Can the internet save dying languages?


By Ferouz Berhe - Posted on 08 May 2012

Every 14 days a language dies. More than a half of the world’s 7,000 distinct languages could disappear by the end of the century, threatened by cultural changes, ethnic shame and government repression, US researchers say.

Australia, a country once home to 200 languages spoken by indigenous people, now suffers from the highest rate of language extinction in the world. The suppression of indigenous languages were one of the methods used against the aboriginals when the British conquered Australia, forbidding them to speak their language. Now only 20 native languages still exist and are in danger of vanishing completely.

But the gruelling battle by dedicated individuals, striving to save these endangered languages  is proving successful. After watching their native tongue gradually expire, the hope to re-learn the language of their ancestors and also be able to teach it to others  is finally being achieved with the help of digital technology.

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube allow many of these  fading languages to increase its audience by having an online presence. In an attempt to keep these ancient languages alive, linguists also revealed eight digital “talking dictionaries” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held in Canada. They include more than 32,000 written words and 24,000 audio recordings taken from native speakers from different remote areas across the globe.

Some of the languages recorded are a Native American language called Siletz Dee-in, from Oregon and a language called Matukar Panau from Papa New Guinea, which only has 600 speakers left. The eighth online dictionary is dedicated to Celtic languages. Alfred "Bud" Lane, who is one of the last fluent speakers of Siletz Dee-in, said: "The talking dictionary is and will be one of the best resources we have in our struggle to keep Siletz alive." As the younger generation are so adapted to using new technology, languages that may have seemed doomed have the chance to come back to life. We are now able to crowdsource them. I came across a user-generated content site, LiveandTell,which helps people learn rare languages. It is almost like a social networking site where people can upload photos and audio files.

It’s because of the internet that languages such as the Gumbaynggir language spoken in Australia is starting to hear their native tongue again. Tuvan, an indigenous tongue spoken by nomadic peoples in Siberia and Mongolia, even has an iPhone app that teaches the pronunciation of words to new students.

If this type of crowdsourcing continues to work, it could be extended to another 3,000 languages that are expected to deteriorate. Although the methods may have its drawbacks; such as limited internet access, I do still  think this is definitely a great move in preserving centuries of history and culture that may have otherwise perished. With technology, communities with endangered languages can achieve a voice worldwide.