisation. But while these themes are very familiar to linguists, the documentary does more then skim the surface and provide familiar tropes. On Warruwi, for example, we don't just talk to the elder who knows of languages no-one else does and the linguist working with him. We see families performing dance and song on the beach. Meet the local teacher who uses three languages to support students. Check in on the church and the local radio. Talk to a musicologist and a sociolinguist. The range of contexts and participants in Language Matters makes it constantly interesting and the specifics of each place enrich their documentary further.

Nancy Ngalmindjalmag and Ruth Singer were also on my flight!
On Goulburn Island, Language Matters normalises multilingualism, meeting several islanders with complex-yet-distinct linguistic repertoires. But we also learn about languages that have been lost and see the efforts of community members and researchers to prolong languages in various stages of vulnerability. And - bonus! - it was a lovely surprise to see linguists I know on Qantas inflight entertainment!

The through-line offered by narrator/producer Bob Holman (a prominent US author) is the exploration of song, poetry and performance across the three locations. The songs sung by Goulburn Islanders are echoed in the poems, stories and songs of the Welsh, where we see how Welsh language maintenance happens on prestigious stages like the National Eisteddfod and in poetry-as-public-art on Cardiff's Millenium Centre.

Cardiff's Millenium Centre: vertically, it displays monolingual verses in English and Welsh.
Horizontally, the words create bilingual verse.

The Welsh story introduces politics and protest. Most prominent is the description of the flooding of a small village, Capel Celyn. I hadn't heard the story before. Language Matters details how the flooding of the village, for Liverpool's water needs, catalysed Welsh national movements which also included language activism. The person interviewed describes nicely how after decades of tolerating English oppression, the flooding of the village clearly symbolised to the Welsh just how far down the ladder their interests lay with the English. Activism built a movement that has since seen Welsh language revitalisation become one of the most successful revitalisation efforts in the world.

Not far behind are the Hawai'ians. Early non-Hawaiian residents had a positive impact, when missionaries introduced literacy in Hawai'ian and created possibly one of the most literate societies of the 1800s. American governance reversed the situation. Colonisation, associated policies and a need to survive led to a swift demise of Hawai'ian. Song and civil rights are again shown to create a strong revitalisation movement, beginning just in time for the last few dozen L1 Hawai'ian speakers to have significant input.

Language Matters tells stories that are familiar to all linguists and to many non-linguists. But rarely do we get such broad, first-hand access to a range of locations and people who tell these stories vividly and authentically. Bob Holman's infusion of song, poetry and verse as a linking device is a creative and effective one. Holman does well to portray himself as a student rather than expert so his central role is rarely overbearing. But for me, it is hearing first-hand from so many language activists, speakers, students and teachers that kept me engaged. Too often, linguistics as a discipline divorces language from language speakers. Language Matters keeps this inseparable relationship in perspective and takes viewers on great journeys to meet great people.

If you're lucky enough to be flying Qantas in the near future, keep an eye out for Language Matters on the documentary section of your inflight entertainment. Americans (or those with VPN) can watch it here: http://www.languagemattersfilm.com/ 


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