Hand Jive

A nonprofit aims to save endangered languages with a few simple gestures.

By Will Lambeth April 27, 2012 Published in the May 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

Hand jive meoqiy

WILLEM LARSEN faces a crowd in the basement of a Kenton school, points to an empty teacup in front of him, and pulls one hand through the other. In unison, the audience says: “Cupán folamh.” Larsen nods, makes another gesture and points to a full cup. “Cupán iomlán.” A half-hour later, audience members are chatting in Irish Gaelic.

This is “language hunting,” a new foreign-language teaching technique Larsen, a 38-year-old community educator, created last year. He hopes to rid the world of tedious audiotapes, vocab lists, and index cards covered with verb conjugations—and replace them with physical and visual stimuli. In language hunting, a speaker of any language prompts rookies through basic conversations by using a set of hand signals adapted from two forms of sign language. Using these simple gestures as a “bridge” between the visual and the spoken, nonspeakers quickly pick up vocabulary and rudimentary conversational grammar.

Larsen hopes his nonprofit organization—kept afloat, so far, by grants, a handful of dedicated volunteers, and a few nominal income streams—can help ease a lingual crisis: while figures differ, as many as two-thirds of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages could be in peril, and half could disappear by midcentury. Meanwhile, only 25 percent of Americans are multilingual. To fight those trends, Larsen designed language hunting to be easy and fast.

“Imagine the last speaker of a language,” he says. “They’re probably hard of hearing, and maybe have a little dementia.” Larsen and around 10 volunteers target languages like Unangam Tunuu, an Alaskan Native tongue with about 100 fluent speakers. They’ve taught the technique to about 1,000 people, but Larsen hopes that Skype and live presentations and instructional videos will help the game go viral. “I’m making a bet on language hunting,” says Larsen. “I hope it will catch fire.”

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