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Saving Dying Languages In 'The Linguists'

There are more than 7,000 languages in the world, and if statistics hold, two weeks from now, there will be one less. That's the rate at which languages disappear. And each time a language disappears, a part of history — a subtle way of thinking — vanishes too.

A new documentary called The Linguists, airing Thursday on PBS, follows ethnographers David Harrison and Greg Anderson as they race to document endangered languages in some of the most remote corners of the world.

From the plains of Siberia to the mountains of Bolivia to the tribal lands of India, Harrison and Anderson have hopscotched the globe, but they sat down for a moment with NPR's Scott Simon to discuss their race to capture the world's endangered languages.

Harrison, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, specializes in sounds and words; Anderson, who directs Oregon's Living Tongues Institute, is the verb expert. Together, they speak 25 languages.

Languages are rich in the history and taxonomy of a place, says Anderson, reflecting subtleties that can be lost in translation. When the last keepers of a language die off, so does the fluent understanding of that particular environment.

"The people who live there are the experts on the environment they live in, whether it's Siberia or the Bolivian Andes," he says. "They know more about the ecosystem, the plants and animals, than scientists typically do. And it's not just a list of things they know; it's a hierarchy of knowledge, how things fit together."

Harrison and Anderson say they have encountered some strange languages in their travels, including an East Indian dialect called Birhor — which, in English, sounds a lot like "beer whore."

"But all languages are strange from a certain point of view," says Harrison. "English is pretty strange."

The Linguists follows Harrison and Anderson on their "adventure science" expeditions — and finds them in some unexpected situations.

"We do encounter inconveniences," says Harrison, laughing. "Getting to a very remote place, finding people and convincing them to talk to you on a camera. There are roadblocks, both literal and figurative." And surprises, like the wedding they were called to dance at in a remote village in India.

The film also offers context on the question of why languages die out.

"The big umbrella term is globalization, but you need to break that down. There are economic forces, ideology, social attitudes," says Harrison. "Many people have been presented with a false choice, that they have to give up their native language in order to succeed, and [speak] a global language like English or Spanish exclusively. But more people are realizing that you can be bilingual, that you have access to more knowledge by being bilingual. There are these pressures as we get increasingly urbanized, but people are successfully pushing back."

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