Digital Tools Help Document Vanishing Languages

Linguist David Harrison has travelled to remote corners of the world seeking the last speakers of endangered languages. Now, he's using digital tools to to record and revitalize these dying languages. At the AAAS meeting this week, Harrison unveiled 'talking dictionaries' for eight languages.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Next up, the race to record and revitalize the worlds endangered languages. It's estimated that one language is lost from the world every two weeks. Many of these languages are spoken in remote corners of the world. Some have only a handful of native speakers left. So, now, a team of linguists equipped with modern, sort of, technology are making talking dictionaries. They're making audio recordings of words and sentences from these dying languages. This is so that words like this one, describing a part of a canoe...

UNINDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking in foreign language).

FLATOW: ...and this one used by an Indian tribe to identify a green snake...

UNINDENTIFIED MALE #1: (Speaking in foreign language).

FLATOW: ...are preserved long after the language is no longer spoken. David Harrison is one the linguists documenting vanishing languages. He is an associate professor and chair of the Linguistics Department at Swarthmore College. Professor Harrison joins us from the AAAS annual meeting in Vancouver, where he unveiled eight new talking dictionaries. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DR. DAVID HARRISON: Thank you. Greetings from Vancouver.

FLATOW: Greetings to you. Eight new talking dictionaries. What does that mean, talking dictionary?

HARRISON: Well, you know, most of the world's languages and there are 7,000 of them are what we call oral languages, which means they're not written down or their speakers don't regularly use writing to represent them. And so although traditional project has been to - for linguists, to write grammars and dictionaries, we like to think of living languages, what people are actually speaking. So if you go to a dictionary, you should be able to hear it. And with that in mind, we've created the talking dictionaries working with support from National Geographic for eight of some of the world's most endangered languages.

FLATOW: And so you go out with your digital recorder, then you have people speak it, so we have it forever?

HARRISON: That's right. And, of course, the technology doesn't replace a vibrant community of speakers. The ideal is to use it, not just to kind of archive the language in a jar on a shelf, as it were, but to help the community itself meet its strategy for revitalizing the language.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I want to give my listeners an example of the kinds of recording that you're doing, so here's - I want to play an audio clip of words from a language you were documenting and the speakers are describing fish parts.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION IN KORO LANGUAGE)

FLATOW: Now, it's true that this a language that no one knew about before?

HARRISON: Yes, this is a language that is new to science. It's the Koro language, K-O-R-O, spoken in northeastern India. I want to paint a picture for you. It sounded a little bit chaotic on that recording. We're sitting on the veranda of a bamboo house in a small village in the jungle, in the Himalayas. And a young man of the family had just come home from a day of fishing in the river and they pull out of their bucket all different kinds of fish, and I'm sitting there with my video camera and my recorder and they're starting to gut the fish and take them apart.

And I want to know every word for every piece of the fish because this is the richness of the lexicon in their language that describes their specific local environment. So I'm sitting there with my notebook, writing down all the fish parts and the different types of fish that they're pulling out of this bucket.

FLATOW: And that's how you do it. You go to - you go to people where they're living and watch what they're doing? They describe...

HARRISON: That's right. You can't just take a speaker and sit them down in their room and pick their brain, because language is kind of like a living organism. It is lived in a natural environment. People are interacting with the environment. They're harvesting rice or catching fish or weaving baskets. And the language is alive, and it helps them to adapt and to survive in that environment. So if we want to collect all the words of the language or document a language, what I do as a field linguist is I go out and live with the community and experience the language in its natural setting.

FLATOW: Interesting. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with David Harrison who - he and his team goes out to preserve vanishing languages. And one of the interesting parts, Dr. Harrison, now and - is the way that you do it. Not only sitting there, learning the parts of a fish as they're taking the fish apart, but we also have an audio clip of a man using his endangered language very creatively, sort of singing in hip-hop style on this clip that I want to play right now.

SONGE NIMASOW: (Singing in AKA language)

FLATOW: That was really - that was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARRISON: I really like that song. Yeah, it's a little rap about hot chili peppers and romance. And the young man who's singing it - his name is Songe - he's speaker of a language called Aka, A-K-A. And Aka is spoken - it's actually spoken in the same villages as the previous language, the one with the fish. And what I find fascinating is that here's an endangered language. It has almost no social economic value outside of a few remote mountain villages. And that young man, Songe, he speaks five languages fluently. So he is a global citizen. He uses the Internet. He sends text messages.

And he could very easily abandon his heritage language and speak, you know, the other four languages he knows: English, Nepali, Hindi, Assamese. But here, he's made a strategic decision to not only teach his language but to do something new and virtuoso with it. And that's really the key to the survival of languages: people taking pride in it, making it cool for the younger generation to speak it, and doing something creative with it.

FLATOW: I think it's a catchy tune that we could, you know, put a little background, a little remix on that. We'd have something...

HARRISON: Absolutely. And it's wonderful to see people, you know, just delighting in their language. And, I think, this strikes home the point. People love their languages, and given a free choice, they would prefer to keep their languages. The reason that small communities are abandoning their language is because they're being coerced. They're being shamed. They're being told that your language is backwards and useless and obsolete. So one reason we're creating talking dictionaries is to send the message that a small remote language is just as good for the Internet as English is.

FLATOW: Is the Internet helping out in keeping the languages alive at all?

HARRISON: Absolutely, and I've been in many communities like the Matugar community in Papua, New Guinea. It's a small language, just 500 speakers in a little coastal village. They knew about the Internet long before they had ever encountered it, before they had electricity. And they had an agenda that they wanted their language to be represented on the Internet. And so, working with a speaker of Matugar, and we were able to record thousands of words in the language - terms for canoes and coconuts and all kinds of things that they talk about - and put this online.

And then in 2011, the village did get electricity, and they eventually got an Internet connection. And the very first time they went on the Internet, they were able to see and hear their very small language represented there. So that sends a very powerful message. Technology is not to be seen as a threat, but rather, an opportunity for a small language to extend its voice and to reach a global audience.

FLATOW: If there is - speaking of a global audience, is there any place that we can go to listen to more of these languages, a collection?

HARRISON: Yes, absolutely. You're welcome to visit my talking dictionaries online. The URL is talkingdictionary.swarthmore.edu. It's our base at Swarthmore College where I teach linguistics. And you're also welcome to visit our National Geographic website. If you just Google for Enduring Voices, you'll come to the Enduring Voices project where we have been working to visit the world's language hotspots and record some of the last speakers over the past five years and have put a very rich archive of things up on online. We also have a YouTube channel. If you go to youtube.com/enduringvoices, you can see video recordings, including the little hip-hop clip.

FLATOW: All right. We've - in case people missed it, they can go to sciencefriday.com, and get all those links there. David Harrison, thank you for taking time to join us today, and good luck at the AAAS meeting in Vancouver.

HARRISON: Thank you.

FLATOW: David Harrison, associate professor and chair of the linguistics department at Swarthmore College.

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