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JOE PALCA, host:

From NPR News, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Joe Palca.

A brief program note: join Neal Conan and guests on Monday for a discussion about the latest developments in the Middle East.

And for the rest of this hour, we'll be talking about languages.

Mr. PETER KALIFORNSKY (Author, A Dena'ina Legacy, K'tl'egh'i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky): (Speaking foreign language)

PALCA: That's tape of Peter Kalifornsky. He's talking about hunting beavers and butchering and drying them for winter. The language he's speaking is the Kenai dialect of Dena'ina. Dena'ina is one of the 3,500 languages still spoken on earth that may become extinct by the end of the century.

The decline of these languages may be inevitable. But now the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation have teamed up to preserve a record of them before they're gone for good.

Joining me to talk about this preservation effort and why scientists think it's crucial is Terry Langendoen. He's coordinator of cyberinfrastructure in the Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Division, and co-director of the linguistics program at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. He joins me today by telephone from his office there. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TERRY LANGENDOEN (Coordinator of Cyberinfrastructure, Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Division, Co-Director of Linguistics Program, National Sciences Foundation): Hi. Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: And - oh, if you want to hear more of the Dena'ina language, you can go to www.qenaga. And I'll spell that for you - it's And if you want the rest of the instructions for butchering beavers, the story appears in A Dena'ina legacy: the Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky, 1991. Edited by James Kari and Alan Boraas. Fairbanks, Alaska, Native Language Center.

And if you'd like to join us after you've read that and tell us what the instructions say, you can give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK.

And I guess the first question is how many languages are there in the world and how many are endangered?

Mr. LANGENDOEN: Well, you actually gave the figure which is pretty close. We can only give, you know, sort of broad estimates partly because of trying to figure out exactly what we mean by language. But the current best estimates are between 6000 and 7000 languages are still spoken on this planet, of which roughly half are threatened with extinction by the end of this century.

PALCA: And why?

Mr. LANGENDOEN: Well, there are a number of factors. Probably looking from within a community, the most important factor is the failure of the new generation, the children, to learn or acquire the language of their community. And there are a number of reasons why children may not be interested or want to or be able to acquire those languages.

One is they don't hear it spoken around them, and the second is they've lost the motivation because of the, shall we say, the invasion of a dominant culture from outside.

PALCA: Right. Is there other - I mean, are we coming to a point where there's going to be like six languages left on the planet? Or is there some bottom number that people think we'll reach and then that'll be it and then there won't be any more disappearances?

Mr. LANGENDOEN: Well, a lot of course depends on the political future of the earth. So languages are very closely identified with nations, as I'm sure our listeners are aware. So we can expect that many hundreds of languages and certainly - with respect to the current century, we were predicting that there will still be several thousand left.

But what you have to think about this: if children are the transmitters of a language, and so we pass it down from generation to generation, each community, each group of speakers of a language have to ask, will my great-grandchildren be speaking this language? And so as you examine the factors, that might lead to your grandchildren or great-grandchildren not speaking. That will give you some idea.

So we can expect that there will be some baseline, assuming the continuation of a society as it now exists, of many hundreds if not thousands of languages.

PALCA: We're talking about the efforts of the National Science Foundation, and interestingly enough, the National Endowment for the Humanities, not to preserve, but - maybe we can talk about - not to preserve language, but to at least to document them before they're gone forever. And we'd like to hear from you. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK.

And Dr. Langendoen, I wonder, you know, what's the difference between trying to preserve a language and trying to document it?

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Well, documentation, as the National Science Foundation is interested in having as complete and as accurate a record of a language as we can possibly obtain by sending linguists out into the field or collecting transcriptions, audio and video tapes, and analyses. The usefulness to the community - the resources that we obtain in this way can then be used by a language community for training teachers, for actually using in the classroom with children, or for that matter, making it fun and interesting for kids so that they are motivated to learn their native or their heritage language.

PALCA: Let's take a call now and go to Gary(ph), in Elverta, California. Gary, welcome to the program.

GARY (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

PALCA: Sure.

GARY: My name is - I'm Gary Mulckay(ph). I'm with the Winnemem Wintu tribe. My tribal name is actually Ponte Teius(ph).


GARY: About four years ago, there was a program out of Holland, a language preservation program, and we approached them because the last fluent speaker of our language was getting very old. As a matter of fact, it was Florence Jones, our spiritual and tribal leader, and she passed away in 2003. When we approached them to try and help get our language preserved, they told us that our language is too endangered and they wouldn't take it on.


Dr. LANGENDOEN: Wow. Okay.

PALCA: Wow. So is that - are there languages now that, Dr. Langendoen, you think are too endangered?

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Our interest is to work with whatever resources that are available or that can be made available, both for communities and for researchers. So we would certainly not turn down an application for funding from a community such as we just heard about.

PALCA: So, if - I mean, but is this the kind of thing that individuals could apply for applications, or do they have to try to find a linguist and convince them to apply for money to do this documentation?

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Well, bear in mind that our solicitation is in fact a competition. So it would probably be wisest for - well, if the community has already people that they're working with for documenting and describing the language, then they could proceed right away.

Part of the objectives of the DEL Initiative is also training, in particular training of native speakers of languages to learn to do all the techniques. Some of it is actually just using equipment like microphones and video recorders.

PALCA: DEL? You said DEL. I'm not quite sure what that was.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: I'm sorry, that's the name of - I'm sorry, that's the abbreviation for the acronym for the project.

PALCA: Ah-ha. Documenting Endangered Languages.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Yeah. That's right. Yeah.

PALCA: Okay.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: We have a bad habit in the Foundation of speaking in acronyms, and I apologize.

PALCA: You get to Washington and it becomes an occupational hazard. But I'm thinking, if Gary goes onto the NSF website, will he maybe be able to find researchers in California, for example, that might be already receiving grants from you and might be talked into getting...

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Gary, I would appreciate it if you would send me either an e-mail message or call me. My number, if I may give it - is it okay, Joe?

PALCA: Yeah. Take a chance. You might get a lot of calls.


PALCA: I think you should.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: It's area code 703-292-5088. And my e-mail address is D as in dog, L-A-N-G-E-N-D at But I wish you luck...

PALCA: Okay, Gary, I hope you got all that down, and if you didn't, you can go back and listen to it later at the NPR Web site, or download the Podcast, or whatever. But thanks very much for your call.

GARY: Yeah. Can I make one more point?

PALCA: Oh sure, go ahead.

GARY: I want to disagree with him on one point. When he said that it's because the young folks didn't take an interest in learning it, I don't know what happened in the rest of the United States, but I do know what happened in California with our ancestors and our tribal people. Most of our children - I shouldn't say most - all of them that did not escape were taken to Indian schools, boarding schools. They were not allowed to speak their language. If they spoke their language they were punished. They were not allowed to practice any religious practices. If they did they were punished. So there was a very strong drive back in the 1800s when California became a state, and the children were taken to boarding schools to eradicate the culture here.

PALCA: Well, hopefully those days, I hope - and I'm sure there are arguments that could be made on the other side - but I hope those days are over. And maybe this program that the NSF and the National Endowment of Humanities is undertaking is a good example that things are changing.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Regrettably, what was just described is still happening in parts of the world. I mean, I described one factor that leads to endangerment, but this is also another one.

PALCA: Let's take another call now. Let's go to Ruth(ph), in Rancho Cordova, California. Ruth, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RUTH (Caller): Hi. Thank you. My question is this: my father - my parents are Mennonites and they spoke a particular dialect, I guess you'd call it - Low German. Plattdeutsch. I wondered if anything is being done to preserve this language or this dialect.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: I don't know of specific efforts working on, dealing with Plattdeutsch. I happened to have been in Bremen, in northern Germany, a couple of years ago on a visit, and I noted that I went by when I was actually being a tourist that there was an office there for the study of Plattdeutsch. So my suggestion would be to see what resources are available actually in Germany itself, as well as, I suspect, in the communities that still speak Plattdeutsch in this country and elsewhere.

RUTH: Right. But that's not one of the languages that you're preserving. Is that correct?

Dr. LANGENDOEN: We don't have any projects on Plattdeutsch at the moment. If a case can be made we would certainly consider a proposal.

RUTH: Right. And because it's not a written - like it's not a written language. So that's also another problem. You know, it's - like it's only high German that's a written language.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Yeah. Right.

PALCA: Ruth, thanks so much for that call. You know, it raises an interesting question about what's the different between a dialect and a language.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Yes. We...

PALCA: What's the difference?

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Yeah, in the interest of keeping our listeners interested in what we're talking about I won't launch into a long discussion of this.

The main criterion that linguists use is something called mutual intelligibility. So if two - let's use the general term, language variety, you know, to cover both dialects and languages proper - so if two varieties can be understood by each of the speakers of the other language, or the other variety, excuse me, then those would be considered dialects and not separate languages. But there are many other factors that come into play.

PALCA: Right. We're talking about an effort by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to document dying languages. I'm Joe Palca, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And you're welcome to join the conversation. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK.

How important is it to have a written documentation of a language as opposed to an auditory documentation, where you just have recordings of it?

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Well, I would say both are important. And I would add a third factor: if we can get good audio/video tapes of people carrying on life as its lived in a community, for example, a bunch of people sitting around preparing dinner or playing with their kids, or children, let's say, playing soccer, that would be a very, very useful resource to have for the detailed study of the language.

So it's not just vocabulary and grammar that we're interested in. We're interested in how the language is used and how it relates to life in the community as a whole.

As you know, when you are a student of a language, say taking a course in college or even in high school or grade school, a lot of it seems very artificial because you're just doing, you know, rote learning of various kinds of expressions. But if you're actually using the language in a situation where you need it to get along, right, to find a place to stay for the night, or to get a dinner, or to get a meal, then it becomes much more important to you that it get it and get it right.

PALCA: Right. You know, when you announced that this program was starting, Dr. Arden Bement, the head of NSF, said it was important for cognitive sciences. Do you know what he was talking about there?

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Oh, yeah, that's a big motivation for us. In fact, the concern to document endangered languages or dying languages really arose in, I would say, probably it became - linguists had their consciousness raised about this largely through the work of a few pioneers, Michael Krauss at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, is one. The late Ken Hale at MIT is another.

And they pointed out - in particular Ken pointed out - that each language comes with its own special way of - sort of its own special intellectual structure. And we need to know how each language works in order to have a complete picture of the human capacity for language.

In other words, if we are - if we grow up and we're listening to the language that we just heard on that audio tape, despite how foreign it sounded to our ears, we would pick it up. And we don't really fully understand yet, as scientists, how that happens.

PALCA: We only have about 30 seconds left, but I'm wondering, I can't let this go - I'm curious to know if you have learned any of these endangered languages or speak any of them.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: I can, I regretfully - I worked on, most recently, on a language, Yaki; spoken in northwestern Mexico and also in Tucson, Arizona, where I used to work. And I'm afraid my communication skills in that language are very, very poor. But it's - I have worked on a whole variety of such languages in my - during my career.

PALCA: Hmm. So you couldn't tell us, like, put down that rock, or where's a good place to have dinner, in Yaki.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Right. Right. Exactly. Or please don't hit me with that hammer, right? I'm afraid that's not in my capacity.

PALCA: That's the first bit of knowledge I try to gain when I learn any language. Well, I'm afraid we've run out of time for this hour. But it's a fascinating topic.

I'd like to thank my guest, Terry Langendoen. He's the coordinator for cyber infrastructure in the Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Division, and co-director of the linguistic program at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. He joined me by phone from his office.

Thanks for coming on the program.

Dr. LANGENDOEN: Thank you very much, Joe. It was a pleasure.

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