With Talking Dictionaries and Video Translations, K. David Harrison Works to Preserve Endangered Languages

K. David Harrison

David Harrison shows Yokoim speaker Nick Waikai the video playback of his water spirit myth. (Photo by Chris Rainier)

At the National Geographic blog, Associate Professor of Linguistics K. David Harrison guest blogs about the launch of two new talking dictionaries for Yokoim, a language spoken by fewer than 2,000 people in three small villages in the Karawari River basin of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and Panim, a language spoken by fewer than 400 people in a village of the same name near the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea. The new talking dictionaries contain the first available recordings of either language.

“The fact that Yokoim and Panim, likely never before heard outside of remote villages in PNG, can now reach a global audience, shows a positive value of globalization,” writes Harrison. “By learning about such far-flung and remote cultures, we may learn to value them and perhaps contribute to their survival.”

Harrison and Jeremy Fahringer '06 served as linguists on the project, which is the result of the Enduring Voices Project, a collaboration between the National Geographic Society and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, which Harrison co-founded. 

Read more about it at National Geographic: “Two Traditional Languages Evade Extinction With the Internet.

The Living Tongues Institute has formed a new partnership with Viki, an online platform that licenses movies and television shows from around the world and opens them up for crowdsourced translation. At The Atlantic, Harrison praises the collaboration as a way to bring endangered languages to younger people. “Suddenly you have something that isn’t a dry textbook or a grammar lesson,” he says. “Seeing it on TV or on the Internet helps them see that it’s not backwards or obsolete, it’s suited for the modern world. They can restore their pride in the language, which is really the X factor that causes language to be abandoned.”

In announcing the partnership, Harrison says, “Technology alone does not doom or save languages. But pride in a language, and willingness to creatively expand its use through technologies like Viki, can certainly help save it.” 

Read more about the partnership at The Atlantic:Saving Languages Through Korean Soap Operas.” 

K. David Harrison is an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. He specializes in phonology, particularly in vowel harmony, and in the study of language endangerment, extinction, and revitalization. He is the author of The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages and When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Working with Swarthmore students, Harrison travels to some of the most remote places in the world, engaging with different speakers of endangered languages and helps them to capture their unique words in "talking dictionaries."