Protecting Endangered Languages

Endangered languages don’t attract nearly as much attention as endangered animals or plants. In fact, they get almost no media attention at all. Should they?

On Tuesday evening, September 27th, Global Washington and Microsoft (more specifically Microsoft’s Local Language Program) hosted a special screening of the documentary “The Linguists,” at MOHAI, followed by a talk with one of the linguists in the film and visiting specialist at Microsoft, Dr. David Harrison.  The event brought together a diverse audience of high school students (kudos to Roosevelt High’s AP Human Geography class), educators, representatives from an array of local non-profits and Microsoft techies, among others.

The documentary follows Harrison and his sidekick Greg Anderson, of Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, to various parts of the world as they seek out languages that are disappearing, and provide each a resurrection through their interactions and recordings.  It’s a documentary well worth the hour, not only to learn about the vulnerability of certain languages and their intersections with more dominant languages and cultures, but also for the humor, insights and adventures Harrison and Anderson share with the viewers. They take us to corners of the world seldom noticed, provide tidbits of curious information, and remind us that the answers we seek are often in the least likely of places.

The evening’s presentation brought to the fore the importance of learning from the languages before they vanish. Harrison emphasized that technology is now working towards elevating languages, but also pointedly stated that one does not need to travel to remote places, nor tap into technology to find endangered languages. Seattle, he noted, is a “fascinating linguistic mosaic,” with a variety of endangered indigenous languages. All that is required to seek out and appreciate these languages, Harrison stated, “is a shift in attitudes, the ability to value what people know.”  He suggests that we “always be in tune to the linguistic environment around [us] and learn from that.”

“People light up when they see you are interested in their language,” Harrison shared. “People do love their language and do want to keep it.”

Harrison provided a number of reasons to value linguistic diversity:  It provides intellectual diversity, makes you smarter, and broadens cultural knowledge.  “It’s an intellectual asset to know another language.” Prioritizing language acquisition, and the intellectual benefits of such, will also be discussed in depth at Global Washington’s Summit on Global Education on November 18th. “Children don’t have to give up one language in order to learn another one,” Harrison opined.  “But once they make that decision, it tends to be irreversible.”

Efforts towards maintaining languages are making inroads.   Native People’s groups in the States, such as the Cherokee, have made a decision to keep their language, Harrison noted, while many other communities are pushing back at linguistic oppression to hold onto their language.  “Linguistic rights are human rights,”  he stated. “A connection needs to be made between the two.”

So,  in this blogger’s opinion, yes, endangered languages and their cultures do deserve more attention and protection. And for those of us looking to learn a new language or travel, some wise words from the linguists: “You’ve got to breath it in, get out there and dance with the people.”