Can the Internet Save Endangered Languages? (VIDEO)
About 6000 languages are spoken around the world. Just over half of those are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people, and 28 percent are only spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, according to the Foundation for Endangered Languages. 83 percent of the world’s languages are only spoken in single countries, meaning that they are “particularly exposed to the policies of a single government.” Further, every year about 25 languages are lost — 250 every decade, 2500 every century — as those who are able to speak them die, with a loss of linguistic diversity to the world.
Modern technology has helped to preserve some aspects of endangered languages, with linguists recording native speakers using their mother tongues and preserving their writing systems. Previously if you wanted to find out about what these endangered and dying languages sounded like, you’d have to go to the dustier corridors of a university. As GOOD magazine notes, the internet has made possible another way to save and share information about dead languages: Now you can crowdsource them.
32-year-old South Dakotan Biagio Arobba has created LiveandTell, “a user-generated content site for documenting and learning rare languages.” The site is more, says GOOD magazine, like a social network site than Wikipedia, as users can upload photos and multiple audio files (containing the pronunciation of a word in Lakota, for instance) and text. The site could be a sort of online audio dictionary. Says GOOD magazine:
Fast Company points out that out of 175 Native American languages still being spoken, only about 20 are taught to children. The rest “are classified as deteriorating or nearing extinction.” But if this model works, it could potentially be extended to the more than 3,000 languages across the world that are projected to disappear in the next century. Granted, this method has holes; the more obscure the language is, the less likely the community will be in an area where Internet access is readily available. But it’s certainly a major move toward keeping alive centuries of a culture’s history, while using a medium of the present.
There’s much more information about endangered languages from around the world at the Foundation for Endangered Languages and sites like YouTube offer numerous videos with instructions in learning languages modern, ancient and endangered (the video below is about learning Lakota through a method called “the silent way”).
With all this said, the question still arises, is it worth it to save dying languages? Some think it’s an “irrational” effort. So long as we’re all speaking something and able (more or less) to communicate, why save some language like Manx, which is only spoken on the Isle of Man by fewer than 100 speakers? Notes a September 14, 2010, BBC report about a Trinity College conference about endangered languages:
The veteran word-watcher and Times columnist Philip Howard agrees that languages are in the hands of people, not politicians. “Language is the only absolutely true democracy. It’s not what professors of linguistics or academics or journalists say, but what people do. If children in the playground start using ‘wicked’ to mean terrific then that has a big effect.”
The former Spanish dictator Franco spent decades trying to stamp out the nation’s regional languages but today Catalan is stronger than ever and Basque is also popular
And Mr Howard says politicians make a “category mistake” when they try to interfere with language, citing an experiment in Glasgow schools that he says is doomed to fail. “Offering Gaelic to children of people who don’t speak it seems like a conservation of lost glories. It’s very romantic to try and save a language but nonsense.”
But neither is he saying that everyone should speak English. “Some people take a destructivist view and argue that everyone will soon be speaking English. But Mandarin is the most populous language in the world and Spanish the fastest growing.”
Sure, we can just turn on Google Translate to read a webpage in Arabic. But I think languages are an area in which machines will never be on the same footing with humans. I can get the facts about what’s going on in the Middle East, or Greece, or China, from reading English language sources and I know enough of some foreign languages to read news in the original. But I know I’m losing lots of nuance and meaning by not having a fuller grasp of, for instance, Mandarin or modern Greek.
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Photo of a sign in Welsh, which is spoken by half a million people, by Alan Fryer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons