Generation Gaps, Social Studies, and Learning Through Language

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Linguistic anthropologist Sandhya Narayanan is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee and is part of the Young Explorer Leadership and Development Program. Photograph by Randall Scott, National Geographic

Sandhya Narayanan is just one of the women speaking at our Expand the Field event on Tuesday, February 11, 2019. Learn more about the events and get tickets here!

National Geographic Explorer Sandhya Narayanan grew up hearing five different languages spoken at home (Malayalam, Hindi, English, Tamil, and Bengali) and many more spoken around her in the international city of Toronto.

This multilingual environment made Sandhya interested in language, but it wasn’t until college that she discovered there was a whole field devoted to it. Studying linguistic anthropology expanded the knowledge Sandhya had gained through life experience, and equipped her with the necessary tools to explore why language is a major part of human social networks.

We had a chance to speak with Sandhya after she visited National Geographic for the Young Explorer Leadership Program, and before she headed back into the field. She talked about her current work on indigenous multilingualism in Peru; her ideas for the classroom; and the value of linguistic diversity.

Local communities gather for the Allin Qhapaq Raymi festival at the base of Apu (mountain god) Allin Qhapac, located outside of Paccaje, Peru. Photograph by Sandhya Narayanan

Multilingualism’s “Generational Gap”

Drawing on her own multilingual background, Sandhya became interested in how multilingualism connects to larger social and political contexts. This interest led her to begin research in the city of Puno, Peru, in 2014. 

Sandhya’s work, which is part of her dissertation at the University of Michigan, focuses on the use of two indigenous languages in Puno: Quechua and Aymara. Inhabitants of Puno usually speak one of the two languages, with Spanish serving as an intermediary.

However, Sandhya has observed a concerning “generational gap” in the usage of Quechua and Aymara in Puno. Increasingly, younger generations are becoming fluent in Spanish but not in either indigenous language. This makes communication between the youth of Puno and older generations challenging, which causes frustration on both sides.

Inhabitants of Puno celebrate the biggest festival of the year, the Fiesta del Virgen del Candelaria. Here, one group showcases the Kullawada, a traditional Andean religious and folk dance that originated in the Lake Titicaca region. Photograph by Sandhya Narayanan

The decline in indigenous language use in Puno has been observed over the last thirty years, but has become more pronounced in the last fifteen, according to Sandhya. She asserts that the gap is occurring because “the indigenous languages are stigmatized.”

Spanish is viewed as the language of success; the language that allows young people to achieve economic opportunity in Peru’s capital, Lima, or elsewhere. She explains that “there’s an idea that your child won’t advance if they don’t speak Spanish, and that speaking an indigenous language jeopardizes their ability to learn Spanish.” While this is linguistically untrue (learning one language does not impair one’s ability to learn another), many parents in Puno believe this, and as a result they only speak to their children in Spanish.

Luckily, though, Sandhya thinks the perception of multilingualism is changing. Many youth are unhappy with the generational gap, and wish they had learned Quechua or Aymara because of how these languages connect to their culture and traditions.

This is especially pronounced in Puno, which is famous for its colorful traditions, like the reenactment of the legend of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo. This annual tradition, which expresses Puno’s history, geography, and politics, relies on Quechua and Aymara. Traditions like this one, where multilingualism is an ingrained part of culture, send the message that knowing multiple languages should be a point of pride and a way to connect to history.

Citizens of Puno reenact the legend of Manco Qhapaq and Mama Ocllo as part of annual celebrations of the mythic indigenous roots of the region and the founding of Puno. Photograph by Sandhya Narayanan

In the Classroom

Sandhya’s research focuses on how language corresponds to social, political, and economic change. Since those concepts also form the core of Social Studies curricula, she envisions focusing on language use as an effective way to teach Social Studies.

Sandhya explains that “almost everyone experiences language, so it can be a way to get students’ interest when teaching history or geography.”

Getting students to realize how they use language in their daily life allows them to see how language is used in their city, state, region, and country. They can then compare and contrast how each part of the world uses language and make connections to human geography.

Sandhya explains that this way of “making geography start closer to home” allows world history and geography to become more tangible to students.

As a social scientist, Sandhya also feels strongly that the current emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) should not leave out the social sciences. She explains that though it often gets overlooked, there is a “scientific method of Social Studies.”

Linguistic anthropologists pose questions and conduct in-depth research using defined methods, just like researchers in the hard sciences. Bringing this approach to Social Studies classrooms would also allow students to build critical thinking skills they need across content areas.

Sandhya and her neighbor, Victoriano, pose with the National Geographic Society flag after completing a linguistic recording session in Peru. Photograph by Sandhya Narayanan

One method Sandhya recommends for implementing these ideas in the classroom is a case study of community language use. To conduct this case study, each student would write down the different “types of talk” they experience in their daily life.

For example, how do neighbors talk to each other? How does your mom talk to the dog? How do teachers talk to other teachers? How is that different from how they talk to students? Does the sportscaster on TV sound different than the weather woman?

Students would record their findings and discuss them with the class. As part of this exercise, students would be asked where they see themselves in this system, and how they think the patterns they noticed connect to the larger world.

Why Multilingualism Matters

Behind Sandhya’s hope for linguistic anthropology to influence Social Studies education is an overarching wish for people to understand the value of multilingualism. She explains that “multilingualism is something we can’t take for granted” because of all the social phenomena that go along with it.

Linguistic diversity is linked to cultural diversity; something upon which many other factors depend, and which must be preserved and celebrated. Sandhya urges that we must “embrace multilingualism and raise awareness of it” since we do not even know the extent of what we lose when we lose a language.


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