Book Review: “We Are Our Language”

The recently released book “We Are Our Language: An Ethnography of Language Revitalization in a Northern Athabaskan Community” from The University of Arizona Press is a scholarly but personal reflection on language issues faced by the Kaska community in British Columbia. The author, Barbara Meeks, uses the two years she spent living in the community while working on language renewal efforts as a lens through which she pulls into focus the language challenges the community faces as well as some of the reasons those challenges exist.

One of the strengths of the book is that Meeks recognizes that there are no simple answers, or even simple questions. She illustrates how linguists, federal and tribal government policies, and community members each in their own way serve to both promote and undermine language renewal and discusses the reasons that this is the case. For example, she talks about how the Yukon government’s well-intentioned slogan “We are Our Language” has had the polarizing effect of “marking heritage speakers as core members and erasing those large numbers of First Nations people who cannot speak an indigenous language or those who speak a ‘nonstandard’ variety.”

Meeks doesn’t just talk about the problems the community faces, but also presents ideas for how to move forward. Some of the suggestions she fleshes out in her book include redefining success, moving past the misconception that language can’t be learned at later ages, and integrating historical narratives into present day ones so that there isn’t a disconnect between the “traditional” and the “modern.”

“We Are Our Language” is recommended for those interested in an academic yet personal take on language revitalization issues as played out in a specific community.

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