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Making a Record of Dying Languages

Researchers are rushing to document three dying languages in Sierra Leone and Guinea. Most linguists put the number of languages spoken across Africa at about two thousand. Some consider about 300 of those endangered because they are spoken by fewer than 10 thousand people. Scholars say losing them would mean losing culture, traditions and knowledge about issues such as medicinal herbs.

VOA's Bart Childs recently accompanied a small group of researchers who went to Sierra Leone to document three languages on the verge of disappearing: Kim, Bom, and Mani.

The team was made up of research assistant Hanah Sarvasy, Ali Turay of the University of Njala in Sierra Leone, master facilitator Curtis Peku and, in the lead, Professor Tucker Childs of Portland State University. He is the brother of reporter Bart Childs.

Getting there

Reaching their destination in western Sierra Leone took planning and perseverance.

Bart Childs said transportation is difficult in the country, where most people walk or use dugout canoes to cross its many waterways. For both the reporter and the research team, it meant paddling through the grassy flood plain of the Waanje River in the group's red fiberglass canoe.

Childs carried a camera, solar charger and other technical equipment in a bag he called "fat boy." Porters were hired to carry it.

The team started its excursion in the capital, Freetown. From there, they drove to the market town of Bunapea, where they boarded a riverboat for a six-hour trip to the village of Tei.

Documenting language and culture

They visited sites where the languages are in decline. Bart Childs captures the experience with video diaries, or vlogs.

They document local traditions, including Bom-speaking Sampor, where villagers are filmed harvesting a popular food, palm nuts.

The team also explore Kim-speaking Nyandehun. Villagers there value drumming, not only for pleasure, but alsofor mourning the deceased. And they use song, dance and storytelling to instill values and good behavior in their children.

Using audio and video recordings, Professor Tucker Childs plans to create an alphabet for Kim and use it to produce teaching materials for the community, scholars and future generations.

In the Mani-speaking village of Maribaya, children participate in a competition testing their skills in local culture. Professor Tucker Childs says they are one glimmer of hope for perpetuating the languages. From his study of Mani, he wrote the first-ever primer for teachers and students.

Experts say documenting and producing material about a language in decline can help preserve it. The work of Bart Childs and his brother Professor Tucker Childs is part of that effort.

View video episodes of Bart Childs' trip to Sierra Leone.