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The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages

3.77  ·  Rating Details  ·  260 Ratings  ·  36 Reviews
Part travelogue and part scientist's notebook, The Last Speakers is the poignant chronicle of author K. David Harrison's expeditions around the world to meet with last speakers of vanishing languages. The speakers' eloquent reflections and candid photographs reveal little-known lifeways as well as revitalization efforts to teach disappearing languages to younger generation ...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 21st 2010 by National Geographic (first published January 1st 2010)
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The Last Speakers by K. David HarrisonWhen Languages Die by K. David HarrisonLessons from Documented Endangered Languages by K. David HarrisonDying Words by Nicholas   EvansVanishing Voices by Daniel Nettle
Books About Endangered Languages
1st out of 12 books — 2 voters
Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de SaussureThe Language Instinct by Steven PinkerAn Introduction to Language by Victoria A. FromkinThe Stuff of Thought by Steven PinkerThe Study of Language by George Yule
Best Books about Linguistics
36th out of 89 books — 131 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,211)
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Mar 05, 2011 Pattie rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages?
What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages?
What do you call someone who speaks only 1 language?

As English, Spanish and Russian seep into every last corner of the globe, "Last Speakers" is an excellent argument that languages encode different ways of thinking about and viewing the world, and that the loss these languages in the face of more dominant languages will result in the a loss of those unique perspectives.

Aug 20, 2012 Annelise rated it did not like it
Shelves: language
No information that was of any particular interest or use to someone with even a modest linguistics background like myself, just vague descriptions that didn't even make all that much sense without examples. And the author could not get over himself. He actually devoted half a chapter to discussing a meme he started and how many facebook friends he has. That was his most egregious act of self-promotion, but the rest of the book was sprinkled well enough to taint.
I did enjoy this book--actually, it's fascinating. It is also all over the place.

I was expecting some straight-up nonfiction (languages that are dying out, what is unique to each, etc etc). This book is more of a memoir: Harrison's experiences with last speakers, the difficulties of traveling to them, logistics, why they are the last speakers, etc etc. I love me a memoir, but it was so not what I was expecting. I would rather read about the languages than about the problems of traveling with cam
Wesley  Gerrard
I found this an absolutely fascinating, inspiring tale that truly opened my eyes to one of the planet's scariest phenomena... We hear of endangered wildlife and how our modern industrial society is harming the environment. We hear of other worrying global issues. But, often neglected and hardly publicised, is the very real situation of the reduction in global language diversity. (Minor) languages, often spoken by marginalised tribespeople in remote areas of the Earth, are disappearing into the a ...more
Jan 15, 2011 Holly rated it liked it
This book is a non-fiction account of the author's journeys around the world recording dying languages. The stories of the people he encounters and the languages and how they work is very interesting, and I loved that part of the book. However, he does a lot of preaching and teaching about linguistics in general, which made parts of the book read like a Masters Thesis. It wasn't thick, just kind of boring. I think it would have been a better book and reached a bigger audience if he had written m ...more
Feb 13, 2016 Annette rated it it was amazing
I think it is fascinating that there are individuals who love and understand linguistics, languages and cultures, and are making it point to study languages, and determine which languages are on the verge of extinction.
The fact that these individuals are going out of their way to discover and archive what is left, and to create a database, that may be used in the future for understanding the world we sometimes take for granted.
I like how the author pointed out that when a language is lost, so
Aug 16, 2014 Joanne-in-Canada rated it really liked it
Shelves: language
A balanced blend of theory, research, anecdote and passion about the value of all human languages no matter how few their speakers. Harrison is particularly humourous at describing his first field experience. When he offers to help the people he is observing, he is deemed to be competent only to collect frozen yak manure patties and feeding the fire. (This, however, does involve him learning a lot of new vocabulary!) Throughout the book, he describes many different languages and cultures that he ...more
Feb 16, 2016 Jacob rated it really liked it
Shelves: languages
Really should be more like 3.5 stars.

The stories are interesting, and I like the message the author is trying to promote.
The writing is less than stellar. Somewhat condescending and self-aggrandizing at times.
Linguistically, there hints of information, and conflicting traces of various theories, but not much of either.

Still I like the message that we should value diversity and promote languages, including the small, nearly extinct, languages.

I like India's model of most people learning a local
Oct 27, 2015 Ann rated it really liked it
Shelves: language-books
This fascinating book, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, describes the plight of a number of threatened languages in various corners of the world, as well as efforts to save them.

The book’s author, David Harrison, is a young linguist whose focus is on documenting, recording and studying (and possibly saving) endangered languages. He does this by traveling to the furthest reaches of Mongolia, Siberia, Papua New Guinea or Paraguay, tracking down the (often octogenarian) last surviving
This is an introduction to the work of field linguists who specialize in documenting endangered languages. The author is a professor at Swarthmore College, affiliated with the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project, and director of the Living Tongues Institute. He is often credited with spurring the revival of field work (as opposed to theoretical study) in linguistics.

The book is an easy read and contains some amusing and interesting stories about Harrison's travels around the world to fi
Apr 22, 2014 Katie rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: linguistics nerds
Shelves: linguistics
**2.5 stars**

This book was an interesting read but not as compelling as I expected it to be.

I enjoyed reading about Harrison's travels to the world's "language hotspots," (where there is a high level of language diversity as well as a high threat of language extinction), and about his interactions with speakers of dying languages. However, lot of the other material relied more heavily on the author's opinions rather than facts (in the intro, he does refer to this book as an extended op-ed on th
Doylestown Bookshop
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The linguist K. David Harrison has been one of the most tireless activists for protecting the world's diversity of languages, some 7,000 or so by his count, but disappearing at a rapid rate through globalization. He wrote an impassioned argument for language preservation in WHEN LANGUAGES DIE, and the recent documentary film THE LINGUISTS about his work has won great praise. Harrison's new book THE LAST SPEAKERS is something of a combination of these two previous accounts written for a very broa ...more
Oct 07, 2014 Airi rated it liked it
I've read a couple other books on the language extinction crisis, and this is my favorite so far because it give s me the sense of a travelogue that I'm into reading lately while providing insights into the scholarly world of ethnolinguistics. It isn't burdened by jargon, which is what makes some of those other books so dry to read. It is a bit repetitive at times in terms of the overall thesis of the book, but then so are many other books on academic topics. It is a champion not only for lingui ...more
Brad West
It started out OK, but about halfway or two-thirds in, I started skimming. It's more of a memoir about Harrison's field work. I was hoping for more information about what they're doing to same the languages, how I could be involved, or something. This was just ...we went to another village ... their language has only x speakers ... we recorded them talking. Overall pretty boring stuff.
Aug 07, 2011 A. rated it really liked it
Shelves: language
This was an enjoyable pop-linguistics book that as others have noted, reads like a half-travelogue. I have some background in linguistics but still found the material relevant and important, particularly as endangered languages and their preservation is important to me.

Harrison's descriptions of his time spent with speakers of Siberian languages was the most interesting to me, in terms of explaining how different languages encode different ways of knowing. However, I enjoyed them all and feel t
Miquel Codony
Nov 02, 2011 Miquel Codony rated it really liked it
Molt interesant. Parla dels llenguatges en risc de desaparició, explicat desdel punt de vista d'un lingüista que viatja pel món fent treball de camp i registrant-los (sembla un documental de La 2). Potser el to és una mica proselitista i tendeix a idealitzar els estil de vida ancestrals, però després de llegir el llibre no em sembla del tot injustificat. És una visió diferent d'algunes de les conseqüències de la globalització (tot i anar molt més enllà). A mi em sembla que la tasca amb la que s' ...more
Jan 11, 2015 Neill rated it really liked it
This is a thought-provoking book about languages on the brink of extinction, how knowledge is encoded in language, the relationship between language and culture, and what is being done to save endangered languages. The author is a passionate advocate for language diversity and for preserving and revitalizing languages on the brink of extinction. Although I agree with his viewpoint, he comes on a bit too strong. The book reads as a rebuttal which isn't the best tone to take with people who are ne ...more
May 31, 2014 Laura rated it it was amazing
Fantastic book for anyone interested in language, oral storytelling, environmentalism, and the impact of colonialism and globalization. The tragedy of the rapid loss of linguistic diversity is slightly off-set by the important work that Harrison and other scholars are doing, not to mention tribal people themselves who are rallying to preserve their languages. This book offers an especially important message for those who arrogantly believe that literacy and knowledge are the the same thing or th ...more
Linda Owen
Feb 20, 2014 Linda Owen rated it really liked it
Now I need to locate the documentary "The Linguists."
Jan 18, 2012 Kelli rated it it was amazing
Shelves: esl
I found this a completley engrossing read. Harrison's love for languages and the knowledge they embody is contagious. Though I have read Harrison's critics, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in language and culture, even if you don't subscribe completely to the author's theories. Other than the times when Harrison toots his own horn, the book is delightful. It has informed my perspective as an ESL professional, as well.
Nov 02, 2011 Lisa rated it really liked it
A really enlightening read - living in Australia I am aware of how the local Aboriginal language is rapidly disappearing and I am very interested in finding out if there are any fluent or partially fluent Bunjalung speakers living locally. K David Harrison made me realize how important it is to save the diversity we still have. 885 million people speak Mandarin and only 1 speaks Wichita - sad.
Pedro Reynolds-cuellar
Oct 15, 2013 Pedro Reynolds-cuellar rated it it was amazing
Shelves: language
One of the greatest if not the greatest calls for action in terms of language endangerment. David Harrison's narratives, descriptions and analysis put on the table in a clear, transparent way the question for cultural endangerment and societal equality.
Along with the rest of the materials associated with this National Geographic project, this book is a highlight regarding endangered languages.
Oct 22, 2013 Jason rated it liked it
This is a nice memoir of field linguistics. I found it's rationale for preserving minority languages (1 - every language has an ineffable essence that will be lost if it goes extinct or 2- hidden in an indigenous language might be the knowledge to cure cancer, etc.) a bit preachy, even though I accept the rationale, so I felt he was preaching to a proverbial choir here.
Brenna Swift
Jan 08, 2012 Brenna Swift rated it liked it
Not quite what I expected. It was an eye-opening book, but I could tell the author is used to academic writing. He takes too much time differentiating himself and his work from predecessors. He doesn't do this subtly, either. I found myself wishing that he would let the facts speak for themselves without the preachiness. And the facts WOULD speak for themselves.
Sep 27, 2011 james rated it liked it
This book deals with the author's quest to preserve some of the languages that are quickly disappearing from humankind. He travels from Siberia to Bolivia to Arizona. The author contends that more effort should be expended saving not only the languages but the vast knowledge that accompanies same with the indiginous speakers.
Feb 07, 2011 Aspasia rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Harrison gives the non-linguist an inside look at the fieldwork required to document a hidden and endangered language. This book will open your eyes to languages and ethnic groups you never hear about on the news.
Jan 27, 2015 James rated it really liked it
More of a memoir than I expected for a popular science book. A little repetitive, but overall interesting and strong in its arguments about threatened languages.
Jul 25, 2011 Tori added it
2011- It was okay...for me it felt at times like random articles strung together. And I didn't find it as easy to read as other books I've read on the same subject.
Dec 20, 2010 Mel rated it really liked it

Interesting fast read. I learned a lot about the disappearance of languages. Reminds me (yet again!) that I need to get out into the world and experience it!
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