Mark Turin returning a copy of the grammar of the Thami language to one of his principal research partners and language teachers. Local intellectual Man Bahadur Thami and his daughter on the right. Cokati, Sindhupalcok, Nepal, August 2012.

A Cambridge academic devoted to the documentation of endangered languages has returned to a remote Nepali village to hand over a two-volume dictionary and grammar – the first ever written record of Thangmi – as part of a new three-part series on the world’s vanishing voices.

I have returned to the village to make good on the promise that I made all those years ago, I’m taking the book home.

Mark Turin

Dr Mark Turin, anthropologist, linguist and Director for the World Oral Literature Project, has spent more than 20 years travelling to and living in Nepal, much of that time with the Thangmi community.

Thangmi is spoken by only a few thousand people. Along with half of the world’s other 6,000 natural languages, it is in danger of being lost within our lifetime.

Dr Turin’s series on BBC Radio 4 – Our Language in your Hands – begins on Monday, December 3, and follows him to Nepal, South Africa and New York to learn about linguistic diversity and the fate of the world’s endangered languages.

Landlocked and mountainous, Nepal is home to more than 100 languages, many of which are now under threat partially because of historic Government promotion of ‘one culture, one language one nation’, with Nepali, and increasingly English, becoming the medium of instruction for teachers and their pupils.

Dr Turin said: “I’ve spent years talking to the last speakers of languages under threat and now return to the Himalayas to explore how communities are preserving and even reviving their speech forms, as well as what will be lost when these languages die out.

“When I arrived in one village a decade ago, I was treated with suspicion but in due course, as I lived with the community and learned from them, I was given a name – Nakaman – meaning newcomer, and was formally accepted into one of the seven male clans.

“Thangmi is unwritten, so in many ways learning the language meant that I became a child again, unable to express myself with nuance and precision and relying on others to correct me or translate my meaning. On good days, it was like code-breaking.”

“I’ve finally completed my work: written a grammar and a trilingual dictionary of Thangmi, and transcribed many local stories and rituals. I have returned to the village to make good on the promise that I made all those years ago, I’m taking the book home.”

During his travels, Dr Turin explores the enduring relationships between language, culture and identity, and explains why it is so critical for linguists to work with indigenous communities to document and archive these languages before they disappear without record.

In South Africa, Dr Turin got to grips with the country’s complex language politics and policies. Until the mid-1990s, there were just two official languages, English and Afrikaans, while other indigenous African languages were sidelined. Today the situation is different, with 11 official languages recognised by the Constitution of South Africa as having equal value and importance. But what does that mean in reality? How can so many languages operate alongside each other in Parliament? And can they all have equal weight?

Dr Turin visits a Soweto school to find out which languages children learn and what they speak in the playground, and talks to multilingual journalists and writers about the importance of their mother tongues. He meets Afrikaans speakers to learn whether their language can shake off its associations with the racist apartheid regime, and visits Cape Town to see the South African Parliament in action and meet the interpreters that make it work.

New York may be the most linguistically diverse city on Earth. Home to migrants from every country, Manhattan and its neighbouring Boroughs are a linguistic mosaic of culture and commerce. Dr Turin meets speakers of Yiddish, a language that appears to be both endangered and well supported, and members of the Endangered Language Alliance in their urban fieldstation on West 18th Street.

But as he uncovered during his trip to Nepal, there is hope for the future. The Government of Nepal is implementing an Education Act which stipulates that mother tongue languages around Nepal should be used in early grade education across the majority of subjects – a policy that research has shown can aid child development enormously – and which may help to preserve a multilingual future for the country.

Added Dr Turin: “It takes years, generations even, for languages to evolve and they can disappear in just a flash – that’s why this work is so urgent. We need to collect and protect these vanishing voices before they are gone for good. The digital documents that we are now creating can be used to explore and even revive the defining characteristic of our species – the innate power of language.”

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