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Monday, April 9, 2012

Keeping Dying Languages Alive

A language dies on average every 14 days, according to UNESCO. And David Harrison is trying to change that. He’s part of a new National Geographic project called “Enduring Voices,” that seeks to record and save some of the endangered languages across the world, from Koro, spoken in northeast India, to Chamacoco, or Paraguay.

Koro Language

Spoken in: Arunachal Pradesh, a state in northeast India, it is a member of the Tibeto-Burman language family

Number of speakers: Between 600-800

Risk  of becoming extinct: UNESCO World Heritage lists Koro’s vitality rate as “definitely endangered.” Few of the speakers of Koro are under 20.

More information on Koro

He has helped to create a new “Talking Dictionary” online where people can hear the languages.

“The idea is to record some of the world’s most endangered languages and to record as many as possible and then to take those words.. to give the language a presence on the Internet, to help it cross the digital divide,” Harrison told Here & Now‘s Robin Young.

Harrison said preserving languages is important because they are “living systems of knowledge.”

“They contain knowledge about medicinal properties of plants, about how to live in a sustainable manner in the environment,” he said.”They know things that we don’t know that we never knew, and we could all benefit from having that knowledge persist.”

Greg Anderson and David Harrison interview Dorji Khandu Thongdok and Lamu Norbu in Thungri village, West Kameng District, Arunachal Pradesh. (Photo Jeremy Fahringer, Courtesy National Geographic)


  • David Harrison, professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and co-director of the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project, in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages

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