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Ciao Babylon 2017


Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA 02472; 617-926-0491
Produced by Frank Matter
Directed by Kurt Reinhard and Christoph Schreiber
Streaming, 52 mins

Humanities; Language; Multilingualism

Date Entered: 06/25/2020

Reviewed by Amanda Jo Melchor, Reference & Instruction Librarian, Texas A&M University - Kingsville

Ciao Babylon is an informative, if broad, documentary about the life and death of languages in America, particularly New York City.

The film’s focuses on efforts to prevent language death in New York City, a phenomenon that occurs when a language becomes extinct due to lack of native or fluent speakers. Language is strongly tied to culture and identity, making its loss and preservation timely and relevant in the modern U.S. Threads of the struggle between “American” assimilation and culture and the language and culture brought by immigrants are well-woven through documentary.

The point of view alternates between English teacher Giancarlo Malchiodi, who explores the roots of his family language, and professor Daniel Kaufman, a linguist at the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) whose work is to record, translate, and transcribe interviewee stories for future generations. The filmmakers excellently exhibit the push-pull of language and identity through Malichiodi’s personal language journey and Kaufman’s work at the ELA.

One of the film’s strengths is its glimpse on historical language survival. The directors spend a short but poignant section on Gottscheerish, a post-World War II language community. Despite creating a community nexus for survival in America, the dialect once again faces endangerment as its speakers die out. The film ably underscores the notion of language survival being inextricably tied to community and identity.

The film’s broad scope and focus on present language struggles, however, excludes the subject’s more nuanced and fascinating issues. The film momentarily contextualizes language endangerment as an issue with social, economic, and marginalization roots, but doesn’t explore these intriguing subtopics. More time spent on these aspects would have created greater historical context for the film and its focus as well as make it more applicable to a wider audience. Language death historically in the U.S. is briefly mentioned, specifically the residential school programs used to eradicate native peoples’ culture and language. This type of language and cultural eradication is especially pertinent to people of color as an aspect of racism and discrimination, but the film chooses not to explore this avenue of interest. Those specifically interested in this focus will be better served by other materials.

From a technical standpoint, the documentary is filmed and edited deftly. Idioms from different languages lend the film color and loose structure, providing themes for each segment (re-learning forgotten childhood languages, language diaspora, etc.). The framing device of language loss starting with young people and ending with older adults dealing with its ramifications was subtle but effective. Most of the non-English sequences were subtitled but several weren’t, making it difficult to determine if the content is important or follow along in the conversation.

While well-done and insightful, the documentary probably wouldn’t be a good, in-depth introductory resource for the topic of language death. The film doesn’t go into depth explaining language diaspora, language death, its causes, or countermeasures. Where the film shines, is in exploring the individual reactions to language death and those fighting to preserve language at individual and/or community levels. For instructors interested in a broader, contemporary introduction to the topic, Cia Babylon ably uses the individual and organizational struggles to exhibit the fight to preserve language for current and future generations. Those looking for works focusing on specific marginalized groups or people of color will benefit from more focused titles. Ciao Babylon would be a good supplement to collections with interdisciplinary focuses or strong emphasis on linguistics, sociology, and American socio-history departments.