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American Magazine April 2014

American University is located in Washington, D.C., at the top of Embassy Row. Chartered by Congress in 1893 to serve the public interest and build the nation, the university educates active citizens who apply knowledge to the most pressing concerns facing the nation and world. Students engage with leading faculty experts and world leaders, learning how to create change and address issues including the global economic crisis, health care, human rights and justice, diversity, the environment and sustainability, immigration, journalism’s transformation, corporate governance, and governmental reform.

KORO AKA Pictured:

KORO AKA Pictured: Giamum Yame and her two-year-old son, Kochu, in the doorway of their home Where: Arunachal Praesh, India Speakers: about 1,000 From the dictionary: [ayay] mama KORO AKA: PHOTO BY LYNN JOHNSON 20 AMERICAN MAGAZINE APRIL 2014

RISING VOICES Once language shift occurs, does it spell the irreversible end of an endangered tongue? When the only speakers are a few elderly people, can a small tongue come back to meet the benchmark of use in everyday conversation, where it can grow and change and create new words? Harrison says that the survival of threatened tongues ultimately depends on the attitudes of the indigenous communities themselves. Fortunately, language activism is on the rise in small-tongue communities: language warriors, as he calls them, are pushing back against adopting a dominant language to the detriment of their own, and they are taking an active role in revitalization. Tech-savvy activists know that expanding their language involves harnessing technology and social media to draw in their young people. The Huilliche in Chile find hope in the interest shown by two teens, for example, who have incorporated words from their ancestral tongue into a hip-hop song sung primarily in Spanish. the effort to strengthen languages under threat. Harrison, a National Geographic fellow, and his team from the Living Tongues Institute, work with National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project to document the languages and cultures within them. The group was the first to uncover the tiny language of Koro, which was hidden under Aka, a larger endangered tongue, in northeast India. Koro people speak both languages, as different from each other as Japanese and English. The institute also produces print and electronic materials, which Harrison explains that he and his fellow linguists curate but do not own. The materials are the intellectual property of the speech communities themselves. They include books and online talking dictionaries, which serve as a virtual classroom for speakers and offer insight into the rich diversity of seldom heard languages. To promote awareness of language loss, Harrison has also written two books; appeared in a documentary film, The Linguists, screened at the Sundance festival; and even appeared on The Colbert Report. According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Some groups Danger, 230 languages gamely try to reach Abamu Degio, left, watches a recording of herself singing a traditional Koro song, have become extinct with Anthony Degio, center, and David Harrison in Arunachal Pradesh, India. their young members since 1950. If small through apps, social tongues disappear media, text messaging, and language-translation software. as their last speakers die, says the linguist, “the global Encouraging young people to communicate through community does not even know what it stands to lose.” formats like Facebook is important, says Barr, who studies Certainly indigenous communities could lose the role of the brain in learning language. She points out centuries of oral tradition and the cultural identity the difficulty in reviving small tongues through written and wisdom that comes from living close to nature and documentation alone: “There’s no way you can write surviving extreme climates. down everything in a language. It’s infinite, and speaking The rest of us could lose opportunities to learn about is a very different process. Really only one language has ecosystems still unknown to Western science. We could been revived—Hebrew, which people could speak to each miss the chance to study how, for millennia, people have other and use with their children so they could grow up passed down vast amounts of information—whether speaking it.” 10,000-line epic tales or techniques for celestial navigation Worldwide awareness of the problem of language loss or natural resource management—without written is growing. “Ten years ago,” says Harrison, “when I would documentation, digital technology, or twenty-first century use the phrase ‘endangered languages,’ people would do a memory-enhancing aids. double take. The phrase was simply not in circulation, not Preserving and revitalizing other languages “allows us a term people acknowledged. I’m seeing that now people to step outside our own patterns of thinking to experience get it. They know that cultures are under threat, that the world in a completely new way,” says Harrison. “We languages are going extinct.” will need the entire sum of human knowledge as it is A number of organizations, including UNESCO with its encoded in all the world’s languages to truly understand interactive map of endangered languages, have joined in and care for the planet we live on.” PHOTO BY JEREMY FAHRINGER, LIVING TONGUES INSTITUTE/ENDURING VOICES PROJECT LET’S TALK #AMERICANMAG 21