Language preservation works best when the language, culture and identity of minority-speaker communities are respected by national governments – rather than being banned, children are either fully taught in their mother tongue or given dedicated classes in it, in addition to learning the national or regional language. Evidence is mounting for the benefits of bi- or multi-lingualism, and for the social and psychological importance of mother-tongue conservation, which allows conversation across multiple generations and strengthens cultural continuity and community identity.
In some places, technology is proving an unlikely saviour. K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is creating 'talking dictionaries' of endangered languages that help users to preserve the tongues digitally though audio recordings of native speakers and pictures, and has a YouTube channel for endangered languages. The languages can then be used more easily for text messages over mobile phones, for example. "In some cases, people have created an orthography [script] for languages that have never been written down, so they can send SMS messages to each other," he says. So far, Harrison has created talking dictionaries in eight languages that have never previously been recorded including ones in Papua New Guinea, Siberia and Paraguay, and has six more dictionaries on the way.
One of the benefits of the globalised internet, Harrison says, is that remote villagers with endangered languages can reach a global audience. For example, a hiphop duo from a village in Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India, has garnered more than 9,000 global viewers for their YouTube video in the Aka language – that's more than ten times the number of Aka speakers.
The Hadza have now also had their language preserved in a dictionary by Kirk Miller, an American linguist who spent eight months living with them. It might be just in time. When we return from the bush hunt, a couple of the Hadza men try to sell me a bow and arrow, while some of the women string beads to sell to tourists. New cash from these enterprises is funding an unhealthy supply of alcohol that is eroding their culture as surely as the Tanzanian government's previous 'civilising' attempts. As communities cease to function productively, and individuals migrate away, fewer and fewer speakers will bear testimony to a way of life that was once practiced by the ancestors of us all.