Talkin’ ’bout them endangered languages, y’ know

I was interviewed last week for PRI’s the World: The World of Words for a podcast that was published on 26 September. The interviewer, Patrick Cox, who is based in Boston, contacted me after reading my Guardian Top 10 Endangered Languages and seeing a copy of the book 1000 Languages which I edited and which was published in North America on 1st September.


Patrick Cox begins the podcast telling the audience:

“Today we’re taking a global tour of endangered languages, but don’t worry it won’t all be granola munching super nutritious public radio style. I have fretted before about this, this infatuation that public radio has with endangered languages. Check out the World in Words Number 4 for that. But, you know, the funny thing is that now that I’m ever so slightly educated on this, I find myself actually liking endangered language issues and now even I think there is a way to talk about them without relying on public radio cliches. We haven’t got there yet, so please consider this podcast to be something of a transition from the old ways to the new ways. I think actually you’ll hear that as today’s edition progresses”

Well, I’m not sure if my bit was in the “old ways” or “new ways” section, but clearly he, and possibly others, is turned off by some of the rhetoric about endangered languages. In podcast Number 4 he says:

“Let’s face it, saving indigenous languages is such a public radio cliche. I know that if you listen to public radio at all you have heard this story ‘Pierko Soliki just turned 98, he’s the last known speaker of Kwamiki. When he dies, the language will die with him’. You’ve heard that story, right, don’t tell me you haven’t, it’s a foundation on which public radio was built. So, you understand my reluctance”

The podcast goes on to report on Greg Anderson and David Harrison’s “obsessed” documentation of endangered languages and The Linguists film. Sure enough it does include plenty of instances of “incredible”, “amazing”, “last speakers”, “colonialism”, “globalisation” etc. Maybe that’s the turn off. Perhaps we just have to present the message in a different way, as Patrick Cox suggests.
Interestingly, Patrick Cox ends the segment with me in podcast Number 23 by referring to the 1000 Languages book:

“a gorgeously illustrated book full of all kinds of tidbits, and not especially academic”

So the challenge is, how to deal in a responsible way with endangered languages issues that doesn’t rely on cliches and isn’t especially academic, while at the same time not “dumbing down” the discussion too much.

1 thought on “Talkin’ ’bout them endangered languages, y’ know”

  1. This is just in from The Guardian:

    “The Top 10 Endangered Languages proved to be incredibly popular and at one point was one of the most read stories on the entire guardian.co.uk network of sites, not just books!

    As I noted here it does seem that this was a very effective way to “get the word out” (and no granola in sight).

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