Book review of Language City by Ross Perlin


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In Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York author Ross Perlin examines a duality of the world’s most linguistically diverse city. Home to over 700 languages, 21st-century New York City is a vital nexus where people from all over the world can find others speaking their mother tongue; but the ever-increasing imperative to speak a dominant language like English or Spanish makes this also the place where these languages go extinct. 

Perlin, who is both a linguist at Columbia University and a co-director and researcher at the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), is committed to researching and preserving the linguistic diversity of the city. “At the heart of linguistics itself,” he writes, “is a radical premise: all languages are cognitively and communicatively equal.” This ethos is evident in his writing and reporting as he first unpacks the history of Indigenous and migrant peoples’ arrivals in (and departures from) what is now known as New York, and then as he collaborates with six contemporary New Yorkers of radically different backgrounds who are completing meaningful projects to share and preserve their endangered languages. Perlin spent years (sometimes over a decade) with each of his collaborators on these ELA projects, and his narrative balances biography and linguistic analysis, letting their lives act as windows into the communities making up the multilingual microcosms of other continents tucked unassumingly into New York. 

Perlin brings the subject of linguistics down from the ivory tower and into the subway car or the corner bodega. He opens up the world of endangered languages to monolingual mainstream Americans by bringing compelling and driven native speakers of those languages to the table, as well as taking care to provide historical and cultural detail. However, the volume of information in the book, including geographic specifics of both New York and the world, can occasionally feel dense despite an approachable tone and clear explanations of concepts.

Language City reinforces the value of endangered language preservation and asks salient questions: What do we lose when we facilitate a monolingual society in both practice and policy? And how can we instead allow diverse languages to create a society that is more equitable, livable and inclusive? 

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