You can watch the video presenting Harrison’s work with talking dictionaries on the blog TongueTheShaurii:
For those with slow connections, I wrote a transcript of Harrison’s informal lecture:
It’s been estimated that of the 7,000 languages in the world, half of them are endangered and may disappear in this century. This is happening for a variety of reasons, mostly because social pressure and attitudes that devalue those languages and tell people they’re not worthwhile or they’re not modern enough to continue using.
Some people see technology as a threat to the existence of small languages but the really savvy small language communities are using technology to sustain themselves, to expand their reach, to broadcast themselves out through many different channels whether it be social media, text messaging, to use technology as a way to survive.
Under the Enduring Voices program, which I co-direct, we’ve been building talking dictionaries. The goal of the talking dictionaries is to give some very small languages a first ever presence on the internet.
We’ve been working with a variety of communities around the world. One of them is the Siletz-dee-ni language which is spoken in the state of Oregon. Siletz-dee-ni has probably one fluent speaker and a small handful of people who have some knowledge of the language and we’ve been working with Budd Laine who is acknowledged as the fluent speaker. He has sat down and patiently recorded thousands and thousands of words in the language and we bring these recordings back to my lab. My students work on them and create a talking dictionary. So you can go to the Siletz-dee-ni talking dictionary, type in the word ‘salmon’ or the word ‘basket’ and you begin to see the very rich lexicon of terms that they have. You start to appreciate some of the cultural knowledge.
The Siletz nation is using this talking dictionary as a tool to revitalize their language. They’re conducting language classes and helping the younger generations acquire some of the language through the talking dictionary.
We’ve also built a talking dictionary for a language called Matukar Panau. This is a very small language spoken in Papua-New Guinea by about 600 people. They all live in one village. They knew about the Internet before they had actually seen the Internet. When our National Geographic team visited the village a couple of years ago, they said: ‘We would like our language to be on the Internet’. And this is really interesting because they hadn’t seen the Internet yet, they had heard about the Internet.
So with collaboration from the community we built a talking dictionary for the language. The following year, they got electricity in the village and then eventually they got an Internet connection. The very first time they went on the Internet, they were able to see and hear their own language spoken. This sends a very powerful message that their language is just as good as any other. Even though it may be very small and no one has ever heard of it, it’s just as good as any other and it can exist in a high tech medium.
The very first talking dictionary I built was for the Tuvan language. Tuvan is spoken by nomadic people in Siberia. They’re migratory, they raise animals – goats and sheep and camels. They have a very rich lexicon pertaining to the natural world and the environment they live in.
I built the Tuvan talking dictionary and I also launched it as an iPhone application so you can actually hear the Tuvan language and many other languages. In the future, I hope to have it on smartphone platform.
The AAAS is a great venue to talk about language diversity. It’s not a topic you might typically think of in connection with a gathering of scientists but linguistic diversity is one of the most important parts of our human heritage. It gives us insight into history, into culture, into how the brain functions. Without linguistic diversity, we really wouldn’t be human.
Scientists as well as indigenous communities are responding to a crisis of language extinction. That’s what this panel is about. That’s why we’ve chosen the AAAS: we want to get the word out, not only to scientists but to journalists and to indigenous communities whose languages are struggling to survive, that there’s a common goal we can work towards together.
Words spoken by K. David Harrison.
(Emphasis my own)