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Joshua Fishman, Yiddish and bilingual education pioneer, passes away at 88

A visiting professor of education and linguistics at Stanford, Fishman served as co-director of the university's initiative on maximizing language resources. He was a prolific scholar and a leader in revitalizing endangered languages. His papers are now housed in special collections in the Stanford library.

Joshua Fishman
Joshua Fishman


Joshua Fishman, a prolific bilingual education scholar widely credited for founding the field of the sociology of language, died on March 1 at the age of 88. He was a close friend of Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Fishman’s impact as a scholar was far-reaching.  His ideas on the use of language in society influenced researchers worldwide in the areas of bilingualism and multilingualism, bilingual and minority education, the sociology and history of Yiddish, language policy and planning, language and ethnicity, and reversing language shift.

Fishman, who received numerous academic appointments at Yeshiva University in New York, came to Stanford after becoming professor emeritus at Yeshiva in 1988. As visiting professor of education and linguistics at Stanford, he collaborated with Professor Guadalupe Valdés on the Stanford University Initiative for the Maximization of Language Resources, where he served as co-principal investigator and co-director. He and Valdés co-authored the 2006 book, Developing Minority Language Resources: The Case of Spanish in California (Multilingual Matters) with GSE alumni Rebecca Chávez ’99, MA ’00, and William Pérez, PhD ‘04. Fishman also served as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and worked closely with Stanford linguistics professors John Rickford and the late Charles Ferguson.

“Professor Fishman's work defined modern scholarship on societal bilingualism and multilingualism, bilingual education, and language policy and planning,” said Valdés. “He cared deeply about ‘beloved languages’ and labored to support work around the world in revitalizing endangered languages, cultures and traditions.”

“Former GSE students and staff who took his last class at Stanford—Katherine Rodela, Karen Thompson, Maneka Brooks, Diego Roman, Katie Stokes-Guinan, and Chris Wesselman—have been in touch sharing memories and recalling both his brilliance and his incredible generosity and kindness. We were privileged to have him in our lives.”

He and his wife Gella Fishman established the Joshua A. Fishman and Gella Schweid Fishman Family Archives, housed at Special Collections at Stanford University Libraries. The five-generational archive contains drafts of subsequently published books and articles, course outlines, lectures, professional and family correspondence, photographs, audio, videos, and other materials pertaining to Fishman's work.

A native of Philadelphia, Fishman earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in psychology at the University of Philadelphia. But it was Yiddish—the language of his childhood home—and bilingualism that inspired his scholarship after graduation.

After earning a PhD in social psychology from Columbia University in 1953, Fishman worked as a researcher for the College Entrance Examination Board, where he developed another strand of research—bilingual education. Around that time, he taught the first sociology of language course at The City College of New York.  Shortly after, he worked at the University of Pennsylvania as associate professor of human relations and psychology for two years, then was appointed professor of psychology and sociology at Yeshiva University in New York. He moved up in ranks, becoming dean of the Ferkauf Graduate School of Social Science and Humanities, academic vice president and Distinguished University Research Professor of Social Sciences.

Fishman authored nearly 100 books and over 1,000 articles. He wrote and edited many influential works, including Language and Nationalism (1972), "Never Say Die! A Thousand Years of Yiddish" in Jewish Life and Letters (1981), Language and Ethnicity in Minority Perspective (1989), Yiddish: Turning of Life (1991), The Earliest Stage of Language Planning (1993), Post-Imperial English (1995), The Multilingual Apple: Languages in New York (1997) and the Handbook of Language and Ethnicity (1999). He was founder and editor of The International Journal of the Sociology of Language and editor of Contributions to the Sociology of Language (De Gruyter Mouton), a book series with over 200 titles.

Read more about Fishman in obituaries posted on LINGUIST List. 

Amy Yuen is a frequent contributor to Stanford Graduate School of Education publications and websites.

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