Multilingualism: Understanding Linguistic Diversity

November 8, 2012

Author: John Edwards

Edition: First

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Continuum

Pages: 152

Price: £45.00 and £12.99

ISBN: 9781441123480 and 26955

Textbooks come in all shapes and sizes. Some look like exam revision books; others are packed to the brim with information, running the risk of overwhelming readers on a given subject. This slim volume, broadly on the origins, development and uses of languages, is completely different. Divided into 10 chapters on themes such as language diversity, multilingualism, bridging means across languages, language survival and intervention, it is the most readable textbook I have ever come across. In fact, it reads like a novel on "the social life of language". The protagonist, language, rides with its speakers across the world through time. From narratives of biblical Paradise and Babel, it journeys through the jungles of Africa, the shores of New Guinea and the frozen plains of Canada. As it multiplies, it metamorphoses into pidgins, creoles and a myriad other fully fledged language varieties. In hostile environments some of these go bust, while others boom in more friendly quarters of the globe. In some places, languages live a relatively unfettered existence; in other spaces, they come up against attempts to tame (or "purify") them, through language academies or other prescriptive means. As man's long-term companion, language has come to be both used (as a symbol and tool) and abused (for political purposes), also serving to bridge different groups (as lingua francas or through the mechanism of translation). The sails on its unique journey through society are subjected to unpredictable vagaries of chance.

In essence, this flowing narrative provides a broad and deep awareness of the mutability of language and its social life as a central component of group identity. Concerned with social inequities through language, it depicts how language diversity has been affected by power and dominance through nationalism, identity politics and the globalising economy, resulting in small and big languages, language change, decline and death. Drawing on a broad range of examples, John Edwards shows how language shift is a symptom of larger societal movements. He critically reflects on notions of will and perception in language planning, and on ideas of (linguistic) human rights and language ecology. Thorny issues of language revitalisation and maintenance efforts are also discussed. There is a hilarious section that will make readers burst out laughing, on the "barren verbiage" of some writers on the subject who say nothing new or meaningful by penning "ugly terms" such as "(trans)languaging (for cross-language switching)", or "disinventing and reinventing (heterogeneity)". Finally, noting that all people (speakers, planners, activists and scholars alike) have strong views about language, Edwards aptly argues for "clearer and more dispassionate perspectives". This seemingly light yet profoundly rich book, with its span across the entire language diversity scene, cannot fail to spark enthusiasm.

Who is it for? Everyone who is even remotely interested in language(s) in society. It's as much an informative leisure read as a subject review.

Presentation: Its apparent simplicity, clarity and colourful asides make it an unforgettable reading experience.

Would you recommend it? Unreservedly.

Recommended

Language Management

Author: Bernard Spolsky

Edition: First

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 320

Price: £71.00 and £28.99

ISBN: 9780521516099 and 1735971

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