“What Makes Us Human” Exploring Our Identity Through Linguistic Diversity

In the spirit of International Mother Language Day, Victor D.O. Santos and Anna Forlati present their thought-provoking picture book, “What Makes Us Human”, published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. This literary work is not just a book, it’s a journey through the essence of human connection and evolution, seen through the lens of ‘language’.

“To have another language is to possess another soul”


I feel privileged to be amongst the first readers of “What Makes Us Human”, to be launched on 5 March 2024, as it celebrates a theme as dear to me as it is to its creators, Victor Santos and Anna Forlati, whom I discovered following the success of their first collaboration “My Dad, My Rock”.

Decoding Humanity: The Fundamental Role of Language

This time, Victor and Anna ponder over a profound question that has sparked endless debates among philosophers, intellectuals, and scholars since the dawn of thought: What makes us human? Is it our capacity for emotion, our developed emotional intelligence, the trajectory of our evolution, or our advancements in science and technology? While these elements collectively shape our humanity, the creators of “What Makes Us Human” compellingly propose that at the heart of our existence lies ‘language’. It is the foundational enabler of connection, communication, and, ultimately, all human progress and evolution.

If I’ve piqued your curiosity, indulge in a sneak peek of ‘What Makes Us Human’ with this captivating promo video, and continue reading for more.

What Makes Us Human Book Trailer — Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Vanishing Voices: The Urgent Mission for Language Preservation

Strategically promoted on February 21st to coincide with the United Nations’ International Mother Language Day, the book illuminates an astonishing reality: our planet is home to 7,168 living languages. Heartbreakingly, over half of these linguistic treasures might fade into oblivion within the next 80 years, a loss that signifies not just the demise of words, but of entire cultures and ways of understanding the world.

"What Makes Us Human" Exploring Our Identity Through Linguistic Diversity Multicultural Kids Book Reviews what makes us human victor d o santos anna forlati 02

According to Ethnologue, the most comprehensive language survey to date, a sobering reality emerges: over 500 languages teeter on the brink of extinction, spoken only by a handful of elders. Rooted in rich oral traditions, these languages face the grim prospect of disappearing with the passing of their last speakers. British linguist David Crystal estimates a staggering rate of language loss: on average, one language vanishes every two weeks.

The author of “What Makes Us Human” Victor D.O. Santos, a linguist and children’s author, deeply understands the symbiotic relationship between language and culture. His personal journey, having lived in five countries and studied 10 languages, is a testament to this understanding that “when a language dies a culture may also die with it”. Victor’s inspiration for the book was fuelled by a desire to convey to his own children and children worldwide, the simple yet profound notion that language is central to our humanity.

Victor’s collaborative process with the picture book illustrator is quite rare in the kidlit industry, and his journey from a self-published children’s author to the creator of ‘What Makes Us Human’ in partnership with UNESCO is unparalleled! Be sure to check out my interview with Victor to learn more about the inspirations behind his work, and his experiences as a polyglot, author, educator, and father of multilingual children. You might also like to go to Victor’s website and instagram.

Drawing Insights: Riddles and Revelations Through Artful Illustrations

“What Makes Us Human” stands apart from traditional picture books. Eschewing conventional characters and plot, it employs a riddle-like format that playfully tests the reader’s wits. Each page turn invites readers into a detective game, uncovering clues and nuances of the vital element that defines our humanity. The book’s hero, ‘language,’ remains a concealed treasure, with the narrative and illustrations masterfully withholding the revelation.

Anna Forlati’s illustrations are a blend of literal imagery and subtle metaphors, weaving distractions and allusions that keep readers engaged in a guessing game. Consider the page hinting at ancient roots (below). Such imagery enriches the narrative, inviting readers to explore their own connections to history and culture. For me, it conjured images of a centuries-old Buddha statue’s head, entwined in the roots of a venerable tree at Thailand’s Wat Mahathat temple, which I had the fortune to visit on a recent holiday.

"What Makes Us Human" Exploring Our Identity Through Linguistic Diversity Multicultural Kids Book Reviews what makes us human victor d o santos anna forlati 03

Seeing Beyond: The Art of Visual Storytelling

Anna’s artistry transcends mere illustration, enriching the text with deeper meaning. Take, for instance, her depiction of tree roots. This image does more than just mirror the word ‘roots’; it also suggests deeper connections.

Consider another illustration (below): a vision-impaired girl, alluding to the myriad ways we ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ the world around us. But look beyond the literal and you shall see that the girl and her guide dog communicate in a special language that is unique to the two. Each of Anna’s illustrations tells its own story, unveiling the unseen dialogues around us, from the intuitive bond between a guide dog and its companion to a man’s wordless communion with ancient relics.

"What Makes Us Human" Exploring Our Identity Through Linguistic Diversity Multicultural Kids Book Reviews what makes us human victor d o santos anna forlati 04

The Tower of Babel: A Pivotal Clue

As you journey through the book, hints of the riddle’s answer begin to emerge, but it was a particular illustration that cemented my understanding that it was indeed ‘language.’ This image appears to reference Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, echoing the biblical tale from Genesis (11:1-9). It recounts a story of unified, monolingual humanity aspiring to reach the heavens through building a tower. In response, God confounds their language, causing them to no longer understand each other, and scatters them across the earth. This dispersal led to the formation of different ancient languages and nations, explaining the origin of linguistic and cultural diversity in the world.

The Cultural Mosaic: Visions of Humanity Through the Prism of Language

One of the most striking spreads in “What Makes Us Human” elegantly illustrates a profound concept: each language is not merely a method of communication but a key to unlocking a unique cultural and worldly vision.

"What Makes Us Human" Exploring Our Identity Through Linguistic Diversity Multicultural Kids Book Reviews what makes us human victor d o santos anna forlati 06

As Russian writer Viaceslav Ivanov puts it:

“Each language constitutes a certain model of the universe, a semiotic system of understanding the world, and if we have 4,000 different ways to describe the world this makes us rich. We should be concerned about preserving languages just as we are about ecology.”

Our linguistic diversity enriches us, akin to the richness of an ecological system. David Crystal beautifully refers to the living languages as a ‘mosaic of visions.’ An example of one such vision is that of the Sami people, residing mere miles from the icy Arctic Ocean. Indigenous nomads of northern Scandinavia and Russia who have herded reindeer across the frozen planes of northern Scandinavia and north-western Russia since the last Ice Age, their languages encapsulate a profound understanding of one of the earth’s harshest climates ecosystems. Today, fewer than ten Sami languages survive, with others fading into history. Their languages enshrine unique insights into weather, flora, fauna, and the intricate relationship between humans and nature in the Arctic – a testament to Sami’s resilience and adaptability. For instance, the Sami have five distinct terms for ‘snow,‘ each crucial for survival and decision-making, especially in herding reindeer. Understanding the differences between ‘muohta’ (ordinary snow) or ‘ceavvi’ (a hard layer of snow that the reindeer cannot penetrate in search of lichen), for example, can mean the difference between life and death for the herds.

Safeguarding Our Linguistic Ecosystem

The linguistic tapestries woven by indigenous peoples stretch from the frostbitten expanses of Alaska and the Russian taiga to the scorching red centre of Australia, encoding invaluable knowledge about their native ecosystems. These languages, rich with insights into climate change adaptation, forest regeneration, and sustainable living, guide us on how to cherish and wisely utilise our terrains, ensuring our actions are in harmony with global biodiversity.

"What Makes Us Human" Exploring Our Identity Through Linguistic Diversity Multicultural Kids Book Reviews what makes us human victor d o santos anna forlati 07

Preserving this indigenous knowledge and cultural diversity is intrinsically linked to the safeguarding of linguistic diversity. This duty forms a legacy we are compelled to pass down to our children, the future guardians of our planet. Initiating this vital journey can start with a simple yet impactful act: sharing “What Makes Us Human” with the young, curious minds in our lives. This book transcends its status as a mere literary work to become a beacon for igniting a reverence for language as the cornerstone of knowledge, connection, and human interaction. Delving into its pages cultivates an appreciation for the profound beauty and significance of diversity in all its manifestations.

And here’s something that really resonates with me: Victor D.O. Santos isn’t just talking the talk. He’s pledged part of his book’s royalties to help keep these languages alive and kicking. It’s actions like these that remind us how books can be more than stories—they can be steps towards real change.

A Worldwide Mission: Preserving Languages with UNESCO

In alignment with its action plan for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022–2032, UNESCO has formed a partnership with distinguished publishers globally to showcase ‘What Makes Us Human.’ This illustrated children’s book by Victor D.O. Santos and Anna Forlati becomes an integral part of UNESCO’s efforts to promote linguistic diversity and the preservation of indigenous languages. The book has garnered international recognition, evidenced by:

The book has been licensed into 19 languages (at the time of this review), including English, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Basque, Persian, Korean, Turkish, Chinese, and several others. It has also been translated into two endangered Indigenous languages, namely Mapudungun in Chile and Hñähñü in Mexico, as well as languages such as Basque and Galician, which are minority languages in Spain.

When kids of the communities that speak minority languages see their own language represented in children’s books, they feel seen and they feel that their language matters.

Victor D.O. Santos

This wide-ranging translation effort underscores the book’s global appeal and its role in fostering a deeper appreciation for linguistic diversity and cultural understanding. By bringing this book into our homes and classrooms, we join a global effort to celebrate and preserve our linguistic heritage for generations to come.

Let’s Celebrate Our Linguistic Diversity

Reflecting on my review, my sole regret is revealing the author’s riddle, thus possibly diminishing the chance for my readers to experience its unveiling as the creators intended. Yet, to truly honour the depth of this book, discussing its central theme was unavoidable.

As we commemorate International Mother Language Day, I invite you to share your linguistic heritage. What is your mother tongue, and how does it shape your connection to the world? Let’s celebrate the rich tapestry of languages that bind us, understanding that each voice, each language, adds a unique thread to the global mosaic. Please share your stories and reflections in the comments below.

Title: “What Makes Us Human”
Author: Victor D. O. Santos; Illustrator: Anna Forlati
Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Year: 2024
ISBN: 9780802856258

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