On Learning & Losing Language: A Reading List

Photo: Mark

Language shapes every facet of our lives—how we communicate, how we act, how we feel. When we can name something, we feel comfort and security (think of the medical diagnosis, the new baby’s name). We feel relief: common gestures while haggling in a marketplace, cognates in a textbook. Without language, we are lost. But what happens when language gets lost—violently uprooted by colonialism, for example, or dissipated in the annals of time? Can language be reclaimed? These six articles explore how language is disseminated, preserved, decoded, and, ultimately, cherished.

1. “How an Artificial Language from 1887 is Finding New Life Online.” (Sam Dean, The Verge, May 2015)

Lernu! When L.L. Zamenhof invented Esperanto in the late 19th century, he hoped it would erase language barriers and bring about world peace. Today, Esperanto is gaining traction in the digital language-learning community due to its enthusiastic adherents, relative simplicity and logical structure.

2. “The Interpreter.” (John Colapinto, The New Yorker, April 2007)

Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.

The Pirahã have no interest in other cultures or modern discoveries, let alone learning other languages. Communication, therefore, has been historically impossible. This is the story of Dan Everett, one of the only non-native people in the world to master the Pirahã language, and how his subsequent knowledge may have groundbreaking ramifications for commonly accepted linguistic theory.

3. “The Most Secretive Book in History.” (Erin McCarthy, Mental Floss, March 2015)

What is the Voynich Manuscript? Is it a code, a cipher or an altogether unknown language? Drawings of plants and hieroglyphs fill its pages, but its origins are murky.

4. “I Read and Write in English, But I Still Dream in Amharic.” (Hannah Giorgis, The Guardian, July 2015)

In this beautiful essay, Hannah Giorgis meditates on her Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, the inadequacy of English and the author’s responsibility to decolonize their art.

5. “After Centuries of Colonial Violence, a Resurgence of Indigenous Language Learning.” (Jason Coppola, Truthout, August 2015)

“You could reasonably say every single Native American language, including the large ones, are endangered,” said linguist K. David Harrison, a National Geographic fellow teaching at Swarthmore College. “There’s no room for complacency whatsoever.”

In New Zealand, Hana O’Regan integrated Maori customs into her family life—with profound results. In South Dakota, Tipiziwan Tolman teaches Lakota language at the Lakota Language Nest Immersion School. Both women want to help indigenous youth overcome the pernicious effects of white colonialism.

6. “The Real Secret to Learning a Language Online.” (Nithin Coca, The Kernel, August 2015)

Apps like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone replicate language classes, but Nithin Coca suggests the fastest way to immerse yourself in a new language (besides moving to a foreign country) might be indulging in its media. You heard him: go check out subtitled French (or Korean, or German, or…) television and film.