The Linguists


I was first introduced to The Linguists film in my International and Comparative Education course during a unit on language rights.  The Linguists is a fascinating independent documentary about language extinction and language documentation.  It follows two linguists, David Harrison and Greg Anderson, on their journey around the world to record and document dying and endangered languages.  Today there are more than 500 languages at risk for extinction and four of these are featured in the documentary: Chemehuevi, a Native American language of Arizona; Chulym, a language spoken in Siberia; Kallawaya of Bolivia; and Sora of India.  While watching the film I was struck by the stories of the indigenous speakers, some of whom were proud of their language and wanted to pass it down to other generations, and some of whom were deeply embarrassed and felt isolated and excluded.  The documentary is an excellent way to introduce the topic of language rights in the classroom, and facilitate a discussion about how language rights are an essential element of culture, history, values, and identity.

Watch the trailer here:

While researching more about the film, I found a Teacher’s Guide for The Linguists on the PBS website.  It can be found at:

The Teachers Guide to Endangered Languages provides materials intended for high school or college level students and may be used in a myriad of classes like social studies, political science, anthropology, fine arts, foreign language, etc.  The guide for educators is intended to “expose students to the world’s linguistic and cultural diversity, and the negative consequences of sacrificing that diversity.” It is divided into nine themes, each of which includes a learning goal for students and directions for educators.  The themes are: 1) Culture, 2) Time, Continuity, & Change, 3) People, Places, & Environments, 4) Individual, Development, & Identity, 5) Groups and Institutions, 6) Power, Authority, & Governance, 7) Science and Technology, 8) Global Connections, and 9) Civic ideals.  The guide goes on to explain that, “Languages are repositories of thousands of years of a people’s science and art, from observations of ecological patterns to creation myths. The disappearance of a language is a loss not only for the community of speakers, but also for our common knowledge of mathematics, biology, geography, philosophy, agriculture, and linguistics.”

On the PBS website you will also find a procedure for teaching the unit.  This guide suggests that teachers:

1)    ask students to provide a definition of endangered languages

2)    have students brainstorm and write down all of the languages they know

3)    have students estimate how many languages are spoken in the world

4)    watch the documentary

5)    discuss

Some possible discussion questions could be:

  • Why should we care if these languages survive?
  • Do you agree with the UNESCO declaration statements that “All language communities have equal rights” (Article 10, section 1) and “Everyone has the right to use his/her language in the personal and family sphere” (Article 12, section 2)?
  • How does the loss of the indigenous language affect the members of that community?
  • How does the preservation of language create a more peaceful community?

Using this film, with some background information about language rights, and the learning activities presented in the Teacher’s Guide, can serve as an informative resource and allow students to consider the power of language, and all of the benefits and consequences of language use.  Perhaps students will begin to consider how language plays a role in their school, such as the perceived challenges that some students may face when they are educated in one language, and use a different language at home or in their community.  And perhaps educators will be encouraged to consider the role they play in this process, whether they provide support and encourage students to maintain their native tongue, or promote an “English only” attitude in their classroom.

I think this resource most supports the pillars of community building and exploring approaches to peace. Understanding the diversity of languages of the world, and of one’s school, encourages students to get to know the people with whom they are learning.  They will be able to see how language can play a unifying role, and also how language differences should be respected and celebrated.  In addition, it is hopeful that students will be engendered with a sense of responsibility and accountability to preserve and revitalize the languages of their community and the greater world community.  By recognizing the role that language plays in a peaceable community, students will explore an alternative approach to peace.  The film depicts the role of language in the world community, and class discussions can break down the concept and localize the concept to the role that language plays in the students’ home community and in their school.

I will conclude with the quote that inspired this blog entry, courtesy of my Honest Tea bottle cap I opened at lunch this week…

“War is what happens when language fails.” Margaret Atwood

One thought on “The Linguists

  1. Dear Leah, this is a well written and informative Blog. There is no question that language is critically important as a central feature of cultural heritage and social history. And yet, we have multitude of examples where language has been used to divide and to justify all sorts of atrocities. Further, in an age where communications have taken on so many more “international” forms, is the maintenance of these small languages more about conservation and less about communication.

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