According to unofficial sources, approximately a billion individuals around the globe speak Mandarin Chinese and some five hundred million know English. The negative outcome from a world in which more of us share a common language is the subsequent loss of others every single day. David Harrison, a Swarthmore College professor and published author, is one of the world’s leading experts on little-documented or extinct languages who fights everyday for their preservation. Now, the founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has teamed up with the National Geographic Society to create YouTube videos documenting his trips throughout the world. Why? Because every language has its own rules, ideas, and stories that we, the mainstream audience (already 60,000 in just two months) can now discover. In this age of globalization, it’s about time we realize that the world is bigger than we might think…
How did you initially become interested in extinct or little-documented languages?
I grew up monolingual. During my time in college, I traveled around Eastern Europe as an exchange student and quickly became fascinated with the idea of smaller, less-known languages. I became a specialist in Siberian languages and spent a year in Tuva doing research for my dissertation living with nomadic people. Now, what I do has global reach as I look at some of the world’s most endangered languages.
What was the first endangered language you came across?
In 1996, I was visiting a small town called Trakai in Lithuania, home of the Karaims. I went door-to-door until I found a speaker that I could record; he was an elderly man who told me the creation story, which is how I realized that I was being exposed to an amazing and different philosophy.
What are the various factors bolstering the extinction of these languages, and is it only going to get worse?
It’s accelerating, and since I study it as a global trend, I expect that it is going to continue. This is unprecedented in human history, but there is a fascinating global grassroots movement to reclaim and revitalize languages – a pushback to extinction trends. Many language activists have realized that the phenomenon is not inevitable, and that we have been presented with a false choice – the idea that you most lose your native language or you will not be well integrated. People can very well be bilingual.
Have you found that individuals in those communities tend to hold onto their languages or seem complacent about its disappearance?
In any community, and I just came back from Chile and India, you will find a full range of attitudes – from despair and regret, to complacency or belief that this may represent progress. However, no matter how small the community, you will always find committed individuals fighting for preservation. Part of my work is to find ways to help these language activists and to develop language technology kits to support their efforts.
Tell me about your affiliation with National Geographic, which started four years ago.
As the co-founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, I started a productive partnership with the National Geographic Society, which is devoted to research and exploration. They wanted to expand their cultural portfolio, which turned out to be a good fit for my colleague Greg Anderson and I. Our main activity with National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project is to identify global language hotspots, document the endangered languages we find there, and carry out research expeditions. My partner and I focus on the scientific research. I’m delighted that languages can be considered alongside other programs they have.
Who knows, maybe after “Shark Week” we’ll be able to watch “Endangered Languages Week!”
Funny you should make a reference like that, since Monday (February 21st, 2011) will be the UNESCO day called International Mother Language Day! Awareness is increasing, but there is a lot more to be done.
What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?
I have lots of ongoing projects in communities around the world. I just finished developing a talking dictionary that allows a language from Papua New Guinea, called Matukar Panau, to document the vocabulary. I am also working on Siletz Dee-Ni, one of the most endangered languages in the United States still spoken in Oregon by Native Americans. The basic idea behind most of what I do is to look for ways to leverage technology in order to revitalize those languages – such as the use of smartphones or apps. Raising the prestige level is the key to saving languages. If people are told that their language is obsolete, they’ll start believing so.
In that case, wouldn’t you consider technology both an advantage and a threat if those people are exposed to a very Americanized world?
I disagree with the idea that technology is a threat. It is an enabling device that holds the key to the survival of languages. I just launched a talking dictionary for this language of six hundred speakers in Papua New Guinea – they have acquired electricity this past year and will soon have access to internet, where they will hear their language on the web for the first time.
I want to talk about one of your latest endeavors: the “Enduring Voices” YouTube channel, in which you document stories from endangered languages. How has the process of trying to reach out to the mainstream audience been?
The response has been astonishing, with more than 60,000 visits to the channel in just a couple of months. Truth be told, I did not expect that obscure Siberian hero tales or a creation myth from the Himalayas would get that much attention. Videos of a creation myth from Papua New Guinea, or two young men from India performing hip-hop in Aka have gone viral. The channel spreads the idea that no culture or group has a monopoly on human genius; every language facilitates new ways of thinking.
Playing devil’s advocate, but why is the preservation of languages so important?
Languages have different ways of conceptualizing ideas and labeling reality. They lend themselves to different kind of ideas, with various analogies. And think about it: we’d be outraged if someone tore down the Notre-Dame Cathedral for no good reason, but languages are much more complex and ancient than any monuments we have built with human hands.
How emotionally connected and involved do you get in those languages?
That’s a great question. I feel very connected to them because when I spend time in these communities, speakers are so welcoming and generous to me: they share their food, their resources, and they treat me as a guest. It is an opportunity to be able to sit down with them but it also is a responsibility – I have to take care of this knowledge since it is their intellectual property.
How can our readers contribute to your success?
Everyone can contribute to a world that is diverse in languages by shifting their attitude and support linguistic diversity. My foundation and I are looking for contributions, and also looking for technology expertise. Anyone able to assist us in building some of these technologies I mentioned would be welcome. Finally, I am looking for speakers of endangered languages who might want to work with us.
As a last question, what are some of your favorite words or concepts that cannot be directly translated into English?
From Sora (India), the words ñamkit- (to be killed by a tiger) and kudu-budu (the rapidity of movement in dancing) [Source: Sora-English Dictionary. G. V. Ramamurti], and from Tofa (Siberia), the words kösh (the distance that one can travel in one day riding on reindeer back) and eder (four year old male, uncastrated, rideable, domesticated reindeer) [Source: K David Harrison field notes].