As we celebrate International Mother Language Day today, I couldn’t be more pleased to introduce linguist and National Geographic Fellow K. David Harrison. Harrison has been instrumental in helping to increase awareness of the value of language diversity, something very near and dear to us at Microsoft. By highlighting the different ways of thinking that languages provide, his work has also increased attention and funding to helping small languages survive. Notes Harrison, “The Panau language of Papua New Guinea, with just about 600 speakers, went from never having been written at all to having an online talking dictionary, thanks to efforts by the community and by linguists.”
Harrison documents endangered and little-studied languages around the world including India, Siberia, Bolivia and Mongolia, promoting their survival. He says, “If education is about transmitting ideas, and human intellectual diversity, then all languages— not just politically dominant tongues—should have a place in the classroom, in technology, and on the Internet.”
Harrison is the author of When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford 2007), which explores the scientific consequences of language loss; and The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages (2010), which depicts the human consequences of language extinction. His work includes not only scientific descriptions of languages, but also storybooks, translations and digital archives for the use of the native speaker communities. Harrison also co-starred in the documentary film The Linguists, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews in February 2008.
Today, on International Mother Language Day, Harrison shares his unique perspectives on language and learning, the geo-political factors affecting language preservation and the role technology can play in ensure that important languages don’t become extinct.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I conduct workshops to teach people how to build digital tools, for example talking dictionaries and smartphone apps for endangered languages. In 2011 I worked in Colombia to help speakers of Páez, Wayuu, Uitoto, and other languages build talking dictionaries and create a first-ever internet presence for their spoken tongues.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
My suite of online talking dictionaries (www.talkingdictionary.com) now has over 100,000 words from over 30 languages. It is a rich, living repository of the knowledge found in the vocabulary of little-known tongues, build by the collaborative efforts of many expert speakers, linguists, and language activists.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Economic inequality is very real, and bars many bright students from achieving their goals. I work in places like India where poverty often prevents children from getting a good education. Linguistic inequality is also a barrier, when children are discouraged from speaking their native language or told it is useless. Instead, linguistic diversity should be celebrated and children should be encouraged to be bilingual.
What conditions must change to better support education?
Globally, we must all realize that human talent is a finite resource, and yet a renewable one. We must not squander it.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
Bringing multi-lingualism and the study of languages into the U.S. school system in an effective, immersive way. Allow the average American school child to experience the joy and intellectual thrill of learning a second language, and/or being proud speakers of heritage languages.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Celebrate the cultural diversity found in your own classroom. Let students be proud of their heritage, and encourage them to share it with others.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
Learning in their mother tongue is the most effective way for a child to learn any subject, period.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
Access to a computer, and training to use the Internet in their mother tongue.
About Dr. K. David Harrison
Dr. K. David Harrison is a linguist and leading specialist in the study of endangered languages. He co-leads the Enduring Voices Project at National Geographic Society and is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College.
Harrison makes frequent media appearances to promote language diversity, and his research is widely discussed in mainstream media. He has appeared on Good Morning America, The Colbert Report, WHYY Radio, NPR, BBC, and in many other outlets. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, Nature, The Los Angeles Times, Wired, and USA Today.
In 2004 Harrison co-founded the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to documenting and revitalizing small languages. In 2006 he coined the term “Language Hotspots”, which has since become a leading promotional metaphor for understanding the language extinction crisis. Harrison and his colleagues have embarked on a series of National Geographic-sponsored expeditions to visit the hotspots and interview last speakers in places such as Australia, Bolivia, and India.
- Birthplace: Canada
- Current residence: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
- Education: Ph.D (Yale)
- Website I check every day: Huffington Post
- Person who inspires me most: Alan Turing
- Favorite childhood memory: Meeting people from other countries.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Colombia, for work.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? I laugh every day, especially at puns, jokes, and funny situations.
- Favorite book: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
- Favorite music: Baroque (William Boyce)
- Your favorite quote or motto: “Mind has no end.” (from Tuvan)
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