Q & A with K. David Harrison on Groundbreaking “Talking Dictionaries”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Linguistics professor, National Geographic Fellow, and Director for Research for the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages K. David Harrison has been featured in The Economist for his new Talking Dictionaries project. Daniela Kucz ’14 had an e-mail exchange with Harrison about his new project:

What is the significance of your most recent work, a project called Talking Dictionaries, in an age where new words (including things like “sexting” and “bromance”) are constantly created, proliferated, and eventually being added to the Oxford English Dictionary?

English is not the only language that creates or borrows new words. All healthy languages do so. Dictionaries are a way to record a portion of the lexical knowledge base of a language, words words for objects, relationships, concepts, and anything else, and to make it widely available. My Talking Dictionaries help establish a first presence for small languages in the internet. So far, working with Swarthmore students in my lab, we’ve built talking dictionaries for Siletz De-ni, Matukar, Chamacoco, Remo, Sora, Ho and other small languages.

One of the causes of language extinction is globalization and development. Advances in technology often go hand-in-hand with these processes, yet use of technology seems essential to your work. What is the significance of technology for language preservation, and where do you see it going in the future?

Technology like digital audio and video, YouTube, and websites can help expand the voice of a small language. Although Matukar spoken by only a few hundred people, and may never have been heard before outside a remote village in Papua New Guinea, now it can achieve a global audience. I created a YouTube channel devoted to recordings of endangered languages, www.youtube.com/enduringvoices, where you can hear some of the last speakers share their knowledge.

How do you hope people, in particular those who have access to technology but do not belong to academia or a lingual minority group, use the Talking Dictionaries?

If you visit our dictionaries portal page http://talkingdictionary.swarthmore.edu you can immediately see and hear interesting words in these languages, along with photos. Search for “basket” or “salmon” in the Native American tongue Siletz Dee-ni and you will see how rich their lexicon is. Search for “coconut” or “canoe” in Matukar, and you will see dozens of photos illustrating their food-gathering and seafaring technologies.

Are there limitations to placing the content on the web, especially if the minority groups whose language is placed in a dictionary may have limited access to the internet?

There are no limitations to what can be hosted on the internet, even for small languages whose speakers may not yet have internet access. The Matukar people of Papua New Guinea, when my team first visited them in 2009, had no electricity or internet. But they were aware of the internet, and they wanted their language to have a place there. Swarthmore students helped build a talking dictionary, and in 2010, the Matukar people got electricity in their village. With funds from National Geographic, we bought the village a computer, which they built a special house for and learned to use. In 2011, they got internet, and the very first time they accessed it, they were able to see and hear their elders speaking their language.

What are the biggest challenges in creating a Talking Dictionary?

Recording thousands of words in a language, and translating all these to English, transcribing the sounds and processing the soundfiles. I have a wonderful research team of students in my lab; Cameron French, Jacob Phillips, Andrew Cheng and Jen Johnson, who spend many, many hours building these dictionaries. It’s exciting in terms of scientific discovery and working with the first ever recordings of a language. But it’s painstaking work.

Have you encountered any individuals who were uninterested in documenting their language through technology?

Yes, but for every one of those I find ten individuals—I call them language warriors—who care passionately about their language and are eager to help it survive and thrive by crossing the digital divide.


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    Andrew '12 says:

    This is all awesome stuff! The talking dictionaries are an excellent resource and a very interesting project to work on, as I can say from personal experience. Anyone interested in languages and language preservation should check them out.

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