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Living Languages Digital Dialog

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[♪] [POP!TECH] [BRINGS TOGETHER] [THE WORLD'S LEADING THINKERS] [TO SHARE INSPIRATION AND IDEAS] [IGNITING CHANGE] [AND UNLOCKING HUMAN POTENTIAL] [THIS IS PART OF THEIR ONGOING CONVERSATION] [POP!TECH] [POP!CAST] [Presented by Lexus Hybrid Drive] [Gives more to the driver. Takes Less From The World.] DR. HARRISON > Thank you. Thank you, Andrew, for hosting this. [K. David Harrison © POP!TECH 2008] And thanks to all the organizers and the previous speakers. In keeping with the theme of scarcity and abundance, I'd like to talk about intellectual scarcity and abundance and particularly what's happening globally with languages. [Global and local trends in language extinction] [7,000+] There are 7,000 languages spoken in the world and this represents the greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled. But they are rapidly going extinct and eroding under various pressures of globalization, which I will talk about today. And this loss will be catastrophic for humanity, both in terms of science and technology and culture. And not just to the people who speak these languages, but to all of us. My work has been in tracking global trends of language extinction. And this map gives you a sense of how unevenly distributed languages are around the planet. Differences that we find among human languages are vast. They're not just a question of using different sounds to say the same things. But we're looking at entire conceptual universes of thought. Each language has infinite expressive possibilities, infinite combinatorial possibilities, and its grammar and in the way that it can package information and concepts. So--the ingenuity and wisdom that we're seeing here in what I call the "Human Knowledge Base" is under threat. And I'd like to talk, today, about why languages are going extinct, where languages are going extinct, and why this matters to all of us. And I'd like to give you two perspectives on the problem: a global and a local perspective. The local perspective will come in the voices of some of the very last speakers of the world's most endangered languages and I will be playing some video clips for you today. And the global perspective is my own, as a scientist--a concerned scientist tracking this trend and thinking about what can we do to sustain linguistic diversity on the planet before it disappears? Starting with the local perspective, I'd like to just play for you a little clip. This is a lady named Hanna Köper. She lives in South Africa and she is one of the eight remaining speakers of a language called N|u, N|u. And I'd like you to just listen to her own words, her own perspective on this issue. [Hanna Köper Speaker of N|u] HANNA > Everyone used to get together and speak the language. We gathered, we discussed issues we laughed in N|u. I hear them speaking to me in my dreams sometimes and they're speaking in N|u. And I say to them in N|u, "Hey, keep quiet! I'm sleeping." So, what does it matter if N|u and languages like it go to sleep--if they go extinct? And how are we all impoverished by this extinction? We live in the digital age, and we like to imagine we have this kind of fantasy that any information that is useful is available to us, somewhere, in writing, in some book or library or database, or it can be Googled. That's not true and, in fact, we're facing an immense knowledge gap. Most of the world's languages have never been written down anywhere. They have not been recorded. They have not been adequately documented from a scientific point of view. And so, as they vanish, we will have, literally, no record of them and all of the ideas and thoughts and technologies that they contain. At least half of the world's languages, 3,586, are endangered and potentially will go extinct in this century. And the distribution of languages around the world is highly skewed, is highly uneven. 83 of the world's languages account for nearly 80% of the world's population and I would draw your attention to the base of the inverted pyramid. 3,586 of the world's smallest languages are spoken by just 0.2% of the world's population. That is an incredibly uneven distribution of knowledge and the people who are in the tip of the pyramid, they are facing intense pressures to abandon their languages. My job as a linguist and in collaboration, here, with my colleague, Greg Anderson, who's also a linguist, and with support from National Geographic Society and from our own foundation, The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages--our job is to go around the world to visit these last speakers of languages talk with them, hear their stories, and it's been an immense honor and privilege to sit with these speakers and have them share their knowledge with us. It's also a wonderful opportunity to be able to take these voices that have been so marginalized and have never been heard outside of their immediate region, where they are spoken, and to bring them to a global audience and share some of that knowledge with you. Languages are much more endangered than species and they're going extinct at a much faster rate. Some people have estimated we lose a language every 2 weeks or so. I like to think of these as parallel, but interlinked extinction processes. And we face a similar scientific knowledge gap in both domains, so biologists tell us that 80% of the world's plant and animal species have not yet been named or classified or taxonomized within a Western scientific framework. And similarly, at least 80% of languages have not been documented or recorded with any degree of sufficiency. So, in both of these domains, by logical species and intellectual species, if you will, we don't even know what it is we're losing. Now, species of plants and animals that aren't known, yet, to Western scientists, are, of course, intimately known by the people who live in these ecosystems and the Kallawaya people of Bolivia--that's the language that you just heard, spoken by this young man, Illarion Ramos Condori-- Kallawaya is an excellent example of the fragility of the human knowledge base. The Kallawaya know the uses and medicinal purposes of thousands of plants that they have been experimenting with over centuries. They are expert pharmacologists and they invented their language as a secret language to encode pharmacological knowledge and they have passed it on successfully over the centuries with a very small speaker base, now fewer than 100 people. I could multiply examples like this around the world. The Yupik of Alaska have 99 complex descriptive terms for describing different formations of sea ice and this is a technology that has aided them in hunting and in surviving in one of the harshest environments. It has also attuned their cultures to be one of the most sensitive instruments to detect the signs of climate change and global warming, if their culture can survive intact. I could also mention the Marovo of the Solomon Islands who are fish experts and know more about the behavioral ecology of fish in their environment than what marine biologists know. We're facing, now, what I call the "Triple Threat of Extinction." We know that species and ecosystems are in collapse, globally and we've heard some wonderful presentations today about the oceans. [Triple threat of Extinction Species & eco-systems Small languages Knowledge systems] Knowledge systems about those species and ecosystems are also in collapse because they're often contained in small languages that are purely transmitted orally and have not been written down. So, these 3 domains of the knowledge base, the language base and species and ecosystems are deeply interlinked. Apart from scientific concerns, language extinction is also a deeply personal issue for many of the people that I have had the privilege of interviewing over the years. And this lady, Marta Kongarayeva, who is a speaker of the Tofa language, she told me once, quote, "Soon, I'll go berry picking. And when I go, I'll take my language with me." End quote. So, Marta's view is a very personal one and it really reflects the end of the line for this language. Marta's people are hunter-gatherers and reindeer herders and they have survived in one of the harshest environments in the world, in the middle of Siberia, incredibly remote. A place so remote, you can only get there during certain seasons of the year by helicopter. They know everything there is to know about their environment. What is it, exactly, that they're losing as the language goes extinct? Marta's son, Sergei Kongarayev, shown here, and her grandchildren, are not speakers of the language anymore. So, what, exactly, have they lost? I'll tell you a couple of things they've lost. They had a creation myth that involved the world coming out of a duck's egg. That's been forgotten. They had a lunar calendar that very precisely linked up the seasons, the astronomical events and the plant and animal cycles and that was more precise than our solar calendar and didn’t need to be reset every 4 years with a leap year. They’ve lost that. They had a linguistically encoded mental map of their terrain that was more precise than anything cartographers have produced using satellite photographs for their territory. And they had a wonderful classification system for reindeer which separated reindeer— classified them along 4 parameters. Now, it’s a fair question to ask, why can’t all this knowledge just be translated into English and exploited within a global mono-lingual culture? And it’s true, I could take a word like, “ederre” in their language, which means a 4-year old, male, un-castrated, domesticated, ride-able reindeer. And I can express that concept in English. I just did. But, languages are the product of millennia of fine-grained and sophisticated observation and packaging of information into hierarchies and taxonomies. Any of you that have ever gotten a million hits for your Google search and have been frustrated by that result, understand the value of structured information, of folksonomies. These languages are like trees. They organize information. When people shift over to speaking global languages, it all gets flattened out into a puddle. Working with the National Geographic Society and building on this biological metaphor of threatened bio-diversity, I coined the term, "language hotspots." And we have a project which is designed to identify the global language hotspots and help prioritize and focus research on them. We look for 3 criteria in identifying a hotspot. First, where are the highest levels of linguistic diversity, and here, we're not just counting sheer numbers of languages, but we're counting numbers of language families. So, we're looking at a deeper level of diversity. Secondly, where are the highest levels of language endangerment around the globe? And thirdly, where are the lowest levels of scientific knowledge and documentation about those languages? So, where we have a convergence of 3 factors--high diversity, high endangerment, low scientific knowledge-- we have a hotspot. We've located about 24 hotspots, so far, and some surprising results have popped out. Bolivia, with it's population of under 9 million people, has 3 times the linguistic diversity of all of Europe. Oklahoma is a language hotspot. We're mapping this data into a richly interactive web site and with some assistance from the experts at National Geographic maps, we're able to plot these hotspots. So, we're looking, here, at the central Siberia language hotspot with 20 languages belonging to 6 language families and you can see them clustering together. This material also goes into a richly interactive web site, so that you can navigate the world, visit the the language hotspots, zoom in, explore, hear and see some of the speakers and appreciate some of the knowledge that they have. I'd like to invite you to come with me to central Siberia right now, as we zoom into one of these remote locations. And, using GPS technology, we're able to pinpoint, very precisely--in some cases, the exact location of every single speaker of the language, as I've done with the Chulym language of Siberia. A couple of years ago, I brought together 3 elders of the Chulym community and I asked them to sit down and have some conversations about things that were culturally important to them. And, I'd like us to just kind of listen in to their conversation for a minute, and I want to impress on you, that, while human conversation is, perhaps, the most banal event in our daily life, in this language, Chulym, it is a rare novelty, because none of the speakers live in households or communities where it's spoken. So, I had to bring these speakers from great distances to be together just to have a conversation. So, this is the little vignette of cultural forgetting and of the erosion of the human knowledge base. And, what is it that we can salvage from what's left of some of these languages? As a scientist, I can make high quality digital recordings. I can archive them, I can share them. I can do scientific analysis of the acoustics of the grammatical structures and you see all of this wrapped in kind of a scientific analytical framework, here. But, as an ethical scientist, I also want to do something to feed back into the community. What does the community want? What are their strategies for the survival of their language? In the case of the Chulym people, their language had never been written down before. But one of the members of the community had invented his own writing system. And so, we took his writing system, which was very unique and innovative, and, at the request of the community, we produced a storybook, which will be the first book ever published in the language. And this is a way that the science can feed back into the community and can support their own efforts at language revitalization. Looking around the globe, there's a very exciting movement for language revitalization that's taking place right now. And with support from National Geographic and from the Living Tongues Institute, we're working to support these efforts by putting technology kits into these communities training and expertise and support, so that they can revitalize and sustain their own languages. I want to give credit, here, to our team photographer, Chris Rainier, who took this amazing photograph. And that's a very important component of our research, as well. Looking at these threatened cultures--this young man on the left, his name is Songe Nimasow, he speaks a language in Northeast India that's called Aka and it has fewer than 2,000 speakers, and it's in steep decline among the younger generation. Now, Songe doesn't go around dressed like this every day. He might put on these traditional clothes once or twice a year. And that tells us something about the state of the culture, but of course, cultures cannot be frozen in time and neither can languages. So, what's happening with the language? Here's a picture of Songe in his everyday clothing and he and his friend, here, have come up with what I think is a brilliant strategy for saving their language. And rather than me talking about it, I'd like then to explain it to you. I was awe-struck by this and I think what these 2 young men are doing is, quite literally, saving their language. Why would they do that? They each speak 5 languages fluently and their heritage language, Aka, is completely useless in socio-economic terms, outside of the little mountain village where they live. And yet, they have strategically chosen, by producing this brilliant verbal art, to use the language. And that will have an important effect. It will raise the prestige of the language in the eyes of 5, 6, and 7-year olds, who are the true decision makers in communities about whether to keep or abandon a language. And it will, thus, ensure the survival of the language. So, I've taken you on a little tour around the globe. We've looked at a variety of small and endangered languages, where they are, why they're going extinct, why it matters, what kind of knowledge systems they contain and how this enriches all of us, if it can survive, and how it will impoverish all of us if it vanishes. I would like to take a moment just to challenge and encourage all of you. Everyone can do something to support a world in which a diversity of thought and a diversity of ways of speaking is encouraged and is fostered and is sustained. There's no reason for people to be forced to abandon their languages. It's one of false choices of globalization to tell people that they must give up a small or a minority or a heritage language in order to speak a global language like English. It doesn't have to happen. We would all be better and smarter if the world remains multi-lingual. Thank you. [Presented by Lexus Hybrid Drive] [GIVES MORE TO THE DRIVER. TAKES LESS FROM THE WORLD] [This work is licensible under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license] [For details, please visit] [POP!TECH For more Pop!Casts, information on Pop!Tech or to learn how to participate, visit]

Video Details

Duration: 20 minutes and 50 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Views: 5,454
Posted by: poptech on Oct 23, 2008

During his presentation at Pop!Tech 2008: Scarcity and Abundance, Dr. K. David Harrison discussed how language death leads to intellectual impoverishment in all fields of science and culture. He also detailed efforts to sustain, value and revitalize linguistic diversity worldwide.

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