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Short Takes

‘Trip of the Tongue,’ ‘Gods Without Men,’ ‘Multiplication is for White People’

TRIP OF THE TONGUE:

Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages

By Elizabeth Little

Bloomsbury, 309 pp., $25

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After moving to Queens five years ago, Elizabeth Little found herself marveling at the linguistic diversity in her new neighborhood, where “within a single block you can circumnavigate the globe.’’ In pondering the languages of immigrants as well as their adaptations to life in a new land (including, often, abandoning their original language), Little wondered why some languages endure while others fade, and how perceptions of languages affect feelings of foreignness and belonging. This curiosity sent her on a journey, crisscrossing America to investigate what she calls “a story of conflict and kinship, marginalization and assimilation, and, ultimately, one part of what it means to be American.’’

Little, a linguistics nerd with an appealing affection for beer (mentioned frequently in these pages), makes for a perfect tour guide as she investigates a range of languages, some of which predate English here by thousands of years. Visiting Montana, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest, she looks at the factors that have decimated Indian languages (mostly American government policy, aided and abetted by cultural changes) and laments: “the loss of a language is an irrevocable and incalculable loss to all humankind.’’ In Louisiana and South Carolina, she considers the history of Creole and Gullah, whose speakers “routinely face prejudice and derision born of the mistaken assumption that their languages reflect some combination of simplicity and stupidity.’’ She sketches a history of English-only activism, questioning its motives given the reality that “English has always maintained its position as the nation’s dominant language.’’ More than a collection of fascinating linguistic details (though it is that), by the end this book deepens into a full-throated defense of everybody’s native tongues, and the right - no, the need - to hang onto them.

GODS WITHOUT MEN

By Hari Kunzru

Knopf, 369 pp., $26.95

Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel takes its title from Balzac, who was commenting on the vast emptiness of the desert - a landscape so vacant it seems to invite imagination, invention. In this dazzling, time-hopping book, the California desert attracts an 18th-century Mexican priest, a 19th-century Mormon settler looking for vengeance, a World War I veteran working on an Indian ethnography project, a group of UFO true believers, a burnt-out British rocker, and an American couple from New York (and that’s not to mention the area’s constant inhabitants - American Indians and the US government). Each visitor encounters something - a vision, a prophecy, some ecstatic truth or a confusing hint of a larger truth - out there. It’s a place where the invisible can be seen, or maybe it’s just that “there were worlds a person couldn’t bear to look upon directly,’’ as one mad mystic puts it.

Among the dizzyingly interlocking plots, the most contemporary concerns Lisa and Jaz Matharu, en route to Arizona with their 4-year-old son, Raj, who has autism. After Raj disappears in the nearby national park, the Matharus descend into grief; then he returns, and it’s worse. Beginning with a pitch-perfect satire of a Southwestern fable - concerning the trickster Coyote trying to start a homemade meth lab and blowing himself up - Kunzru masterfully juggles big ideas and wicked humor. In its gorgeous prose and deeply humane instincts, this is a lovely book.

MULTIPLICATION IS FOR WHITE PEOPLE:

Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children

By Lisa Delpit

New Press, 224 pp. $26.95

“There is no ‘achievement gap’ at birth,’’ writes Lisa Delpit. Black children are no less skilled, talented, or brilliant than white children, she points out, but when they arrive in school they are often dismissed, degraded, ignored. Whether those African-American students’ lower test scores are blamed on genetic inferiority (by those who ascribe to “The Bell Curve’s’’ view of the world) or a pathologized culture, Delpit argues the real culprit is poor teaching. In the schools attended by most poor children of color in this country, Delpit, a professor of education and MacArthur award winner, sees a preponderance of worksheets, coloring, and poster-making, rather than the richly engaging and rewarding activities that truly foster learning. Some schools force teachers to follow a rigidly scripted curriculum (with the result of “driving great, creative teachers out of the field’’); others just ask that students be kept quiet and controlled. Either way, many children are caught in an “expectation gap’’ that perpetuates and confirms the worst racial stereotypes.

In diagnosing the problem, Delpit necessarily replays some of the key points of her influential book “Other People’s Children,’’ but here she focuses urgently on the issue of expectation - and the solutions she proposes feel both simple and radical. American teachers could learn a lot from African educational philosophy, she writes, starting with the notion that each child is an individual capable of learning, as well as a valuable member of a community. Examples from the civil rights movement’s Freedom Schools and from earlier segregated schools can also provide a strong counterweight to the prevailing myths of black educational underachievement - and lessons in how to provide the kind of warm yet demanding structure that keeps students invested in the classroom. All children learn something in school, Delpit says. “It’s just that some of them learn that we expect them to be successful, and some learn from us that they are dumb. Whatever we believe, they learn.’’

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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