University of Michigan
While specialists in linguistic anthropology and in cognitive development have long since discarded the idea that language is merely or simply inherited from parent to child, drawing evidence from virtually all parts of the world, the imagery and ideology of parent-child transmission as the foremost or dominant mechanism persists among educators, international aid workers, agencies such as UNESCO, and even geneticists. The favored expression among educators and international aid workers, “mother tongue”, has been challenged by researchers in the Andes and the western Amazon of South America, who have observed that in marriages among speakers of two indigenous languages, the children adopt the language of their fathers, so “father tongue.” Similar phenomena have been observed elsewhere in the world. In the central Andes, though people speak to each other and to the places in which they live and work, under the right circumstances, the places speak back. So, to understand language transmission and persistence, we need to understand the ways in which people are connected to their communities and to the places through the languages of the place. There are some practical consequences. The languages in question are threatened with extinction; the response of educators and international agencies has concentrated on maintaining the languages through western institutions and among individuals, in the best of circumstances engaging communities in ensuring the survival of their languages. But the lesson of our transmission story for their communities in South America—and for their counterparts in the US Southwest— is that language survival is so intimately bound up with everyday cultural practices that it is bound to the survival of everyday social practices and thus to cultural and social sovereignty.