Book Review of “The Last Speakers”


Some time ago someone at The Living Tongues Institute turned me on to a fantastic book about the value of endangered languages and the importance of revitalization efforts that I was shocked to have not yet read.

K. David Harrison’s The Last Speakers is a must read for anyone – linguist or otherwise – interested in endangered or minority languages and the ramifications of their loss.

As the director of research for The Living Tongues Institute, Harrison – also one of the stars of the 2008 Emmy nominated documentary “The Linguists” – has extensive experience traveling and spending time among native minorities around the globe.

Harrison’s personal narrative takes us on an intimate journey around the world as he recalls the numerous cultures and families that he has lived with, experienced and studied throughout his career and the trials and tribulations faced every day by people who often find themselves marginalized by the dominant cultures within their countries.

The book follows Harrison throughout Central Asia as he studies the Tuvan people before quickly takes us on a journey as far away as Chile and Bolivia to examine the ‘secret’ languages that belong to certain societies even within a larger culture.


The thing I think I enjoyed most about The Last Speakers is how easy it is to follow and understand the text.

Despite being trained in anthropology myself, I don’t really want to read the stuffy, dry prose of academia for pleasure most of the time.

The Last Speakers reads like a novel rather than a textbook offering personal, exciting, and sometimes humorous narrative to a subject that is so often exclusive to the realm of social scientists. The value of this is that a non-linguist or anthropologist could pick up this book, understand, and easily enjoy the content without formal training or previous exposure to the issue of language loss.

This approach lines up perfectly with my own thoughts on how best to spread awareness of endangered languages to the general public – a public I feel would be more interested and active in preservation and documentation efforts if it knew this was an issue.

Make it fun, colorful, and use language that doesn’t confuse the average Joe.

Endangered language as a serious, global issue needs to be made approachable. It needs to be laid out simply in front of the world for all to understand. In this, Harrison’s work delivers, hands down, the most thorough and heart felt appeal to the world that I’ve found.

The problems with this book – as there are always problems – tend to revolve around the writer’s lack of a clear outline as to how he feels we should go about protecting the languages he speaks of. He very frequently repeats that to lose these languages would be to lose information, and how tragic that would be, but doesn’t really make the reader feel as though there’s a whole heck of a lot we can do about it besides feel sad.

Harrison covers a lot of the same content that he covered in his previous title; When Languages Die, and while this remains a rather short book, the repetition may begin to wear on a reader more versed and experienced in linguists and endangered language awareness.

Regardless, what the issue of endangered languages needs right now is a boost in its publicity. It needs to make a loud cry for attention and attract some who may not already be language enthusiasts – a generally small population. For this reason, The Last Speakers makes a fantastic gift or loaner for friends and family – especially those that might become supporters with a little push in the right direction.

You can find The Last Speakers at most book carriers including where it currently runs around $17.00 in print and $14.00 in Kindle format.

You can also find an iBooks link here for iPhones or iPads that may also be available internationally.

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