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In the Fight for Language Survival, Technology Helps Shift the Balance of Power

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It's a travesty, really. International Mother Language Day is celebrated just once per year, but languages face extinction every single day. But there's hope. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. David Harrison, director of research for the non-profit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. Dr. Harrison is known for his book, "The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages," and co-starsin an award-winning movie, The Linguists.

Nataly Kelly: Do you believe that technology can help prevent language loss?

David Harrison: What prevents language loss are attitudes and actions on the part of people. Technologies can be leveraged and deployed to meet that goal. I have seen many useful examples ranging from people putting up Facebook or other social networking postings in endangered languages to texting them or emailing them. I've just created a YouTube channel that is devoted exclusively to recordings of endangered languages. I've also created a number of talking dictionaries which have put several languages on the internet for the very first time.

Technology allows a small language that may have been very local and may have been only spoken, not written down and used only by a small number of speakers in a single, remote location to suddenly gain a global audience and expand beyond its current confines and eventually, to sustain itself.

NK: Which technologies do you believe hold the most promise for protecting endangered languages?

DH: I'm very excited about the use of video technology. For example, you can now use a device which is very small, lightweight, and inexpensive and you can get high-definition video and pretty good sound. You don't need a film crew or expensive equipment anymore to get video content, to sit down with an elder and film a story that's culturally important. Video really will, in many ways, revolutionize the ability of small languages to reach a global audience in a way that writing does not, and in a way that audio technology does not.

NK: What can language industry professionals do to help prevent language loss?

DH: Well, I would first of all commend anybody who is in the language services business because they already have a deep appreciation for the value of language diversity, the uniqueness of languages, the ways that cultures encode knowledge differently that are not directly translatable. So, everybody in that industry is contributing to language diversity.

However, the only people that can save languages are the speakers themselves -- they own their intellectual and cultural property. The way you save a language is not just technology per se, it is with a shift in attitudes. The most important thing is to raise the prestige of a language, to value it and to make it seem valuable and prestigious, especially in the eyes of the very youngest members of the communities because they will be making the decisions about whether to keep or abandon it.

For those individuals who are involved with a less commonly known or less commonly spoken language, the best thing to do to ensure the survival of their language is to make it seem relevant and useful across all possible domains. In other words, text in it, put up Facebook postings in it, sing songs in it, tell stories in it, make it relevant and useful across all domains. Those are the kinds of things that lift up a language and incentivize speakers to keep it.

NK: Has a language that was on the brink of extinction actually been revitalized successfully?

DH: Absolutely. I think a very formidable success story is the Hawaiian language. It was down to very small numbers of speakers and was in an advanced state of endangerment. If things had not changed, if they had continued on that trajectory, Hawaiian might be nearly extinct today, but the community put forth an enormous effort. They created language nests, they raised a new generation of youngsters speaking the language and now there are speakers of Hawaiian, native speakers of all ages and you can obtain your education in Hawaiian, as I understand it, from kindergarten up through high school level exclusively in the language.

NK: What would you say to those who say, "It's inevitable that these languages will die, so why even try?"

DH: Well, it's not inevitable. It's simply not true. The Hawaiians have proved that to us. So have the Mohawk and so are the Cherokee. People are rejecting this false choice of globalization. They are saying they won't give up a heritage language in favor of a global language. People can easily be bi-lingual. The bi-lingual brain is smarter, it knows more. If we value knowledge -- and we ought to because we live in a knowledge economy nowadays -- we should value the diversity of ways of thinking that different languages provide us with.

NK: What would you advise governments to do, especially now that resources are so scarce, given the current economic situation?

DH: Well, governments have traditionally been enemies of linguistic diversity. The U.S. and Canada both mounted decades-long efforts to eradicate Native American and First Nations languages through policies of assimilation and schooling of native children. They have belatedly realized that language is part of our intellectual heritage and something that should be encouraged. The least governments could do is to adopt more enlightened language policies to incentivize, encourage and enable groups to keep their languages.

But, let's not leave it up to governments. This is a role for everybody. There are activists working on this. Many of them are non-profit organizations, not necessarily working with geographic focuses, on language revitalization. The general public can help just by being more aware of linguistic diversity and its value.

NK: You've worked with so many languages. Which is your favorite?

DH: I experience sentimental attachment to many languages that I work on, if not all of them. It is particularly poignant to work on a language like Chulym where there are only eight speakers remaining, where I've had the opportunity to know each of the last speakers personally, to record their stories, to participate in their lives and it's been a great privilege; then, ultimately, to visit their grave sites when they have passed on.

So, there is definitely an attachment. I am a scientist, but you can't distance yourself from people you work with. So, yes, I definitely feel deeply, passionately that languages are not just objects of scientific study. They are entire ways of being. I've met those people who are those languages, so it moves me very deeply.

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