“English Goes in One Ear and Out Another”: An Endangered Language Perspective

David Harrison. Photo: Jeremy Fahringer

“Literacy makes you lazy: we don’t memorize 10,000-line epic poems any more,” David Harrison, the director of research for the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, told an audience at the Aspen Environment Forum in Colorado this past weekend.

“I don’t even memorize cell phone numbers any more,” said Harrison, a linguist who studies many of the world’s disappearing languages.

Harrison’s group has been featured in National Geographic, and his team formed a five-year joint project with NG, Enduring Voices, to study some of the most important endangered language “hotspots” around the world. Harrison is also an NG fellow.

Also on stage in Aspen was National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson, who shared some of her stunning photos of the last speakers of dying languages.

“English goes in one ear and out another,” Charlie Thom, a Karuk man from California photographed by Johnson, had told Johnson. “But Karuk starts in the heart and goes up to the brain.”

According to Johnson, Thom is one of the last remaining speakers of the indigenous language known as Karuk.

In another awe-inspiring photo by Johnson, a woman with black hair down past her waist is seen looking out at Mount Shasta in northern California. “Chief Caleen [Sisk-Franco], a Winnemem Wintu, said this land is her church,” said Johnson.

“The Winnemem Wintu are having trouble getting recognized by the government,” Johnson added. She said there are only a few native speakers of the indigenous language left.

7,000 Tongues

According to Harrison, there are about 7,000 languages in the world today, although most have never been recorded or documented. He added that many of the most threatened languages are also found in areas with the highest biodiversity, in remote places.

Harrison said his group’s process is to train local language researchers to study the tongue of their own people. All knowledge learned and data collected is freely shared with native speakers.

“We only share things when we have consent, and in photos, video, and other media we always identify people by name so they get credit for their cultural heritage,” Harrison added.

“Unlike with French, you need permission to learn some of these languages because it belongs to the people,” Harrison said. He added that although our current system does not have a way to recognize a language as one group’s intellectual property, he treats them as such.

Oral Traditions

As Johnson’s intimate photos of threatened language speakers washed over the crowd, Harrison told the group that he has learned that other cultures have incredible knowledge that may be very valuable, but which is at risk of disappearing. As one example, he pointed out that many species that are unknown to science are known by indigenous peoples.

Harrison said that although people tend to think of literacy as a sign of progress, it can be a crutch, and we should not forget that many cultures that followed oral traditions passed on incredibly deep catalogs of knowledge and cultural awareness.

“We tend to think of illiteracy as inferior, but many of these people were able to remember amazing things,” said Harrison.


Brian Clark Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power


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