A Festival for the World’s Rarest Languages

This Wednesday, June 26, the National Mall in Washington D.C. will go from open field to bustling international village as the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival opens to the public.

One of the three major themes this year is “One World, Many Voices,” put on in partnership with National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project. Representatives of some of the world’s most endangered languages will be leaving remote villages around the world and gathering in the U.S. capitol for ten days of cultural celebration and dialogue.

K. David Harrison is one of the curators of the festival, and a director of the Enduring Voices project. We asked him how he got interested in helping to preserve these rare languages before they disappear, and what his hopes and top picks for the festival are. Here’s what he had to say.

What first got you interested in learning about endangered languages?

A chance encounter that inspired me took place the village of Trakai, Lithuania, in 1992, when I had the good fortune to meet and interview Mr. Mykolas Firkovičius (1924-2000). He was the “unlu hazzan” (spiritual leader) of the Kariam people, and among the last fluent speakers of that language, which at the time had fewer than 50 elderly speakers. He spoke with such passion and sadness about the expressive beauty of the Karaim language, and told me how even the prayers that he was invited to recite at weddings and funerals were no longer understood by the people they were meant to bless or comfort. I was already a linguist at the time, but this serendipitous meeting set me on the path to researching and advocating for endangered languages. In the two decades since I’ve been traveling the world to interview hundreds of “Last Speakers” struggling to save their languages, and to bring their inspiring stories to a broad audience.

What do you hope will come out of having all these people from so far apart getting together in one place?

I’m excited that at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival we will be creating one of the most linguistically diverse spots on the planet, for ten days. Come down to the Mall and you’ll hear languages that have been spoken in North America since ancient times, like Penobscot (Maine) and Siletz Dee-ni (Oregon). And there will be speakers of languages that have never before been heard or spoken here, like Koro (India), and Kallawaya (Bolivia). Bringing all these language warriors together will inspire us all about the value of cultural diversity as expressed in languages. And it will allow them to exchange ideas about how to keep their languages alive.

Ai-Xaan Oorzhak, musician and speaker of the Tuvan language, Tuva, Russian Federation. (Photo by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Society's Enduring Voices Project)
Ai-Xaan Oorzhak, musician and speaker of the Tuvan language, Tuva, Russian Federation. (Photo by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project)


What are some steps people can take to get back in touch with their own ancestral languages?

Everyone can play a part in safeguarding language diversity, by showing interest and respect in other languages, and by realizing that as English speakers we do not have a monopoly on ideas. Every language contributes its unique genius and singular world view, which can be applied to the solution of common human problems. If people have a heritage language in their family, can work to learn more about it. If they have a Native American heritage language, they can participate in a Breath of Life workshop.

People can also volunteer, can support various non-profits like the Living Tongues Institute and the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project, and can help raise awareness about language loss.

What are some of the highlight events you’d most like people to experience at this year’s festival?

The Koro, from India, who speak an endangered language that was only recognized by science in 2008, will be building a “sokrou ngin” a spirt house, made of delicately carved bamboo, to ensure a good harvest. This language was brought to light by our National Geographic research team when we made the first scientific recordings of it in 2008 (watch video).

Viktor Batyrovich Okchayev and Dmitriy Sergejevich Sharayev, musicians and speakers of the Kalmyk language, Kalmykia, Russian Federation. (Photo by Chris Rainier, National Geographic Society's Enduring Voices Project)
Viktor Batyrovich Okchayev and Dmitriy Sergejevich Sharayev, musicians and speakers of the Kalmyk language, Kalmykia, Russian Federation. (Photo by Chris Rainier, National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project)


Tuvans, a nomadic people from Siberia, will demonstrate their famous throat singing, stone-carving, and nomadic arts like wool and milk processing. They will also show some digital tools I have built for their language, like an online Talking Dictionary, an iPhone app, and an online program to learn their language.

Siletz Dee-ni, from Oregon, led by Bud Lane who is the sole fluent speaker, will perform ritual dances and show their superlative basketmaking skills. National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute have supported the revitalization of Siletz Dee-ni language by funding an online Talking Dictionary with over 10,000 words.

Is there one group of speakers that you are particularly excited to have attending the festival?

The Kalmyks, a Mongolian people who reside in European Russia on the Caspian Sea, will show their music, dance, and epic story-telling skills. They will perform against a backdrop of two beautiful yurts provided by the Kalmyk diaspora community of New Jersey, which has managed to keep the language and Buddhist traditions alive in this country.

“One World, Many Voices” and the rest of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival will be open June 26-30 and July 3-7. Can’t attend? Follow along.

UPDATE: See “The Linguists,” a film about David Harrison and Greg Anderson’s work to preserve endangered languages Tuesday, July 2 at noon, free at NG Headquarters in Washington, D.C.


NEXT: Explore a Map of the World’s Language Hotspots





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Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.