Directed by Sandrine Loncke • Documentary • 2019 • 56 minutes
According to Unesco, a human language disappears every two weeks. Within a century, 50 to 90 percent of all languages will be gone.
Does it matter?
Linguist Florian Lionnet of Princeton University emphatically believes it does. For years, he’s been documenting Láàl, a language spoken by only 700 people living in two villages on the banks of the Moyen-Chari River, in Southern Chad. Language encodes culture and worldviews, and each time a language disappears, we lose an irreplaceable part of humanity.
WHAT IF BABEL WAS A MYTH follows Lionnet as he accompanies villagers during their daily activities—fishing, carving a dugout canoe, dancing, and telling stories. He listens in on conversations, asks questions about vocabulary and grammar, and diligently records everything.
Láàl may be the villagers’ mother tongue, but most—including children—are fluent in at least five languages. For Lionnet, their ease in language acquisition raises questions about the shortcomings of teaching languages in the West. And he argues that this kind of rich linguistic diversity was likely the norm for most of human history.
Lionnet and film director Sandrine Loncke work hard to be respectful of the community. They speak Láàl and have forged genuine connections with the villagers over a period of years. Lionnet shares the results of his research with the language’s native speakers, and we see them watching Loncke’s footage and giving their approval.
Beautifully shot and enhanced with short animated segments, WHAT IF BABEL WAS A MYTH is a fascinating case study of one language and the challenges of preserving it—and a plea for the protection of linguistic diversity.