Saving the world’s languages

The World

The film highlights their mission to record, study, and hopefully keep alive some of the world’s dying languages. The film shows them traveling to remote areas of Bolivia, Siberia and India. But DH says this kind of field research is well worth the trek, �We encounter amazing people when we go out into the fields, last speakers of languages, they have incredible knowledge and they tell us incredible things: mythology, history, medicinal secrets. Just amazing stuff as well as everyday stuff. But we record all of this and we try to give as much of it as we can back to the community. We give them copies back, we might give books to the community, we might give them a talking dictionary on the internet. Many times the recordings we make of last speakers are the first recordings ever made of these languages and oftentimes they may very well be the last recordings ever made of these languages.� MW �And quite often it seems like you might encounter some surprises like when you went to Siberia, you were chasing the ancestral language of Chulem and you went there not knowing if anyone was left to speak it. and even when you find people there it’s a challenge to get them to speak. Let’s hear a clip from that trip to Siberia.� Movie clip: �Our first real speaker turned out to be very hard of hearing. It’s hard with a dying or endangered language because most of the speakers are elderly. Our second speaker alternated between shouting at us and saying that she loved us. I wouldn’t call that a conversation. It was a monologue we were allowed to listen to.� MW �I have to say first of all, there was a real Borat vibe in that village.� DH �absolutely, I mean there are these hilarious scenes where GA and I are shouting into the ear of deaf elderly people, maybe a bit senile, maybe missing some teeth and just trying to get them to remember words from a language they might not have used on a regular basis for decades.� MW �And in all seriousness now, then after speaking with these elderly men and women, some of whom are almost completely deaf, there’s this revelation that your driver and guide actually does speak Chulem. Tell us what happened because at the beginning he didn’t really cop to knowing.� GA �Well it’s not too surprising, people have to sort of suss you out for a while to see if they trust you or what you’re after. So it’s not too surprising that people kind of keep information to themselves. In the specific case of the former Soviet Union, there were times in which promoting or using a language through even a singing a song in it was essentially a crime of promoting nationalism. And you could literally be exiled for twenty years hard labor for that. There were incentives to not use the language that were quite strong.� DA �And not unique to Siberia. So languages were pressed all over the world, especially in colonial places like Canada and the United States, Australia, South America. And where colonialism left off, globalization has taken over.� MW �one of the good examples of that is where you travel to India. You go to a boarding school where children from many different ethnic groups are getting what seems to be a good education and getting vocational skills as well like sewing, and learning English. So that would seem to support your notion that people are abandoning ethnic languages because they’ll have more economic advantage if they learn a mainstream language. Is that boarding school a part of that?� DH �it’s part of it but the irony is there’s no reason anyone has to give up one language in order to speak another one. Any human brain is fully capable of being bilingual or trilingual, it’s simply not true that you have to abandon one language in order to know another one. It’s a more subtle cultural pressure that is being put on these children that they should not speak their ancestral language, that they should become culturally assimilated.� MW �and who’s supplying that pressure? Who’s telling them that they should adopt a mainstream language and drop their ancestral language?� DH �have you ever seen a Bollywood movie? They typically feature a mix of Hindi and English, they feature the language of the higher caste, of the higher levels of society. Smaller languages don’t typically get promoted in media in such a way that they would have a positive image in the eyes of children.� MW �now when you went to India, you go to a really remote part of the country to conduct your research on a language of Sora. You have a process in your research you call elicitation where you actually point to body parts and colors to get the native speaker to say the words in his or her own language. And then you get to numbers. Let’s hear that part.� Movie clip: �When he said 13, he repeated the word he had just heard for twelve and added the word one to it. so this is not usual, English uses ten as a basis. But then he gets to thirty and he says, twenty-ten, so that’s a different base. our favorite number in Sora is 93, a magnificent system, it keeps recycling it to twelve, it was four-twenty-twelve-one. That’s how your say 93 in Sora.� MW �what was that like when you heard that?� DH �Well two things: the world doesn’t necessarily have to be how our language conceptualizes it and this reinforces that. And secondly, the beauty of the information packaging: here’s a language where in order to count you have to automatically be able to addition and multiplication just to count.� GA �and anecdotally, the math teacher at the boarding school we talked to quite confidently said that the tribal children learn math much more quickly. That was basically what he said.� MW �given all the pressures that you’ve seen from cultural pressures like TV and movies and English going into places where nobody speaks that language, post-colonial pressures, economic pressures that you’ve mentioned, isn’t it inevitable that languages will die out?� DH �no, of course not. And we shouldn’t we be complacent about languages dying out. These are amazing systems of knowledge, we should be outraged if the pyramids of Egypt or the Notre Dame cathedral were going to be demolished tomorrow for no reason. And when you’re talking about a language, you’re talking about something that’s much more ancient, it’s the product of human intellect, it’s greater than anything we’ve built with our hands.� GA �As DH was mentioned, species extinction has happened over time, so too have languages died over time. But what we’re watching now is a mass extinction. So we want to shake people up a little bit. It is not inevitable and it does not have to happen.�

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