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In 2009, people in New York took turns reading a poem by the late Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy in 111 languages — and broke a Guinness record. For organizer Ashrita Furman, this was just one of many world records to his credit.

As I walk around New York City, I like reading the electronic kiosks that provide information about the city. Other people walk with their heads bent to their phones. I like the kiosks. Among ads and pieces of practical information that the city wants people to know, are brief factoids about the city’s history.

One tidbit that caught my eye on a recent trip highlighted the day that a poem was read in 111 languages outside city hall. My interest in languages and poetry led me to investigate this feat for the blog. But I soon discovered that for the event’s organizer, neither poetry nor language was a motivator. He’s into breaking records.

Clare Trapasso reported on the 2009 event for the New York Daily News.

“Reciting poetry in Zulu may not seem like much of a talent, but it landed Ashrita Furman in the record books — yet again. Furman, 54, of Jamaica, Queens, became the first person to hold 100 Guinness Book of World Records simultaneously Tuesday after assembling a group that recited a poem in 111 languages at City Hall Park. The bunch took turns reading ‘Precious,’ by the late Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy. … More than 100 participants — followers of Chinmoy from around the globe — recited the poem in languages ranging from Dzongkha to Picard.

“Furman, a health-food store manager, has earned about 230 Guinness records since 1979, when he did 27,000 jumping jacks in five hours. Earlier [in 2009], Furman broke the record for eating the most M&Ms with chopsticks in a minute. He ate 38. Over the last 30 years, the man who has broken a record on every continent — including the fastest mile on a pogo stick in Antarctica and the fastest mile on a kangaroo ball on the Great Wall of China — has seen many of his own feats toppled. …

” ‘As a kid I was always fascinated by the Guinness Book of World Records. But I was very unathletic and I never thought I could,’ Furman said. It was only when he discovered meditation as a teenager that he said he started to believe in his own abilities – however quirky they might be.

” ‘I believe we all have an inner strength that we very rarely use,’ Furman said.”

More at the Daily News, here.

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To paraphrase a character in the Brian Friel play “Translations,” if you impose a language on people, one day you may find that their speech “no longer fits the contours of the land.” Language is critical to identity. People can always learn the language of the power group later, once they have learned how to learn.

That is the rationale behind a new effort in Haiti.

“When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was ‘no weapons.’ And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: ‘No Creole.’ Students were supposed to use French, and French only. …

“DeGraff is now an associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is using his influence to try to destroy the barrier that essentially fences off most of Haiti’s children from a real education.” Read the Boston Globe report here.

The dominance of a few languages was one of the concerns behind creating Esperanto as a bridge. With a bridge language, Esperantists hoped, less common languages would not die. It hasn’t turned out that way.

“There are more than 7,000 languages in the world, and if statistics hold, two weeks from now, there will be one less. That’s the rate at which languages disappear. And each time a language disappears, a part of history — a subtle way of thinking — vanishes too.

“A new documentary called The Linguists, [which aired August 4] on PBS, follows ethnographers David Harrison and Greg Anderson as they race to document endangered languages in some of the most remote corners of the world.

“From the plains of Siberia to the mountains of Bolivia to the tribal lands of India, Harrison and Anderson have hopscotched the globe, but they sat down for a moment with NPR’s Scott Simon to discuss their race to capture the world’s endangered languages.

“Harrison, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, specializes in sounds and words; Anderson, who directs Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, is the verb expert. Together, they speak 25 languages.” Read more here.

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