Monday, April 16, 2007

When Linguists are Heroes (and Villians)


A few months ago, I went to see a fundraising pitch disguised as a play. The play is called
Sunong, and is put on by a group called Wycliffe Dinner Theater. It tells the story of a Southeast Asian dude who encounters some missionaries. (His country and language are fictionalized, which I think was a huge weakness of the piece -- oh, and also the fact that two of the Asian characters were played by White women speaking "broken" English.) At first, this sounded way ho-hum to me.

But within a few minutes of the beginning of the play, I saw had this revelation:
Holy crap, the heroes of this story are applied linguists. And also this one: This is probably the only play I will ever see in which the heroes are applied linguists. They're Bible translators, and we see them struggle with phonemes, culturally appropriate translation, getting funding for PhD programs -- I was kind of in heaven. In the end, the play was almost as much about the necessity of training skilled linguists as it was about evangelism.


But it is the influence of evangelism (or simply Evangelicalism) that is beginning to be noticed, and consequently critiqued, by another branch of linguistics -- the applied variety, and specifically English Language Teaching. From Pennycook's 
"Teaching English as a Missionary Language" to Varghese and Johnston's recent "Evangelical Christians and English language teaching" in TESOL Quarterly, people are starting to take notice of the fact that Christians are (still) using English teaching as a missionary endeavor, whether the teaching is a "front" or a genuine form of service. Questions of cultural and linguistic imperialism (not to mention professional and personal ethics) abound, of course, but it's encouraging to see that a civil discussion is beginning. One hopes that the Christian organizations who use ELT will see that it's in their interest to take part in this dialogue.


Given all this, it's interesting that the man at the center of one of the most talked-about controversies in the cultural anthropology/applied linguistics/language orbit is an ex-Christian, former missionary who was once affiliated with the
Summer Institute of Linguistics (an organization afilliated with the abovementioned Wycliffe). His recent work on the Piraha, an isolated tribe in the Amazon, makes some pretty serious claims about their culture and language that seem to fly in the face of Chomskian linguistics (e.g., Universal Grammar)and the general assumption that all languages are 'created equal,' to use a loaded term.

I was intrigued by the brief bit in the New Yorker piece that mentioned Everett's ex-wife, who is still a missionary: she seemed less interested in explaining the Piraha's language, and more in learning about their songs. 

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