What does the world lose when a language dies?

“Language Matters,” a new PBS documentary, explores how linguistic heritage and traditional cultures around the world are at risk of being lost forever. Jeffrey Brown talks to the show’s host, poet Bob Holman, about the fight to revive languages on the brink.

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    And finally tonight: to languages around the world at risk of being lost.

    That's the subject of a new documentary premiering on some PBS stations this week and now streaming online.

    Jeffrey Brown has our look.


    You are listening to a song sung in a language called Amurdak, a language spoken in northern Australia. There is virtually only one person left on our planet who speaks Amurdak.

    His name is Charlie Mangulda.


    A language nearly gone from an aboriginal community on Australia's Goulburn Islands.

    The new PBS documentary "Language Matters" explore tongues around the globe at risk of being lost forever and what is lost with them.

    GWYNETH LEWIS, National Poet of Wales: We are being narrowed and homogenized by the loss of languages that we're not even aware of.


    Predictions are dire that, by the end of this century, more than half of the world's 6,000 languages will be gone.

    BOB HOLMAN, Host, "Language Matters": Every language has poetry, although it's very different from culture to culture. And as I began to learn about how these languages are disappearing, that kind of poetry is also going. The entire inner life of a people is disappearing when their language vanishes.

    Is that your language?


    Bob Holman, in fact, came to this project as a poet, one long interested in oral traditions, including contemporary hip-hop. He and filmmaker David Grubin traveled from Australia to Wales to Hawaii looking at languages on the brink and how some people are fighting to bring them back.

    I talked with Holman recently at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington.


    Each of these languages holds a little piece of information or a lot of information, can hold information about medicines and health, can hold information about the constellations in the sky.

    And that's information that, if you lose the language, you lose that connection with that place, with that way of thinking, with tens of thousands of years of that language's lineage.


    One cause of the loss of languages, of course, lives around the globe increasingly interconnected through technology, the economy, and the dominance of a few languages, including online.


    Everybody wants to join in on the conversation in the bully languages, but there's no reason why you…


    The bully languages? Is that what you call it?


    Well, it seems these — English and Mandarin and Spanish are gobbling up languages, as people decide they need to have this in order to assimilate into a culture.

    But if you — instead of feeling awkward about speaking another language, if you were respected for who you are, and if that became part of the fabric — we talk about a multicultural fabric, but it seems that we have to have our multi cultures in English. And it just sounds so much more delightful, offers so many more opportunities if you begin to hear the real deal.


    At the same time, according to anthropologist Joshua Bell of the Natural History Museum's Recovering Voices Project, technology has opened up new ways to preserve new languages.

  • JOSHUA BELL, Curator, Recovering Voices Project, Smithsonian Natural History Museum:

    A lot of people talk about how the Internet, cell phones are reducing people's linguistics range, et cetera.

    The flip side of that is actually communities are increasingly using these tools to create spaces for themselves. So you will see specific Cherokee language, for example, Facebook, apps for smartphones where actually communities are engaging in linguistic revitalization.


    In the film, Holman shows how even languages seemingly vulnerable can continue to exist in the right conditions.


    It's extraordinary. We were on Goulburn Islands in Australia, an island that has 400 people and 10 different languages. How did this happen?


    Four hundred people and 10 languages?



    And, in Australia, there are languages that are quite stable with only 70 speakers or 500 speakers, you know. How does this happen? This happens because it's not a big deal for these people to learn these languages. It's what their parents did and their parents' parents did.

    And for them, to learn the language of another people is a sign of respect. And that's exactly what the movement now, the language movement, is trying to say. To respect the mother tongues of each other is the way that we can keep languages alive.


    A large-scale example of this has unfolded in Wales. Holman visited an annual Welsh language festival to see how the small country, part of the United Kingdom, has managed to create equal footing for its native language alongside English, giving it a place in schools, in bars, even in hip-hop.

    Holman attempted to learn enough Welsh to recite his own people in a live competition.

    What's the key to a language surviving?


    A language survives if you have the choice to learn it, if it's available for you to live your life in some way with your language as part of you. In Wales, you have a choice of whether to go to an English medium school or to a Welsh medium school. And in this way, children can learn in the language that they are speaking at home.


    But couldn't you make the argument that it would be better if we all spoke the same language, that we all understood each other? There would be — well, there would be more understanding in the world.


    Well, I love that argument, and it makes so much sense, until you understand what understanding is.

    You know, language is much more than communication. When we talk about it on the surface, that's what it is. But language is the way we think. And it's the way it's been handed down through generations. If you begin to think in another language, that's fine.

    But if you have to lose the way that your family has been speaking, that's not so fine. That's losing who you are. And when we lose who we are, that's when we become this homogenized consumer of life, rather than a citizen who comes from a place and knows who you are.


    And that's a conversation this documentary wants to facilitate in any language.

    I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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