When a language is lost, so is a culture, along with its speakers’ stories, their beliefs, their courtship rituals, their spirituality and their history. All that is unique about a particular group of people disappears when their language is lost. With half the world’s languages expected to disappear by the turn of the century, Google is putting its technology at the service of those whose languages are in danger of extinction.
The video (below) that explains the project has this to say about why the work is so important:
Language loss is often related to oppression and injustice. For these communities, preservation of their language is about the restoration of their cultural identities, their values and their heritage.
So Google is collaborating with the newly formed Alliance for Linguistic Diversity to create a digital library for speakers of endangered languages and those who care about them. “Endangered languages” is a space for people “to record, access, and share samples of and research on endangered languages, as well as to share advice and best practices for those working to document or strengthen languages under threat.”
When I click on the red dot closest to my home town, the language name appears. I learn there are 11 variants and dialects of Shuswap. I can listen to a traditional greeting song, learn pronunciation and find a beginning course in Colville-Okanagan Salish.
Next: Video Shows Why This Matters
“CBC News” spoke with Anthony Aristar, a linguistics professor who co-directs Eastern Michigan University’s Institute for Language Information and Technology. He helped create the Endangered Languages site and gives an example of what can happen because of it:
One person, for example, in Australia produced a series of rock songs in his language, and these became very popular in the aboriginal community that he was involved in and actually encouraged some people to actually start learning the language that they had lost.
The Internet facilitates this kind of collaboration in ways that would never have been possible before the World Wide Web became a public playground. The whole initiative rests on the willingness of indigenous peoples to share their knowledge and on the work of universities, non-profit organizations and now Google to ensure that knowledge is not lost.
For the next three years the site has funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Institute for Language Information and Technology and the University of Hawaii. That’s three years to generate the kind of excitement the project deserves, so that funders will come forward to ensure it continues.
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Photo 1 from Endangered Languages Web site; Photo 2 from promotional video