Saving Endangered Languages Through Digital Technology


Often blamed for propelling endangered languages into extinction, globalization, technology and the internet may in fact be able to accomplish the opposite and save our world’s fragile languages from disappearing altogether. And what a needed task that is because according to UNESCO, unless something is done, only half of the 6000 plus languages spoken worldwide today will exist by the end of this century.

The good news is, something is being done. To help preserve eight

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endangered languages, K David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, and National Geographic have developed online talking dictionaries, which feature more than 24,000 audio recordings by native speakers and over 32,000 word entries. Some of the endangered languages included in the talking dictionaries are: Matukar Panau (Papua New Guinea); Chamacoco (Paraguay); Remo (India); and Tuvan (Siberia and Mongolia).

Language Extinction Hot-Spot by National Geographic

Harrison also believes text messaging, and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are providing the ideal means

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for speakers of endangered languages to “expand their voice and expand their presence.”

Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) is one example. Spoken by only a few hundred people in Canada and the United States, this Native American language is being kept alive via a website and Facebook page thanks to the efforts of Margaret Noori, professor of Native American studies at the University of Michigan.

Mobile apps can also help revive languages on the brink of extinction. Ma! Iwaidja is a smartphone app designed to prevent the disappearance of Iwaidja, an indigenous language spoken by less than 200 people on Croker Island, Australia. The free app, which includes a 1500-entry English-Iwaidja dictionary with audio and a 450-entry phrase book, allows users to easily upload and update entries, which they soon will also be able to share via an online database.