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Web Company Joins Fight to Save African Language


The ancient whistled language of the small island of La Gomera, off the coast of Africa, has been driven to the brink of extinction by new technology and globalization. Now, a 21st-century Web company has taken on the task of saving the language by marrying history with technology.

Silbo Gomero, a language used only on La Gomera Island off the coast of Morocco, sounds to the untrained ear like few other known languages.

The sounds that make up this language, used solely by the residents of the island, part of Spain's Canary archipelago, are made by whistling, rather than by speaking. The language, which locals say was brought to the islands by African settlers many centuries ago, has been adopted by Spanish colonists over the years.

To communicate among the sparsely populated inland hills and valleys, shepherds perfected the whistle language, which residents say can be heard and understood over distances of up to eight kilometers, compared to about 200 meters for the spoken word.

With the development of new technologies like the cellular phone, the number of Silbo Gomero whistlers has declined to around 1,000. Many of the older generation of islanders fear the language, which they consider to be a cultural heirloom, may become extinct.

But the incursion of modern technology and globalization that threatens this and other endangered languages worldwide may now help to save Silbo Gomero. Busuu.com, a Web site based in Madrid, has launched a campaign to teach Internet users worldwide to communicate using the languages' unique whistles.

"We really liked the whole story of the Silbo Gomero because it is really a fun language," said Bernard Niesner, the company's co-founder. "It is a real language, people really use it there. The same functionalities, the same methodology that we use for teaching Spanish or English, we use it to teach Silbo Gomero."

Niesner says he and his partner, Adrian Hilti, came up with the idea when searching for an idea for a viral marketing campaign for their company that serves people interested in learning languages interactively. Niesner says one of the founding principles of the Web site was to promote learning languages in danger of extinction.

"If Busuu really works out like we think, it would be an amazing tool for language learning all over the world," Niesner said. "The name of our Web site itself comes from Busuu, the language from Cameroon, which is spoken by only eight people."

Niesner says he hopes the worldwide community of Busuu.com users, numbering more than 80,000 in 200 countries, will take up the call to help preserve Silbo Gomero.

To combat the language's decline, the government of La Gomera mandates the teaching of Silbo Gomero in the island's schools and, with the Web site, has appealed to the United Nations to declare the language a Masterpiece of the Oral Tradition of Humanity.

Busuu.com was named a project of UNESCO's year of languages program in 2008. A language is defined by UNESCO as in danger when older speakers no longer pass it on to younger generations. The organization says that of the world's approximately 6,000 languages, about half are in danger.

Africa is one of the richest, yet least studied continents for language diversity. UNESCO estimates that of the nearly 1,400 local languages, 250 are in immediate danger of extinction.

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