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What If Babel Was Just a Myth?

A film by Sandrine Loncke

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Every two weeks, a human language disappears. 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.

“At a time when global linguistic diversity is under threat, this excellent documentary demonstrates the value and significance of multilingualism for mutual understanding and interaction, as well as expressing mutual respect, tolerance and value. We can learn a lot from this case study from Africa. Peter K. Austin, Emeritus Professor and 'Marit Rausing' Chair in Field Linguistics, SOAS University of London.

Grand Prix, 29th IFEF - International Festival of Ethnological Film of Belgrad
Best Scientific Doc Award, 34th Pärnu Film Festival
Finalist Best University Film, #LabMeCrazy! Science Film Festival of Pamplona
Finalist Best Feature Doc, Rome Prisma Independent Film Awards
Audience Favorite Award, Festival International du film chamanique de Sarlat
Merit Award of Awareness, Awareness Film Festival of Los Angeles
Festival Ethnografilm de Paris
FIFEQ - Festival International du Film Ethnographique du Québec
RSFF - Raw Science Film Festival of Los Angeles
40th NAFA International Ethnographic Film Festival
SCINEMA - International Science Film Festival of the Royal Institution of Australia
Babel Film Festival of Sardinia
24th International Conference of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, University College London 2020.
7th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation, University of Hawaii at Mānoa 2021.
Cinéma du Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac
Curieux Voyageurs, Saint-Étienne

56 minutes / Color
French; English / English subtitles
Closed Captioned
Release: 2021
Copyright: 2019

For colleges, universities, government agencies, hospitals and corporations

Subject areas:
Africa, Anthropology, Art, Cultural Anthropology, France, Central Africa, Native People, Language

Watch the trailer:

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