Alaska Authors: Linguist Victor Santos continues to explore culture and preservation in children’s book

This is part of Alaska Authors, an occasional series about authors and other literary figures with ties to the 49th state.

“Every language is important,” Victor Santos said, explaining his work as a linguist. “The more languages you have, the more assets you have in your toolbox to communicate with others, to express your feelings, to understand who you are as a person.”

It’s something Santos knows firsthand. He was born in Brazil, where he grew up speaking Portuguese, spent several years in Europe, then moved to the United States. His Ukrainian-born wife Olya’s first language is Russian. Both of them, Santos said, were determined to raise their children speaking both languages in addition to English.

Santos said he and his wife felt their kids “should be proud of having more than one culture and more than one language. That they should not be ashamed of speaking a language that is different from the one they might hear around them the whole day.”

Santos’ passion for languages, and for sharing with others the ways in which knowing more than one language can open up entirely new ways of looking at the world, led him to write the recently published children’s book “What Makes Us Human.” A colorful journey through a diverse mix of human cultures, the book aims to teach young readers the importance of learning and preserving the world’s many languages.

“I wanted to make children very aware of the fact that they should be proud of their culture,” Santos said.

“What Makes Us Human” begins in the Stone Age and wanders back and forth through time and across continents. The identity of the narrator is not revealed at first. The opening words simply state, “I have been around for a very long time.” Italian artist Anna Forlati employs collage and digital techniques to illustrate the page with a depiction of two cavemen sitting by a fire, one speaking and the other listening.


Hints of the book’s topic appear over the following pages as Santos and Forlati discretely introduce their topic. “When you were a baby you hardly knew me,” Santos writes, “But when you are old, you may start to forget me.” On another page, Forlati offers the Tower of Babel to accompany the words, “In the beginning, I was one.” Furthering the biblical legend, Forlati subsequently presents an apartment building whose residents are speaking in a multitude of tongues.

Elsewhere, a child’s hands hold a book with blank pages while the text reads, “I am the greatest invention of all. Without me, most others would not exist, including the children’s books you love so much.” Suddenly a message in a bottle appears in the sea, and on the next page, a young boy discovers it on a beach. “I make you human,” the invisible narrator states. “I am language” readers are told on the final page, with people from all over the world saying the names of their languages, each in their own alphabet.

“We wanted to speak about the theme of languages without giving too much information in order to keep the riddle as a mystery to the end,” Forlati said, explaining the approach the duo took, creating a bit of a mystery that will draw young readers in as they try to decipher what the book is about. “We tried to look for metaphors rather than actual explanations. So yes, there are hints. Some of them are very evident like the Babel tower, for example. I think it’s pretty obvious. And others are much more hidden or subtle.”

Subtleties are found in all languages, and for Santos, who has a Ph.D. in linguistics from Iowa State University, this is why languages need to be preserved. Especially, he said, Indigenous languages, many of which are spoken only by elders and thus face extinction as their last remaining speakers die. “A lot of of the languages that we have in the world, which is over 7,000 right now, are on the brink of being lost,” he said, adding that, “every time it happens, it’s a loss not only for the people who speak the language, but for humanity as a whole.”

In addition to writing children’s books, of which “What Makes Us Human” is his ninth and his second collaboration with Forlati, Santos works for Avant Assessment. The company produces reading, writing, and spoken tests for children in numerous languages, including Yup’ik.

Among his many projects, Santos has teamed with Brandon Locke, director of World Languages and Immersion Programs for the Anchorage School District, on producing flash cards in Yup’ik for students. This introduced him to one of Alaska’s many Indigenous languages. One of the things he learned was that Yup’ik does not have a word for fish. Rather, he said, there is an individual word for each type of fish familiar to Yup’ik people, “because every fish has a different purpose in Yup’ik culture. So that’s kind of how I started paying a little bit more attention to Alaskan languages.”

This experience led Santos to recommend making a semester of an Indigenous Alaska language a graduation requirement for all Alaskan schoolchildren as a way of saving these languages from vanishing. “Indigenous languages, of which we might consider Alaskan Native languages to be a part of, are amongst the languages that are at the very highest risk of disappearing,” he said. “Many of them have like 10 speakers, 15 speakers. So a difference of one or two years can literally make half of the speakers disappear.”

Santos said two of his previous books have been printed in Yup’ik, while “What Makes Us Human” has thus far been published in 22 different languages. As the book was coming into production, it caught the eye of UNESCO, which saw it as beneficial for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which began in 2022. UNESCO added its seal and joined as co-publisher with Eerdmans Books, which first accepted it for print.

Reviving and preserving Indigenous languages is a way of atoning for decades of suppression through boarding schools, churches, government enforcement, and other ways in which Indigenous people, in Alaska and across the globe, who were forced to abandon their native tongues, Santos said.

“This is a very clear way of killing a culture because language is not just an instrument. It’s an emotional tool as well. When you remove people who speak the same language from one another, you’re cutting that emotional tie. That has a huge impact on your ability and your motivation to want to keep the language alive, keep using it.”

Reflecting on her own contributions to the book and the importance both she and Santos place in its theme, Forlati said, “Language is in the head because it’s what we think with. There would be no thoughts without language. It’s an effect of the eyes because we read. It’s about talking. It’s also about the hands because of sign language and the way blind people can perceive Braille.”

The different ways people use language to understand their lives and experiences is what Santos hopes young readers will learn from the book. “You can’t just switch to another language and continue using the same glasses,” he said. “The moment you change languages, you’re choosing your goggles to interpret the world.”

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at