Linguist Harrison opens week with lecture on vanishing languages



It’s about people and their stories. For K. David Harrison, being a linguist means preserving stories, societies and rare languages.

“I’m inspired by the people I meet, and I feel very privileged to be able to travel around the world and meet these elders and these last speakers of languages,” Harrison said. “They’re very generous in sharing their language and their culture with me, and I want to be able to give something back.”

At 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, Harrison will share his work in discovering and documenting fading languages. Harrison is a professor at Swarthmore College, author of several books including When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge, and leader of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project. His lecture will take the audience to four different areas where languages are endangered using photographs and examples of his work and his subjects.

“I will introduce the problem of vanishing languages first, and then I’ll try to provide some evidence as to why it matters,” Harrison said. “And to do that, I’ll take the audience on a virtual tour of some of the world’s language hotspots, and we’ll meet some of the last speakers of the world’s most endangered languages.”

Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said Harrison comes highly recommended by National Geographic.

“We thought it would be important to start the week with something people would say, ‘Oh, yeah that is vanishing,’ ” Babcock said. “When you’ve lost a language, you lose all your history, the names of plants, family stories. Cultures vanish when a speaking community’s language vanishes.”

Babcock’s own relationship with the topic comes back to a visit to Tanzania with her daughter. She followed the Hadza tribe and observed how the hunter-gatherer society lives, day to day.

“They wake up in the morning and they don’t know what they’re going to eat,” Babcock said. “I watched them follow a bee all the way back to its hive. They used a kind of crude pole to get the hive down, took half the honey and then carefully put it back.”

It’s these traditions of survival and lifestyles that could not be preserved without their communication, Babcock said. In Tanzania, agriculture is expanding, and the land the Hadza live off of is shrinking, and children are being pushed to leave their societies and be educated in a formal school system.

“These children are being educated in their own ways. If they go to school, they lose their language,” Babcock said. “David also surprises us with what we lose when we lose a language we didn’t even know about.”

Children are, in part, why languages begin to fade out, Harrison said.

“Kids are empowered. They are the decision-makers,” Harrison said. “If the community is going to keep its language or give up its language, adults might think that they’re making the decision, but actually the children are the ones with the power to make that decision. They’re very sensitive to social disparity and the unequal status of languages.”

Navajo speakers are an excellent example of this perception, Harrison said. They see the disparity between English and Navajo and have to process and react to those differences.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way because people can easily be bilingual, and you can easily speak both,” he said. “It’s not the case that you have to give up speaking Navajo in order to speak English. So that’s a pressure of globalization — telling people, ‘Your language is backwards, and you should just speak English.’ That’s the message that I’m trying to counter.”

Harrison’s work as an activist also has been vital in establishing civilizations and enabling them to preserve their own voices.

“I’m working to save their languages — I can come in and do a training or provide the technology or advise on ways to sustain their languages,” Harrison said. “I’m trying to show that a diversity of languages enriches us all intellectually, socially, scientifically, and we should work to create a healthy habitat for smaller languages.”