UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) asserts that “if nothing is done, half of 6,000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.” Endangered languages are a global issue threatening the cultural heritage of groups, regions, and even nations. The Manchu language of China, the Bilakura language of Papua New Guinea, the Comanche language of the United States, and even Aramaic, the language of Jesus, as the Smithsonian just reported this week — these and thousands of others are close to extinction worldwide.
Will technology be the lifeline that saves them?
English, the Great Destructor?
According to the British Council, “one out of four of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence.” Many non-English-speaking nations have supported the teaching of English for reasons that include business, tourism, and politics. Some professors who study the effects of English on world nation and attitudes toward the language assert that nations like China encourage its study while some countries like Turkmenistan do not promote English, “fearing cultural and linguistic damage to the native Turkmen language, as well as to the country’s national identity.”
While English may be one of the vital Internet and world languages, a report by EurActiv.com claims that “Mandarin has now become the second most used language on the Internet” and that “with the rise of the Internet, the 21st century could witness a renewal in linguistic diversity.” For struggling cultures trying to preserve their language amidst majority languages like English, Internet access may be the key to their success.
Digital Tools to the Rescue
Perhaps it’s the archaeologists who know best—today’s living languages are not the first ones to face the threat of extinction. Scholars struggle to decipher languages thousands of years old that have been already lost. Yet, modern-day linguists have an arsenal of new technologies that may help safeguard threatened languages. The desire to save them is evident by the commitment of the speakers of the languages themselves, but also cultural agencies at the local and national levels along with universities and other organizations working to use new devices to protect both language and the heritage it endows.
Google, the mother of Internet search, tops the list of digital heroes. In 2012, Google announced its Endangered Languages Project, which is supported by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. By working with professional linguists worldwide and partnering with universities, Google hopes “to make an important advancement in confronting language endangerment.” Through the project’s website, the coalition will endorse modern digital means to connect diaspora communities and facilitate the teaching and learning of threatened languages.
Mobile apps now also play a role. Just a few months ago, CNN reported on a smartphone app that “has been launched to help save an Australian indigenous language that is in danger of disappearing.” Called Ma! Iwaidja, the app is the first of its kind — designed to protect an Australian indigenous language that is currently spoken by fewer than two hundred individuals.
Other apps for learning languages may be the key for threatened languages. For $2.99, interested parties around the world can download the Nykea app from iTunes to learn basic Swahili. No, Swahili is not currently endangered, but the app design may be applicable to languages that are.
Moreover, social media platforms are connecting and equipping minority language speakers like never before. In a report published early in 2012 by United Press International, Swarthmore College Linguistics Professor and National Geographic Fellow K. David Harrison asserted that “small languages are using social media, YouTube, text messaging and various technologies to expand their voice and expand their presence.” Sites like Twitter and Facebook allow members of small language groups to create digital spaces to promote and preserve elements of their language. Groups can record talking dictionaries, for instance, to teach language pronunciation and share it across the social media platforms.
Saving Languages, Saving Cultures
The effort to save so many threatened languages from the brink of extinction may be akin to saving the cultures they represent. In a report published by Aljazeera, a young mother of the Ktunaxa tribe of southwestern Canada put language preservation into perspective when she said, “a lot of people think that language is just strictly for communication. But I find that language is connected to just about anything that you do. It’s a feeling of community, it’s a feeling of self.” In that context, working to keep languages alive using all the digital tools at our disposal seems not only worthwhile, but essential.