Skip to main content

Linguist K. David Harrison Describes Talking Dictionaries for Endangered Languages on NPR

NPR's All Tech Considered: Digital Technologies Give Dying Languages New Life

March 19, 2012

(Parital transcript)

Robert Siegel: Now some digital efforts to rescue dying languages. There are about 7,000 spoken languages in the world is in and linguists reject as many as half of them may disappear by the end of the century.

Some language activists are trying to prevent that with high-tech tools, as we hear from Tom Banse of the Northwest News Network.

Tom Banse: Members of the Native American Siletz Tribe on the Oregon coast take pride in a language they say is as old as time itself. But today, you can count the number of fluent speakers on one hand. ...


Banse: The word translations are now available online along with lesson plans as part of a so-called talking dictionary. The site is hosted by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. There, linguistics Professor David Harrison has also posted talking dictionaries for seven other highly-endangered languages from around the world.

David Harrison: This is what I like to call the flip side of globalization or the positive value of globalization. We hear a lot about how globalization exerts negative pressure on small cultures to assimilate.

Banse: But Harrison says language activists now have modern digital tools with which to go on the offensive, including iPhone apps, YouTube videos and Facebook pages.

Harrison and a colleague in Oregon have mapped hotspots for endangered aboriginal languages. One region is the Pacific Northwest. Also judged at high risk are tribal languages in Oklahoma and the U.S. Southwest. In Canada's far north, the Inuit people are struggling to preserve their native language. Part of their strategy was to work with Microsoft to translate the ubiquitous Windows Operating System and Office software into Inuktitut. ...

Submissions Welcome

The Communications Office invites all members of the Swarthmore community to share videos, photos, and story ideas for the College's website. Have you seen an alum in the news? Please let us know by writing