I recently read Bringing our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families, edited by Leanne Hinton.
The bulk of the book consists of contributed essays by various families/persons involved in language revitalisation in a family context. There are 13 chapters grouped in 5 sections.
The first section opens with two families working with Miami and Wampanoag languages. These are incredibly powerful stories, since they involve families working from zero. Miama language revitalization began with Daryl Baldwin, and his family, after the loss of speakers, and beginning from documentation alone. So much so, that Daryl persuaded a linguistics degree in order to reconstruct the language. The second language, Wampanoag, is also a “resurrection” more than a revitalisation – there were no speakers from 1850 to the 1990s.
These are truly heroic efforts to reclaim language. Part two speaks to families working in situations where there are elders who are speakers. We have the stories of two families working with Karuk and Yuchi. I particularly appreciated the Yuchi chapter, because of the way it laid bare the ways in which the explicit colonialism of English language forces to destroy indigenous languages.
Part Three speaks to family-based revitalisation where it is in concert with community efforts. This includes speakers of Kanien’kéha, Māori, Hawaiian, Anishinaabemowin, and Irish. The Māori chapter particularly resonated with me. It is the story of Hana O’Regan, who speaks about her own autobiopraphy, struggles with Māori and linguistic identity, efforts for revitalisation, and the difficulty within her own family.
All my years of lecturing, writing poetry in Māori, composing songs in Māori, and debating in public and on national stages in Māori didn’t prepare me for the moment I first held my precious baby in my arms.
Yet when the time arrived, I learnt very quickly that I didn’t have at my disposal the language I needed, and it wasn’t just the vocabulary; it was the idiom, the turn of phrase, the terms of endearment. I didn’t know the term for winding or burping a child, or how to say, “Let’s put your legs up so I can clean you up”; these weren’t structures or sentences I had ever had to use in the lecture room or with my peers!
I had hopes, when my daughter was first born, to speak only Gàidhlig to her. but I quickly found that despite being a somewhat competent speaker, the domain-specific competency needed for parenting rapidly escaped me. That, and other factors, eventually led me to abandon that practice.
Hana also speaks honestly and frankly about the problem of encroaching English, and that children do not care about intergenerational language transmission. Quoting Colin Baker:
For the child, language is a means to an end, not an end in itself…Language is a vehicle to help move along the road of information exchange and social communication.
(Colin Baker, A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2000), 64)
Therein lies my own dilemma – young children will rebel against language they don’t understand when they know the speaker can use a language they do understand. These days a phrase or word in Gàidhlig is met by my now three-year-old with, “Don’t talk funny; talk properly; speak even gooder; what you saying that for” and similar. More about this below.
I also found the chapter on Irish (Gaeilge) very interesting. This was the story of a family that had joined with others in establishing a small group of houses in an area of Belfast together, for the explicit purpose of speaking Irish with each other, and fostering it as the first language among their children. It was interesting on several levels. The intentional decision to form a community to provide the children the opportunity to grow up in a Irish-first environment was always going to be challenging, as all forms of intentional community are. Secondly, the way in which the community faced schooling issues was also significant – once minority-language children start a majority language school, the balance of their language starts to shift. In this case, the families managed to achieve a critical mass to start a school, which initially was, ah, less than legal. Eventually it gained recognition, but then the growth of both external influences, and external parents wanting to have their children in an Irish-medium school, as well as the impact of ongoing school meetings and fundraising, placed very significant pressures on the community itself.
In all this, I have been struck by the way in which the language of home, of school, and of street, all interplay. Gàidhlig medium education in Scotland seems to face this barrier where students can get through a full sequence of in-language education (provided they can, the provisions in upper years are somewhat lacking still), but because it’s not the language of the street, the home, or the society, they disprefer Gàidhlig outside the classroom. Similarly, when a minority language is only used inside a home, it becomes a language of the home alone. Robust, widespread revitalisation appears to require deliberate incursions of the minority language into various domains.
Section IV is entitled “variations on a theme” and contains a couple of chapters that appear unique. The first deals with a family attempting to raise their child with Kypriaka (Cyprian Greek), and the challenges that presented in a variety of geographic contexts, ending with them eventually relocating to Cyprus. The following chapter is the reminiscence of Ezra Hale, daughter of Ken Hale, raised as a Warlpiri speaker. This is a fascinating chapter because Ken was the only Warlpiri speaker that Ezra and her brother knew. Ezra in fact has never been to Australia. And so it’s a fascinating case of “sole parent transmission” because Ezra’s only linguistic data for Warlpiri came from her father.
Section V deals with family-language programs. There’s a chapter on adapting master-apprentice style training to a family situation, with Kawaiisu, and a chapter on Finlay Macleoid’s work with Scottish Gaelic. I had encountered Finlay and his work (and opinions!) in the past, and he’s (to my impression) a man of decided convictions about language work. He has been actively involved in promoting the use of “Total Immersion Plus” work for Gàidhlig, and working to bring people into immersion contexts that also embrace “all of life”. He has also been involved in the development of Family Language Plans for Gàidhlig. These originally were produced with TAIC/CSNA, starting in the mid 80s. In particular, it’s notable the attention to providing appropriate plans for various home situations – both fluent speakers, one fluent speaker, neither fluent speaker, as well as considerations of community interaction. Finlay has also worked particularly to bridge the ‘domain gap’ (as I call it) of language with young children.
This was certainly my experience with my daughter. I didn’t have that vocabulary for Gàidhlig. I could read poems and stories, but I didn’t know how to talk about the fundamental things of life with a baby, or an infant, or a toddler. That was one factor that lead to my abandonment of trying to speak only Gàidhlig to her.
Finlay is still active, with the Moray Language Centre. Although it seems rather, hmm, less than easy to obtain some of the many resources he has produced over the years.
The book concludes with a chapter from Leanne herself, summarising some of the key points that emerge from the previous chapters, and offering some advice and wisdom for families.
So, to bring it back to myself. I live in Australia, far from most Gàidhlig speakers. My family is unlikely to make a significant contribution to keeping Gàidhlig alive. That does not mean, though that I have surrendered the fight. I have just reoriented myself to the current reality – I do not have all the tools and time to raise my daughter with a “One Parent One Language” strategy, and as she is now 3 years old, I am unlikely to ever shift the dominance of English.
But this book has galvanised me to begin a more active “resistance”. I am making conscious efforts to shift individual phrases and words into Gaelic. I use repetition and context to make sure they are understandable. Previously when talking about different languages, we would say “X’s language, Y’s language, Papa’s language”, but I have decided to refer to Gàidhlig as “our language” from now on. When Gàidhlig words are met with 3yo resistance, I offer gentle but firm push-back. For myself, I am working more diligently to expand not only my general fluency, but my domain-specific competencies. And every day I hope to shift the balance on the scales a little from English to just a little more Gàidhlig. It is a small, ongoing war against English.