The modern world and globalization have too often been the enemies of traditional, local cultures. But researchers are using digital tools such as YouTube, Facebook and texting to save some of the world’s endangered languages. By 2100, it is predicted that half of the 7,000 languages spoken on our planet will have disappeared and linguists are racing against time to preserve as many of them as they can.
Using Software and Social Media To Keep Endangered Languages Alive
Microsoft is developing interfaces for Microsoft Office that are completely in Inuktitut, an Inuit language largely spoken above the tree line. The advantage of creating such software is that younger people have more ways to use the language. Gavin Nesbitt is the operations director for the Piruvik Centre, which promotes efforts to teach Inuktitut; he notes that a young man who is learning the language told him “I think that I text more in the language than I speak in it.”
Margaret Noori is an expert in Native American studies at the University of Michigan and a speaker of Anishinaabemowin, which is the sovereign language of about 200 indigenous communities in the Great Lakes, in Canada and the U.S. Only about 5,000 people speak Anishinaabemowin today; Noori and her colleagues have a website, Noongwa e-Anishinaabemjig: People Who Speak Anishinaabemowin Today, via which they are seeking to revitalize the use of the language. She notes that these communities are heavy users of Facebook and that they are seeking ways to use technology to help “connect people.”
K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, is working with National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project to develop online tools (including a YouTube channel) to record the sounds and syntax and vocabulary of languages such as Matukar Panau (spoken by only about 600 people in Papua New Guinea) and Siletz Dee-ni (spoken by fewer than a thousand people in Oregon). So far, the project has developed “talking dictionaries” for eight endangered languages, with 32,000 words, 24,000 audio recordings, and photographs of objects mentioned in the languages.In an NPR interview, Harrison emphasized that “language is kind of like a living organism.” Besides cataloguing the words of a language, he described the need to capture how a language is used in a natural environment, while people are performing daily activities — harvesting rice — because “the language is alive, and it helps them to adapt and to survive in that environment.” In this video, a man in northeastern India speaks Koru while cleaning a fish.
Harrison also says that what is key to a language surviving is “people taking pride in it, making it cool for the younger generation to speak it, and doing something creative with it.” In this video, a young man named Songe raps about hot chili peppers and romance in a language called Aka, spoken in a remote region of northeast India:
In this video, Ganibe Sebo demonstrates body counting in Foe, a language of Papua New Guinea. Sebo says that “In my language, Foe, we count from 1 up to 37…”:
The thought of languages, like animal species, going extinct and than disappearing forever, is alarming. A Chronicle of Higher Education article about a session on endangered languages at a recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science notes that, despite these new online technologies and efforts, discussion about endangered languages was “sorrowful at times, with some researchers describing having to watch languages, and the culture stored in them, fade out.”
Many thousands of languages have been lost to time, like that of the ancient Minoans (who lived from about 3500 – 1000 B.C.E.); all that we know of their language is from tablets written in Linear A, a writing system that has yet to be deciphered. Let us hope that the efforts of Noori, Harrison and others can make the most of the latest technologies to keep endangered languages alive.
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