Digital Tools to save Endangered Languages?

It is common knowledge among linguists that of the nearly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth, many are in danger of disappearing within the next century. The Foundation for Endangered Languages estimates that between 500 and 1,000 of threatened languages are spoken by only a handful of people. Alarmingly, each year the world loses around 25 mother tongues. That equates to losing 250 languages over a decade. On the contrary, 10 major languages, each spoken by over 109 million people, are the mother tongues of almost half of the world’s population.

The BBC published an article in September 2010 entitled “Are dying languages worth saving?” The article revealed the debate regarding whether or not endangered languages should be saved. Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik argued that it was “irrational” to try to preserve all the world’s languages. He maintained that trying to save languages was not just a waste of resources but a misunderstanding of how language works, given that languages naturally die out over time. Thankfully, many do not share his opinion. According to Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, “Different languages will have their quirks which tell us something about being human”. Indeed, many linguists believe that apart from giving us stories, myths and rituals, small, unwritten languages could offer key insights into biology, pharmacology, genetics, and navigation.

In Europe, many seem to agree with Mr. Ostler. There is a European Charter for Regional Languages, which every European Union member has signed, and the EU has a European Language Diversity For All programme, which was designed to protect the most endangered languages. In addition, a unique partnership between Discovery Communications Inc., the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the UN Works Programme celebrates languages and cultural diversity. Their work includes television programming and website features, where it is possible to learn about endangered languages from the few people who still speak them.

Some have other ideas on how to save languages. Although many think that globalisation could be the cause of many languages disappearing, perhaps it could also be its saviour. “Small languages are using social media, YouTube, text messaging and various technologies to expand their voice and expand their presence,” said K David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and a National Geographic Fellow. Dr Harrison stated that not all languages can survive, and many inevitably will be lost as remaining speakers die off. Nevertheless, he is of the opinion that the new digital tools do offer a way back from the brink for a lot of languages that seemed doomed just a few years ago.

The idea that digital tools could save languages is shared by the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Language, who scientifically document threatened languages and help communities preserve and revive their native tongues through the use of technology. The institute is currently working on a project called “Endangered Language Technology Kits”, with the aim of providing recording equipment and computers for 8 indigenous language activists in India, Papua New Guinea, Chile and Peru. The Language Technology Kit will allow the activists to record their languages as well as receive training and mentoring from media specialists.

We here at Express Language Solutions concur with Dr. Harrison and the Living Tongues Institute. However, we must be careful, because although social media can save languages, it can also corrupt them, as was the case with Kinyarwanda. For the full story on how mobile communication affected the Rwandan language, see our LinkedIn page or our Twitter account. Please share your opinions with us!

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