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The film ‘The Linguists’ by Kramer, Miller, and Newberger (2008) focuses on the rate at which languages across the world are becoming extinct because of a number of reasons. It is estimated that currently, there are over 7,000 languages actively used around the world. The number of languages was more than double what they currently were about 1000 years ago (Baker, 2016). However, migration, integration, and disappearance of some communities have led to the extinction of so many languages. In this film, the two linguists, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, estimate that about half of the currently used languages will be gone within this century. As some languages such as English and French continue to become dominant and popular across the world, many indigenous languages are becoming irrelevant both in the socio-economic and political platforms. In this paper, the researcher will look at the lessons learned about doing fieldwork based on this film.
How People Study Languages
In this film, one of the important lessons learned about studying languages is the need to interact with people. It may not be possible to appreciate the significance of some languages unless a scholar interacts with the natives of such a language. Through such active engagement, one gets to understand why a given language is under threat of extension, the current number of speakers of such a language, and what can be done to save it from disappearing. In the film, Greg Anderson gets to interact with the locals actively throughout his study. The elders explain their concerns to him and why they feel their language is increasingly becoming irrelevant. The researchers get to learn about forces that threaten such languages and how they can be controlled.
The film also outlines a very important lesson about studying languages in relation to culture. As shown in the film, culture, and languages are intertwined. Culture shapes a language. It defines what a person can say or not say in different contexts. As Baker (2016) notes, diction is very important in cultural settings. Culture requires people to avoid specific words in different settings, especially when speaking to people that one must respect. On the other hand, language is the channel through which people pass their culture from one generation to the other.
McLelland (2017) describes it as a warehouse and a system through which the culture of people is stored and shared from one generation to another. The elders have to use their language to teach the younger generation about their culture. It means that to learn a given language, one should also strive to learn the culture associated with it. The uniqueness of a given culture makes its language unique. For instance, the practice of female genital mutilation was common among some African communities. They had a cultural reason why they had that practice and assigned a specific name for it. Trying to translate the name into English or any other language without understanding the cultural meaning may distort the message that comes out.
What the Film Shows About Doing Fieldwork
The third lesson that the film shows about doing fieldwork is that a researcher cannot be successful in studying a language without being an active participant in the process. As McLelland (2017) observes, interacting with people may not be enough. A scholar should strive to be part of the community he or she is studying. Other than just asking questions, sometimes it may be necessary to engage in the daily activities of these people to understand them. When they explain why they embrace a given practice and assign it a specific name, one may not easily understand them. However, when a person participates actively in their daily activities, it becomes easy to appreciate their culture and way of living. One will understand how local forces define the local language and culture.
It is also clear that studying languages require a high level of flexibility of mind. As mentioned before, culture and language are closely intertwined. When one is learning about a new language, it is inevitable that he or she will learn about the culture of that specific group of people. Sometimes one may find the culture appalling. A scholar must be able to understand that the culture is not the center of the focus but the language. Baker (2016) observes that one may be forced to ignore the annoying cultural practices of the target group to be able to learn about the new language. The rigidity of the mind and inability to withstand other people’s culture may make it impossible to learn a new language.
Learning new languages can sometimes be a very taxing process. Sometimes a scholar is forced to engage a given people actively, participate in their cultural practices, and be involved in activities that one may find abnormal. However, one must be prepared to overcome these challenges to learn a new language. The film emphasizes that one should be flexible in mind to learn a new language successfully.
Baker, A. (2016). Learn any language fast: Effective strategies for learning any language fast. London, UK: Taylor & Francis Group.
Kramer, S., Miller, D., & Newberger, J. (Executive Producer). (2008). The Linguists. [DVD]. New York, NY: Sundance Film Festival.
McLelland, N. (2017). Teaching and learning foreign languages: A history of language education assessment and policy in Britain. London, UK: Taylor & Francis Group.