Sunday, April 06, 2008

"The Linguists" in Madison

The 10th Wisconsin Film Festival is now going on and among the featured films is not only the hockey flick/murder mystery "Bon Cop, Bad Cop", but also "The Linguists", a film about language endangerment and documentation that has already been discussed on this blog (here, and it's still worth following the link to the post and comments on the topic at Anggarrgoon). The film was done by Ironbound Films, with National Geographic, and it has gotten tons of press (here), but this was my first chance to see it.

David Harrison, list as one of two "stars" of the film, gave a talk for non-linguists on campus and did Q&A at the screening. (Along with the other star, Greg Anderson, he's founded The show was sold out long ago (in a theater that holds maybe 250-300) and there was a long line of people hoping to get in at the door.

The audience seemed to love the film, but the contrast between Harrison's talk (and how he handled the Q&A) and the film itself really highlights a basic issue that linguists — and all academics, presumably — confront in dealing with the media, issues already noted in part by Anggarrgoon and commenters there.

The talk was utterly clear and straightforward, filled with good ways of talking about things we all talk about with students and non-linguists all the time. Harrison discussed a range of issues on endangerment, documentation, revitalization, drawing especially from communities where these two linguists have both done extensive work: Turkic languages in Siberia. In anticipating the old why-does-it-matter question, Harrison made an excellent case for the value of knowledge about the natural world that's being lost with languages — even though western science hasn't cataloged a lot of flora and fauna, local people have, and they've done it in their own tongues. He didn't put it quite this way, but much traditional knowledge is lost during the cultural change we call language shift: the traditional language isn't just a vehicle for traditional knowledge, but is transmitted together with that knowledge. Not that particular information could not be conveyed in other languages, of course, but that what the language-particular 'packaging' shows tells us a lot about the natural world and human culture. More generally, Harrison argued, reasonably, that the real challenge in stopping language loss is creating an environment were kids want to speak the local language.

The film had lots of scenes that are fundamentally familiar to anybody who has done any fieldwork anywhere — having trouble finding speakers, waiting hours for consultants, getting sick in 'the field', and on and on. But the filmmakers also play up all kinds of stereotypes about linguists and linguistic fieldwork that will make some linguists cringe. Early on, as the linguists are speaking Russian with someone in Tomsk before heading off to the field, we read on the screen: "Between them, David and Greg speak 25 languages". Most of us dread "oh, you're a linguist, so how many languages do you speak?". Some of us simply refuse to answer it, and it is impossible to answer with a simple number.

More seriously, after the film, a young couple sitting near me (non-linguists, clearly) were talking about how the filmmakers overplayed the travel-to-exotic-places angle. The film definitely feeds a kind of 'safari linguistics' image, and could give an impression of what some call 'hit-and-run fieldwork'. I didn't have a chance to intrude on this conversation, so I'll say it to the world instead: This seems really unfair to Harrison and Anderson, but it's exactly the kind of thing you'd expect a filmmaker to run wild with. Another related point made by a linguist afterward was that a short drive from Madison and many other universities will get you to communities where severely endangered languages are found. No need for expensive travel to places where you spend forever trying to figure out how the hell things work, even if you happen to speak a language used in the area and understand a fair bit about the culture.

At points I wonder whether the filmmakers simply took things out of context. One of the linguists, I think it was Anderson, said basically that he just can't imagine anybody devoting their life to French syntax when there's so much documentation to be done. There's no shortage of reasons to study French syntax, Chinese tones, Dutch verb forms or German consonants, and even American English vowels, of course. What we need is a balance of approaches and data here.

That holds for the issue I started with above, of how to deal with the media, too. Assuming that 'ignore the public' is suicidal, the spectrum runs to these poles:
  • Try to engage the public without losing any real substance.
  • Do everything possible to get people excited about linguistics.
The film itself seems too much aimed at the latter and it risks obscuring or distorting serious work these and many other linguists are doing.

By the way, the showing of "The Linguists" included a short, "Darkness Falls". It's a piece from a Native community, a kind of graphic novel on the screen, with all the voices in Gitxsan. The story is about a kid who loves to draw, but is picked on by bullies and teachers. He comes to see his very 21st century art as way to connecting to traditional ways, a new way to tell the old stories to a new generation. I highly recommend it.

Image (not of this showing!) from here.

1 comment:

Mr. Verb said...

Good discussion of the flick here, by the way: