Questions for Joshua A. Fishman

Questions for Joshua A. Fishman

Dr. Fishman in 2007 at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Shared by "El bes" under a Creative Commons license.

At an international conference last month, the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA presented the first Joshua Fishman Award for Outstanding Contributions and Leadership in the Heritage Language Field. Before the conference, the center arranged for a telephone interview with Professor Fishman, who shared thoughts on the award, his current work, and a recent honor he received from the Royal Academy of the Basque Language in Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain.

Joshua A. Fishman, Distinguished University Research Professor of Social Sciences at Yeshiva University (emeritus) and pioneer in the study of language maintenance and shift, is hard at work at 83. His co-edited "Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity: Disciplinary and Regional Perspectives" is coming out in a second edition this year, and he is collaborating on a companion volume, in the same series, on "The Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity." He also writes a monthly column on sociolinguistics for a Yiddish newspaper. At the end of the following interview excerpts, he briefly discusses three new books he's writing as a single author.

Why do you think Guadalupe Valdés of Stanford won the first Joshua Fishman Award?

I've known her for many years, for a quarter-century at least. Guadalupe is a strong partisan of her own heritage language, and [just] as concerned for the children and for the parents and for the homes and for the communities…. She is a good example of a teacher who constantly is thinking about the difference between textbooks, the difference between methodologies, and how to pick the right method and the right textbook for particular sets of students.

As you probably know, the full name is the Joshua Fishman Award for Outstanding Contributions and Leadership in the Heritage Language Field. Do you yourself think of your work as scholarship in "heritage" language education?

I know I'm thrilled with the term. I know I'd give a prize for whoever came up with that term initially. It's not a word like "table" and "chair. It wasn't always there.

In the early 60s, the general term for this whole area was foreign languages – foreign language instruction, foreign language schools, foreign language radio programs – and I tried to get away from the "foreign" because it didn't fit well into my notion that these were all American languages. The best I could come up with at the time, not being very good at inventing terms, was "non-English languages." And that's not nearly as euphonious, it's not as catchy, it doesn't imply the kind of facilitative emotional attachment that "heritage" does. Heritage is a term that involves your inheritance, something that you have thanks to the kindness of your ancestors. It involves personal, intergenerational ties. That's a very good term to have.

Speaking very broadly, in terms of impact on society, what are some reasonable goals for this field?

I recently was invited to give a talk in New York City, to an Armenian school that I visited a quarter-century ago. The principal particularly asked me to talk about heritage languages. I did at the time say I wasn't sure [heritage language instruction] was going to help the outcomes in this field, because generally speaking the schools are not intergenerational phenomena. Very few schools are, but particularly in non-Spanish minority contexts, there's very little intergenerational transmission. And therefore the schools – for all the effort, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears goes into that effort, on the part of some teachers – they do not really manage to get the children to speak well, certainly after childhood, not up to grade level.

Now, I'm sure that's not much news for public foreign language instruction, where hardly anybody gets to learn it well. You might say it's a waste of time, if you're thinking of long-term impact. But heritage education is a field of emotional attachment. The process itself, the goals of it are frequently associated with identity, group identity. And therefore the inability of the schools to overcome the societal pressure toward English-only is the heartache for most teachers, and I don't expect that to change, because there's too much American tradition associated with it, and too much American success story in terms of social mobility associated with language shift for the school itself to be able to overcome it.

What can the schools accomplish, with regard to turning back language shift?

I don't consider [education] to be a cure-all for societal ills, which is a mistake that many teachers make in general, regardless of whatever they're teaching – English, driving instruction or Spanish. It will not overcome the tendency of people to get drunk and drive under the influence and drive too quickly. And I don’t think heritage language education can overcome the losing struggle of most minority languages, to avoid the inevitable weakening of their ranks, as they get further and further from the time of immigration.

Immigration to the United States is in spurts, depending on foreign affairs. And therefore you can't envisage when another major Russian-speaking immigration will come, or another Hungarian one. There are a few constantly ongoing immigrations for which heritage education will be relatively successful, but only because of the ongoing nature of it. They're constantly having new aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and so forth arrive and interact with their family and blow a new breath of fresh air into the language scene. The Greeks are like that, the Italians are like that, even the Portuguese are like that. But if you go to the former Communist states—none of them are going to have major exoduses to the United States again, and therefore they will go the way that the Norwegians went to the United States, and the Danes.

The language that's the dearest thing in my life, Yiddish, is not going to experience another upsurge of immigration because of the Holocaust, although the remaining speakers are, many of them, ultraorthodox and therefore very entrenched and raising Yiddish-speaking children in the midst of city environments.

But then, they are more or less self-contained communities. They don't permit English TV in the home or children to go to the movies, and precisely because they have this attitude toward the surrounding world. It's the Amish attitude. I've seen that in the Maori schools in New Zealand. You didn't dare turn on the radio when school was on because it would be in English; that was a no-no. You couldn't have English in any class.

Does a good teaching methodology make a big difference?

Maybe that will make a slight difference in the outcome. But, in general, depending on methods, in comparison with social processes, is like cutting meat with a scalpel, instead of cutting it with a good knife in the butcher shop. It's too thin a slice of the variants that you're trying to account for.

I don't want this to be a negative commentary. There's a lot of "neverthelesses." Nevertheless! Hope springs eternal.

You were just honored last month by the Royal Academy of the Basque Language as one of 11 academics who've worked on behalf of that language. Of course, you've won a lot of awards. Was this recognition significant for you?

I was very honored to get it. I've been in touch with them for maybe two or three generations, visiting, in my former, young days every year or every other year. They're obviously pretty much of a success story, although they are not completely out of the woods. But they're an example of a minoritized language that has gone from being despised, ridiculed, abused by its own speakers as well as the surrounding majority, to being the official language of its own autonomous community within a generation, and has had a real upturn in the proportion of young people who claim to be able to speak it, speak and read it. Writing is always a strange laggard. Very few people need writing. Even among college graduates, very few write anything, not even letters.

Besides the upturn every year in young speakers, the Basque government has all kinds of motivating devices like special positions, special salaries, special bonuses, special courses, special opportunities, vacation opportunities, vocational and training opportunities, all kinds of special opportunities for people who are learning Basque.

There is still, nevertheless, quite a number of non-Basque speakers in the Basque community, quite a proportion, depending on the age group that you want to look at. The older people that lived through the Franco period, when it was prohibited and persecuted in addition to being ridiculed, are very backward in connection with knowing Basque, unless they live in the far countryside, which is harder and harder to do as Spain modernizes. Basque, being in the very mountainous areas of northeast Spain, does have some pretty impenetrable areas, on both sides of the border, the French side and the Spanish side. And therefore you do have some older people that lived through the Franco period who were not at all discouraged by it.

They size up the likelihood that someone can speak Basque by sizing up their age, and I would say sizing up their social class. Middle and upper social class is going to be more Basque-speaking, because they're more school-oriented and have made more use of the governmental rewards for learning Basque. So I'm very thrilled, because it's very rare that you can tell even a semi-success story.

Now, Spain has an even greater success story than Basque for a minoritized language. That's Catalan, which never eroded as much as Basque did, because it was too close to Spanish for it to be ridiculed as a language of animals, not of human beings. Basques were really ridiculed as not being fully human, animalistic. And Catalan had a distinguished history: literature, even empire, industry. One of the forefront fields of Spanish modernization in industry and commerce. Had a little empire of its own through the centuries. So the fact that Catalan leads the way in Spain is also of great interest and great importance. And I'm glad I have a little book in Catalan; someone published a collection of my essays in Catalan. I think I have one in Basque, too. I can't read a word of it, in Basque. It's totally an isolate in terms of its linguistic structure, unrelated to any other language in any proximity in the world, so you have no clue to go by. In Catalan you can draw upon your knowledge of French and Spanish to think you're understanding it.

I'm delighted with the Basque award because it strengthens my belief in the recuperative possibilities of minoritized languages, that goes far beyond the heritage language field. Heritage languages don't have to be minoritized. Minoritized languages have a double burden that they're minorities in the eyes of the majority and they're minorities in their own eyes. And there's very little escape. They always have the hot breath of the big brother coming down their neck. And to see one of them or two of them or several of them show signs of recovery and stabilization—It's something that American Indian languages hope for, and minority languages around the world are watching these very carefully.

What are you writing about now, in addition to your column in Yiddish?

A book that's about to come out is called "The Rise of European Vernacular Literacy." If you go back a thousand years in Europe, there were only two languages used for literacy – only two European languages, because there was also Arabic and Hebrew used for literacy in Europe, by very specialized and ethnically appropriate groups. But as far as European vernaculars, only Latin and Greek were used for literacy. I trace 40-some languages today being used for literacy. That's quite a development. Explaining that growth, showing when and where it occurred, and trying to ponder why it occurred is what that book is about.

And then there's a little book – it's almost a little gift book, maybe it will be a hundred pages, as opposed to the nearly thousand pages of the handbooks – that has to do with the many languages in the many states along the Rhine, from the North Sea down to the Mediterranean.

The one I'm beginning now is called "Cultural Autonomy," the concept of cultural autonomy. What does that entail? What does it mean in various times and various places to various thinkers?

That's it. That's my current vita.

Published: Friday, March 12, 2010