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 126.

    Akerbeltz wrote:

    "Even from a purely cognitive point of view, multiple language are a good thing for the human brain."

    So are crossword puzzles, a stroll in the park and not drinking alcohol.

    In the amount of time spent to properly learn another language you could have used that time more wisely by doing things you enjoy and learning things that are more useful and productive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    mikeriverside wrote:

    "This is a good idea. We definitely need an iPhone app for Americans to learn how to speak and pronounce English properly and to stop them from inventing idiotic words such as burglarisation, criminality and directionality, which should of course be burglary, crime and trajectory."

    Or, maybe you could stop worrying about how Americans choose to communicate with each other?

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Yes I am from South East Wales and hardly anyone here speaks Welsh. This is why we dislike Welsh being forced on us and is one reason why South East Wales has more inward investment and jobs than the rest of Wales.

    Also Welsh has different dialects/words in the South, West and North; different areas sometimes cannot understand each other and this makes learning Welsh even more pointless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    ManInACan wrote:

    "People like you are exactly the reason why people think Americans are uncultured and self-centred"

    Some people simply look for a reason, no matter how illogical, to express their anti-Americanism.

    It is irrational and illogical to be offended and to call Americans "uncultured" just because they are not giving you or your culture the attention that you feel is deserved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    It is heartening to see smaller languages preserved, it would be even better, if technology could help with the cultural background that keeps each language alive.
    While in Vietnam, I found Vietnamese easier when translated and understood from a Thai context not an English one. This is because of their cultural similarities. Work is needed to record these cultural aspects as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    As a linguist, I know it's impossible to study a dead language and understand it scientifically from a grammar, even a giant audio one. Language use (social & psychological) can't be preserved, only experimentally observed. Language is uniquely human, and uniquely important, and without the astonishing variey out there, our understanding of our most important capacity is crippled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    I'd just like suggesting to scientists not only focusing their studies on overseas languages but also extend them to African ones why not specially to DRCONGOLESE ones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Breton is the only Celtic language left on the continent. I hope this initiative will help fighting its decline as the French government doesn't give a fig for Breton (and Breton identity in general).

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Advance technology yet!? Can they save Visual language, e.g. Sign Language?

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Digital saves nothing at all unless there's someone out there saving it all onto a gigantic hard drive.

    Pretty much everywhere I used to surf around 2000, a LOT of sites, are now gone forever.
    Those free hosting places which contained terrabytes of human knowledge are gone forever too, some amazing personal sites.

    So what was that they were saying about digital "saving" stuff??

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I agree with the linguist who said that eventually computers will get so good at translation that they do away with the need to learn other languages altogether. Until then the web is a great help to minority languages. I'm learning Manx and the internet has helped me find recordings, texts and dictionaries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    39. Perpetual Sigh
    it goes too far when you're expected to have signs in non-native languages in your own country. "When in Rome" and all that.


    I invite you to travel to almost any country in the world, where you will find not only the signs are all doubled up in English, but also an English speaker is probably not far away, and stop your whinging! Spoiled....

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Also some people on here have pointed out that they feel the world largely should adopt one common language. Many seem comfortable that the world should just let that happen to be the simple option, ususally implying english. However isn't it a bit ironic that it's english speakers (in US and UK atleast) that seem determined to hold on archaic forms of weights and measurements. Funny that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    You must live in an anglicised part of South Wales. I'm English, but moved to a fairly large town in North Wales (not a tiny village, which many non-welsh speakers seem to think the entire fro cymraeg is) and learned welsh largely for it was a needed skill. As for welsh schools, the moment I realised I needed to learn I was on the bus with 5 kids around me speaking welsh -only 2 were white.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    I think in the 7000 odd world languages Darwin's law in survival of the fittest. We talk of one world country and this equates with the languages. Window should be opened to only prominent languages and promote them. Too many cooks spoil the broth as also too much fusion leads to confusion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    @110. Daniel-K
    Thank you. You said it more eloquently then me.
    @ 106. Monty Vierra.
    At the same time languages evolved no matter what, and the "anglo-saxons" also did evolved from german dialects, if you know your own history (assuming you are from the UK)

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Re 106. Monty Vierra.
    'Lingua franca' means "language of the Franks". In the Middle Ages, Byzantines and Arabs refered to all western Europeans as "Franks". The original "lingua franca" was a pidgin used across the Mediterranean and based mainly on north Italian languages.

    And you are confusing William the Conqueror with William of Orange. The two monarchs are quite distinct.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Confusing language with dialect. Languages are regional dialects formed over time originating from very few language families. Just spend a day moving around London to end-up dazed and confused. No media destroys grammar/language/dialect but growing lack of education. Rather than to make language /kewl/ for kids, enhance education so they know how to spell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    I'm a french canadian living in Norwich UK. When I was young I wanted to read Shakespeare but not in a translated form. So, I've learn English. I've not just learn English, I've learn "culture" the british culture, the american culture, the anglo-canadian culture, and I'm still learning on a daily basis. That led to a love affair with "History" and languages (german &scandinavians).

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    @97. W-Ender
    .. Vacationing in my native Holland from Canada I am amazed every time again how many English words are now being used in everyday conversation. '
    This is why so many Germans laughed when France brought in 'cultural protection laws'...try hard enough and a German can get a few words of English into a's fashionable!


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