3 Endangered Languages Preserved on YouTube (Video Slideshow)

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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Photo by Sébastien Lapointe (Sébastien Lapointe, Iqaluit, Nunavut) via Wikimedia Commons

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Richard Zane Smith

Kevin says:
"Persons will not understand each other, if almost everyone speaks different language."

well, sure, if every person was babbling something different there would be no communication and I'd agree with you.
Those of us in language revitalization are not trying to REPLACE dominant languages. Its important today, to communicate in common languages that surround us ,Mandarin, Spanish, English, Russian. Nobody in Lang. Revit. is trying to stop dominant languages. What we are saying is to lose ones OWN language is to lose ones cultural perspective and much wisdom that comes with those cultures that have subsisted for thousands of years.

Kevin Hung
Past Member 2 years ago

No offense, we cannot preserve all languages. If there are too many languages, then the world will be confusing. Persons will not understand each other, if almost everyone speaks different language.

Richard Zane Smith

when an indigenous language dies, a whole way of perceiving the world dies with it. The tongues of colonizers thrive because they are built on ideologies of supremacy and conquest.
The language "wandat" of my ancestors is only now being slowly revived, and with it awakens a whole other species of thought process. If our tribal leadership really understood how our identities are embedded within our language, there would be no hesitation in promoting and creating nest schools for children to be immersed back in. However sadly so many of our own tribes have embraced so much of the conqueror world view, and have become so profit driven that our indigenous languages are given about the same status as a dreamcatcher curio.

william t.
william t.2 years ago

Languages are living entities that grow, adapt with time according to community's needs and have interactive relations with its speakers. But like all things that live, they die also. It is a great idea to preserve dying languages for future generations even if it is only going to be used to compare linguistics. We still learn Latin, Classical Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphs that help us understand the birth, the evolution and the changes over time of our language.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

love it!

Donna Smallwood
Donna Smallwood3 years ago

The first step in putting a halt to losing any other language or culture is the recognition of that language and culture as being equal to all others and a necessary part of the ONE HUMAN FAMILY. When we climb back down from the pedestal and meet our brothers and sisters eye to eye and see that we are ALL the same ESSENTIAL LIVING, BREATHING BEINGS on a human journey across time and space, then we can begin to allow others the RIGHT to get their needs met while we, at the same time get ours met, NEEDS, not GREED!

Once these languages and cultures are gone, we can only vaguely remember them in stories and legends, often inaccurately and with prejudice. We, too, will one day be eradicated and remembered in this same way, because what goes around also comes around.

We have the power to enrich our lives tremendously by celebrating the story of each sojourner here; who wants another version of ROCKY and his seriously over-rated FIGHTING MOVIES, when we can watch masterpieces not on film before our eyes?!

New G.
New G.3 years ago

Agree with Virginia P.

James Berryhill
James Berryhill3 years ago


Angel C.
.3 years ago

interesting, thanks.

Samantha Christopher
Samantha C.3 years ago

Interesting article