K. David Harrison

Linguist and advocate for endangered languages

Dr. K. David Harrison is a linguist and leading specialist in the study of endangered languages. He co-leads the Enduring Voices Project at National Geographic Society and is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College. He received his doctorate from Yale University.

Harrison has done extensive fieldwork in Siberia, Mongolia, Paraguay, India, and Native America. In his book, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge (Oxford 2007), Harrison provides a vivid picture of the scientific consequences of language loss. Harrison’s work includes not only scientific descriptions of languages, but also storybooks, talking dictionaries, and digital archives for the use of native speaker communities.

Harrison co-stars in the documentary film The Linguists, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews in February 2008 and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010. Harrison makes frequent media appearances to promote language diversity, and his research is widely discussed in mainstream media. He has appeared on Good Morning America, The Colbert Report, WHYY Radio, NPR, BBC, and in many other outlets. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, Nature, The Los Angeles Times, Wired, and USA Today.

In 2004 Harrison co-founded the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to documenting and revitalizing small languages. In 2006 he coined the term “Language Hotspots”, which has since become a leading promotional metaphor for understanding the language extinction crisis. Harrison and his colleagues have embarked on a series of National Geographic-sponsored expeditions to visit the hotspots and interview last speakers in places such as Australia, Bolivia, and India. His recent book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages (2010) depicts the human factor in language extinction, recounting the personal stories of linguistic survivors from remote corners of the globe.

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