Friday, October 22, 2010

Endangered Languages

A new language was identified this month. It’s known as Koro and it is spoken by 800-1200 people in a very remote part of India, called Arunachal Pradesh, a place you must actually have a special permit to enter. The people who speak it, the Koro, live in harmony with the Aka, a group that also lives there, which had led researchers to believe that the language was merely a dialect of Aka. However, after a recent expedition to the area, researchers found Koro to be its own distinct language in the Tibeto-Burman language family and began work to preserve it through recordings and documentation.

Koro is one of nearly 1,000 languages that may have 1,000 speakers or less. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society have joined forces to create the Enduring Voices project whose goal is the preservation of nearly extinct languages - an effort to curb the estimate that half of the world’s 7,000 languages may be extinct by 2100. Enduring voices identifies "hotspots" of threatened languages, such as Papua New Guinea, and sends expeditions to these areas to record and document them. Languages like Koro are at risk of dying out due to factors such as language policies that favor one language over another. Indigenous peoples will slowly adopt the favored language in order to facilitate relations with official entities or to gain status; for example, there is more language diversity in the country of Bolivia than on the whole of the European continent. As a language becomes marginalized, less young people continue to speak it leading to its dying out.

But why bother preserving these near extinct languages? First of all, many of these endangered languages have rich oral traditions and no written form, so with the death of the remaining elders that speak the language, so dies the cultural concepts and expressions captured by that language. Those that are bilingual often know that there are things in their native language that cannot be adequately expressed in the other. By losing these languages we also lose another part of the story of what our brains can do. Through the study of language humans can increase their understanding of communication, memory, and the acquisition of knowledge. Finally, many indigenous cultures have a longstanding, complex relationship with nature and the insights and understanding they derive from this relationship could inform and impact the work of scientists.

Articles and Websites

Enduring Voices
Learn more about the project, the places most at risk of losing languages, and the reasons why we should be working to preserve languages.

'Hidden' Language Found in Remote Indian Tribe
Includes a video with a few Koro men and women where you can hear them speaking their language.

In the Search for ‘Last Speakers,’ A Great Discovery
Great NPR story about the discovery of Koro and recordings of various phrases spoken in Koro.

The Languages of Extinction: The World’s Endangered Tongues

UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger
Really amazing tool where you can find out more about endangered and extinct languages around the world. You can search by number of speakers, geography, name of language, and more.

World’s 18 Most Endangered Spoken Languages

Books and CD

Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have To Tell Us

One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost

Voices of Forgotten Worlds
A CD of "traditional music of indigenous people"

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters In the Modern World

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