Digital tools 'to save languages'

Tuvan iPhone app There's an app for everything - even an endangered language like Tuvan

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Facebook, YouTube and even texting will be the salvation of many of the world's endangered languages, scientists believe.

Of the 7,000 or so languages spoken on Earth today, about half are expected to be extinct by the century's end.

Globalisation is usually blamed, but some elements of the "modern world", especially digital technology, are pushing back against the tide.

North American tribes use social media to re-engage their young, for example.

Tuvan, an indigenous tongue spoken by nomadic peoples in Siberia and Mongolia, even has an iPhone app to teach the pronunciation of words to new students.

"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.

"It's what I like to call the flipside of globalisation. We hear a lot about how globalisation exerts negative pressures on small cultures to assimilate. But a positive effect of globalisation is that you can have a language that is spoken by only five or 50 people in one remote location, and now through digital technology that language can achieve a global voice and a global audience."

Harrison, who travels the world to seek out the last speakers of vanishing languages, has been describing his work here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

With National Geographic, he has just helped produce eight talking dictionaries.

These dictionaries contain more than 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages. All the audio recordings have been made by native speakers, some of whom like Alfred "Bud" Lane are among the last fluent individuals in their native tongues.

Mr Lane speaks a language known as Siletz Dee-ni, which is restricted to a small area on the central Oregon coast.

"Linguists came in and labelled our language moribund, meaning it was heading for the ash heap of history; and our tribal people and our council decided that wasn't going to happen. So we devised a plan to go forward to start teaching our dialect here in the Siletz Valley," he told the meeting.

Mr Lane has sat down and recorded 14,000 words for the online dictionary. "Nothing takes the place of speakers speaking to other speakers, but this bridges a gap that was just sorely needed in our community and our tribe."

Margaret Noori is an expert in Native American studies at the University of Michigan and a speaker of Anishinaabemowin, which is the sovereign language of over 200 indigenous "nations" in Canada and the US. These communities are heavy users of Facebook.

"What we do with technology is try to connect people," Prof Noori said. "All of it is to keep the language."

Dr Harrison says not all languages can survive, and many inevitably will be lost as remaining speakers die off. But he says 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.

He told BBC News: "Everything that people know about the planet, about plants, animals, about how to live sustainably, the polar ice caps, the different ecosystems that humans have survived in - all this knowledge is encoded in human cultures and languages, whereas only a tiny fraction of it is encoded in the scientific literature.

"If we care about sustainability and survival on the planet, we all benefit from having this knowledge base persevered." and follow me on Twitter


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  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Speaking of "English as a/the lingua franca." How amusing! "English is the French language"...or does no one know what "lingua franca" means? Or that French was the "lingua franca" in Europe for a long time but now it is not. English is French. Great! Thanks, William of Orange, for helping to destroy the English language of Beowulf and making us say "pork" and "beef" and "croissants."

  • Comment number 105.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I'm surprised none of the 'editor's picks' remarked on the last line of the story, where it is said that languages should be 'persevered.' I did like the comment from one reader, though, who suggested we should have 'grandma' checkers.

    The accidents of history and what Jared Diamond calls "guns, germs, and steel" contribute to language death.

    Every language is equally "flexible."

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Every language has its own beauty and insights into how people think. Learning a new language helps us to widen our perspectives and understand others' points of view more easily. I love the diversity of having different languages, though I see the positive to being mutually comprehensible. On the whole, though, it's great to see this happening - it wouldn't help if people didn't want to learn!

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Quite a twist in the tale (sic) the idea that social networks will help to save vulnerable languages. How ironic when all they have managed to do so far is considerable harm to those most commonly spoken and written.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Although I've a personal interest in language and this thread, I endorse the views of those who say the range of topics is poor.

    There's seldom, if ever, a thread on widely-acknowledged continuing outrageous injustices, such as our family, matrimonial, pensions and employment law, affecting millions grievously every day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    "A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous." (Ingrid Bergman).

    It seems to translate equally well into English, Welsh, French, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Chichewa, Spanish, Irish, Russian & Swedish. I've not tried any other translations yet, but I'll give it a go if necessary.

    Perhaps that should become our common language?
    Good night all :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Digital tools are all very well, and I love using them but we must be careful and not just use electrical devices to store and preserve languages. As in the future there may be a real possibility of energy shortages, so books and other written media will have to be part of it, after all what's the point in prerserving a language on somthing we could not be able to power???

    (A Dyslexic)

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I can't believe all this "standardisation" nonsense. We can't even standardise measurements in the UK, let alone globally. And that is for bags of sugar, not language which is a massive part of our identity and carries all our cultural history. I don't want to lose Welsh to English, and I wouldn't want to lose English to any other language down the line either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Unfortunately electronic media also destroy languages. Vacationing in my native Holland from Canada I am amazed every time again how many English words are now being used in everyday conversation. I'm not talking just about words like laptop and email but very common words for which there is a perfectly appropriate Dutch equivalent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    91. OzarMidrashim

    Modern English has a "black & white" two-form system for yes & no answers. Do you wish to return to four-form Middle English, or deprive the Norwegians of their ability to give an affirmative response to a positively-phrased question, an affirmative response to a negatively-phrased question, and a negative response to both forms of question? Simple yes/no answer please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Isn't it natural for languages to die out? I'm all for cultural diversity but wouldn't a world that's more relatable be better? a sort of reverse tower of babel effect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    No matter whether a 'global' language eventually comes to be, which I'm not convinced will ever happen given the size of the world, it's important to retain records of all that currently exist wherever possible. Languages are not simply a means of verbal communication. They give an insight to the culture of their speakers. We should preserve them for future generations' interest and benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    80 rr6
    I don't know if you are Welsh or not, but you need to get over it! Welsh people are perfectly allowed to speak Welsh and teach Welsh in their schools, just as English people are allowed to in England. And your point about multi-culturalism is nonsense. It is an "unspoken fact" that predjudiced English speakers prefer their children to speak mongrel Welsh than mix with brown kids? Get real!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    All good and well until apple decides that it has previously patented the said language and threatens to imprison all the individuals unless they pay a licence fee to continue using the language or their deported to face piracy infringement laws and are imprisoned in a US federal jail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    There's no purpose in this. Preserving languages for their own sake IS unnecessary and a waste of time as was aforesaid. The ability for people everywhere to be able to communicate with each other should be the ultimate goal, and this only requires the existence of a single language. We standardise protocols, for example, for a good reason. Language should be the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Google, Twitter and especially Facebook are all about making money. If people don't want to pay for these languages then these companies will not do a thing to save them. At the end of the day it's people demand that will either save or destroy these languages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    rr6 & arthursavile

    Cornish is (per UNESCO Atlas of World Languages) a "critically endangered" Brythonic Celtic language spoken in England.

    Keep a native language alive & find something in common, other than mutual contempt - life's too short.

    Unfortunately you will probably still argue whether you should use Curnoack Nowedga, Kernowek Standard, or Kernewek Kemmyn ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    The spirit of adventure that is a part of the identity of the UK and the US economy both contributed to making English the world language. If we understand that language is thought and language is used to define a culture, can cultures be redefined by a world language?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.


    "...I remember trying to listen to foreign language programmes on the radio. It was very challenging as the reception was rubbish..."


    France Inter on 162 kHz, and Germany on 153 kHz LW are OK in the car. If you do a lot of driving, it's something part of your brain can do with otherwise down time. You can get Spain etc. on MW evening onwards.


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