In The Search For 'Last Speakers,' A Great Discovery In 2008, linguist K. David Harrison traveled to Arunachal Pradesh, a remote region in northeast India, where he discovered a hidden language: Koro. A few hundred people speak Koro, Harrison says, and those who speak it didn't notice how distinct it was. He documents this language, and his efforts to help revitalize dying languages, in his new book, The Last Speakers.
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In The Search For 'Last Speakers,' A Great Discovery

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In The Search For 'Last Speakers,' A Great Discovery

In The Search For 'Last Speakers,' A Great Discovery

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

There are more than 7,000 languages in the world. Nearly half of them are in danger, likely to die out within our lifetime. In fact, one disappears about every two weeks.

Take Koro, a language spoken by just a few hundred people in the far northeast corner of India.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

KELLY: Koro, mind you, is positively widespread compared with Chulym, a Siberian language that only eight people still speak.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language).

KELLY: Now, we learned about these two languages and plenty of others thanks to the work of David Harrison. David Harrison's a linguist at Swarthmore College. He's traveled the world to meet the last speakers of vanishing languages, and he tells their stories in his new book called "The Last Speakers." David Harrison, welcome.

Mr. DAVID HARRISON (Author, "The Last Speakers"): Hello, Mary Louise, good to be here.

KELLY: So tell me, in your estimate, how many languages are down to, say, fewer than 1,000 speakers?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, certainly several hundred languages. There are many languages right here in the United States that are down to single digits of speakers. And so we are facing a global crisis of language extinction.

KELLY: What is lost when one of these languages with just a few speakers left dies out?

Mr. HARRISON: We don't even really know everything that's lost. I refer to this knowledge as the human knowledge base because it contains information about anything and everything, how to make medicines out of plants, how to survive in harsh environments, how to domesticate animals, as well as things like creation myths and stories and personal histories.

KELLY: What about the argument, though, that if one language dies out, people are still going to communicate in another language, that there are scholars who would argue that languages are essentially interchangeable, and as long as people can communicate, that's all right? What's wrong with that argument?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, they're welcome to argue that, but I think anybody who's bilingual knows very well about the translation paradox. That is something that seems to be a perfectly coherent concept that's represented by a single word in one language simply is not directly translatable into another language.

And this is true between big languages or small languages. So if you speak Spanish and English, you confront this problem a lot. So it's not the case that knowledge is directly translatable.

KELLY: You describe in this book all sorts of fascinating fieldwork that you've done all over the world. I want to ask about a trip that you made, I believe back in 2008, to the extreme edge of India, northeastern India, an area of the country that I was interested to learn even Indians need permits to travel to, and so very few linguists have worked there.

You were searching for two little-known languages, and you got the shock of a career when you discovered a third, and this was this language Koro, that we mentioned. Let's just hear that one more time.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

KELLY: How did you figure out that you had stumbled across a language that you had no idea was there?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, this was indeed very exciting to find Koro. We knew that there were two languages spoken in this region, and when we went in and began to make recordings, the local people said to us, oh, by the way, there's another dialect. If you go down to such-and-such village, you'll hear the other dialect of our language.

So we went down to that other village, and we began recording the same word list, and it sounded radically different, and we realized that no, this is not a dialect. This is really a completely different language. And its existence has been completely unnoticed by the outside world.

KELLY: You were able to learn that this was not related in any way to any of the neighboring languages. It doesn't appear to have any close sister-languages at all.

Mr. HARRISON: It is a Tibeto-Burman language, which situates it within a very large family of languages. But it seems to be its own branch within the family, which suggests that it's an ancient language. It's been on its own trajectory of development for a very long time.

KELLY: When you start working to revitalize a language, what are the key steps? I mean, what is it that actually helps bring a language from a few dozen or a few hundred speakers back to a larger percentage of the population?

Mr. HARRISON: The key players in language revitalization are the children in the community, five- and six-year-olds. And they understand that if two languages are spoken in their environment, and one of them is more highly valued, they will gravitate towards that more highly valued language.

So the key to saving a language is to create prestige for the language in the eyes of the very youngest speakers. And the way you do that is by putting the language into a high-tech medium. So we create, for example, talking dictionaries for these small languages. People can do creative things for the language like producing hip-hop or poetry in the language. And once the language has greater prestige and usefulness in the eyes of the speakers, they'll keep it.

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking foreign language).

KELLY: It sounds like you had a fascinating example. Let me take you back to this northeast corner of India. One of the languages that you knew was there, that you went there to try to document, is Aka. And you came across two young men performing hip-hop.

Unidentified Group: (Rapping in foreign language).

KELLY: What crossed your mind when these two young men busted out with this song?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, this was just an astonishing moment. The young man, Songanemesau(ph), and his friend, were using this language that is endangered, most of the youth don't speak it in the village anymore, and they've decided not only to keep the language but to do something virtuoso with it.

And this is a wonderful example of how language activists in these small communities around the world are doing new things with languages and are really pushing back against the forces of globalization in order to keep their languages.

KELLY: What were you able to learn about the young men who were performing this for you?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, these young men are thoroughly connected, global citizens. The main one who was singing, he has a motorcycle. He has a cell phone. He owns a billiard parlor in the town. He speaks five languages.

And here he is making up hip-hop in a language that is endangered. And he's figuring out a new way to expand the influence of the language and to make it seem cool so that the other young people in the community will continue using it. And this makes it worth the trip, really, to see something wonderful like this being done with a small, endangered language.

KELLY: What are the chances you think that his children will grow up speaking Aka?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, not great I have to say. This is a community where something like only a third or a quarter of people under 20 still speak the language. But if it's going to have any chance at all, it's going to be through the efforts of language activists like this young man, who's doing something new and innovative with the language.

So this'll be a fascinating trend to watch in the coming years, as we see people working for language revitalization in these small communities.

KELLY: Thanks very much.

Mr. HARRISON: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That's David Harrison. He teaches at Swarthmore College, and we've been talking about his new book out this week, "The Last Speakers."

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