Campaign to Preserve World Languages Ensues Every two weeks, one of the world's 7,000 languages becomes extinct. Some succumb to dialects, others to a dominant language. National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute are fighting to preserve the languages. David Harrison, a professor of linguistics and co-director of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project, explains why we should care and how to save them.
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Campaign to Preserve World Languages Ensues

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Campaign to Preserve World Languages Ensues

Campaign to Preserve World Languages Ensues

Campaign to Preserve World Languages Ensues

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Every two weeks, one of the world's 7,000 languages becomes extinct. Some succumb to dialects, others to a dominant language. National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute are fighting to preserve the languages. David Harrison, a professor of linguistics and co-director of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project, explains why we should care and how to save them.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we turn to a battle of a different kind. There are about 7,000 languages spoken worldwide right now. And once every two weeks, one of them goes silent. Some are absorbed by other dialects or dominant cultures. Others simply vanish when the last speaker dies.

But a new project by National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute is fighting to stop that trend.

To tell us more about that effort, we are joined by David Harrison, an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and co-director of National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project. He joins us now from Philadelphia.

Welcome. Good to talk to you.

Professor DAVID HARRISON (Linguistics, Swarthmore College; Co-director, National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, I think people are familiar with the idea of vanishing species. But I'm not sure most people are familiar with the idea of vanishing languages. Why should people be concerned about this? What do we lose when languages stop being used or go out of existence?

Prof. HARRISON: Well, you know, people would be appalled if Notre Dame Cathedral were demolished for no good reason. But, you know, languages are even more impressive. They are monuments to human intellect, and they have been refined and adapted and evolved over millennia. And they really contained much of human knowledge. Much of what humans know about is contained only in oral languages. It's not written down anywhere. And so I think people should feel a similar sense of alarm to know that entire languages and all of the vast systems of knowledge they contain are vanishing.

MARTIN: And talk to me about the idea that the loss of species are connected to the loss of language. Why would that be?

Prof. HARRISON: I've just written a book called "When Languages Die," and I discuss in it what I call the knowledge gap. So the famous Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has pointed out that something like 80 percent of the plants and animal species on earth haven't yet been discovered. And, of course, when he says discovered, he means noticed by scientists and classified and described and so forth.

So we have a huge knowledge gap in biology. But that doesn't mean that humans don't know about all these plants and animals. And if you go, as I did, to some of the remote areas of the world - Siberia, the Australian Outback, various places - and you speak to the indigenous people, they are experts at knowing about the ecosystems they live in. So they intimately understand the plants and animals and all of the interlocking cycles of nature.

And so many times, scientists will go into a place like Papua New Guinea and they will announce that they've discovered new species. But, in fact, if they had gone in with a linguist and spoken to the local indigenous people in their own language, they would have found out that not only do these animals already have names, but the local people understand them intimately and they have classified them and they know all about them.

So there's a knowledge gap, and we have sometimes a false sense of discovery simply because we don't appreciate the knowledge that is out there in these small languages.

MARTIN: But if you can communicate with folks and if scientists can communicate with these indigenous peoples, then that would imply that there is some method for transmitting that knowledge. So how is it that these languages are actually being lost?

Prof. HARRISON: So one argument is that, well, you can say anything you want. You can express any idea in any language. So it doesn't really matter if everybody in the world switches over to speaking English. We can still express all the basic human emotions.

But what languages do uniquely is that they package information in different ways. So I've been working with a group of Siberian reindeer herders for many years. And they have a system for classifying reindeer that's very complex, and they can encapsulate in a single word. So the word chare(ph) - pronounced in this language of Hofa(ph) - chare, that encapsulates the notion of a 5-year-old male, castrated, rideable reindeer.

So there's a lot of information packed into a single word. And this is what can't be directly translated. I can express that concept in English, but English doesn't provide me with the ready-made label for it.

MARTIN: Is there any particular language that you really want to learn?

Prof. HARRISON: Well, I'd like to learn many, many languages. Unfortunately, as you get older, your brain doesn't really want to cooperate very well in learning languages. You know, what's interesting is that children can become bilingual or trilingual almost without any extra effort if they're exposed to languages at the right age.

So it's not the case that children in these small minority language communities have to give up their ancestral language in order to speak English. They choose to give it up under social pressures or in an environment where they feel their ancestral language is not valued or it's not equal or it's not prestigious enough. And so it's really a shame that this has to happen.

If we could just change attitudes and get people to value these traditions more, then I think they would persist, they would stay around for longer.

MARTIN: David Harrison is an assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. He's also a co-director of the National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project at the Living Tongues Institute. He joined us from Philadelphia.

Professor Harrison, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Prof. HARRISON: Thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: To listen to some of the endangered languages we've been talking about, please visit our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.

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