Our Language In Your Hands



Landlocked and mountainous Nepal is home to over 100 languages, many of which are now endangered. Languages spoken for generations may soon be extinct. Anthropologist and linguist Dr Mark Turin has spent years talking to the last speakers of languages under threat, and now he returns to the Himalayas to show us how communities are preserving and even reviving their speech forms, as well as what will be lost when languages die out.

Mark travels to the mountains of Eastern Nepal, where Thangmi is now spoken by only a few thousand people. Like many other languages that are at risk, Thangmi is a mine of unique indigenous terms for flora and fauna that have medical and ritual value. When people switch to speaking another language, traditional knowledge about man's place in nature falls into disuse. With the death of the last speaker, these unique ways of seeing the world can be lost forever.

Mark has lived with the Thangmi community for years, and speaks their ancestral language. Thangmi, whose speakers live in a highly mountainous region, has four distinct verbs that equate with the English verb 'to come', including yusa 'to come from above (down the mountain)' and wangsa 'to come from below (or up the mountain)'. Languages, like species, adapt to and reflect their environment.

Through these windows into the world of Thangmi speakers, and in discussions with language activists and educators across Nepal, Mark explores the enduring relationship between language, culture and identity and explains why it's so critical for linguists to work with indigenous communities to document and protect these vanishing voices before they disappear without record.

Producer Mark Rickards.

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Anthropologist and linguist Dr Mark Turin travels to South Africa to get 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 eleven official languages recognized 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? Mark 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.

Mark Turin is used to heated discussions when it comes to politics and language, and in South Africa he finds his greatest challenge.

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New York has long been a city of immigrants, and as a result of waves of immigration, language experts describe it as the most linguistically dense city on earth. Mark Turin travels to the Big Apple to track the many languages of New York. He travels the 7 train, designated a US Heritage Trail, as it rattles its way from Flushing to the heart of Manhattan, passing through areas where Korean, Bengali and Spanish are the languages spoken on the street. He meets the linguists who are tracking New York's many languages and hears from those who believe that the US needs to promote the English language ahead of all others.

His journey ends with a story of linguistic rebirth as he discovers how the Yiddish language, once in decline, has attracted a new generation of speakers.