News

    Technology Rescues Dying Languages

    Tribal teens now texting in native tongue

    Alfred “Bud” Lane (right), among the last speakers of a language from Oregon called Siletz Dee-ni, works with linguist Gregory Anderson to record words for a talking dictionary. Lane is using the dictionary to teach the vanishing language to youths.
    Alfred “Bud” Lane (right), among the last speakers of a language from Oregon called Siletz Dee-ni, works with linguist Gregory Anderson to record words for a talking dictionary. Lane is using the dictionary to teach the vanishing language to youths.

    Multimedia

    Audio
    Tom Banse

    In our interconnected world, global languages like English, Spanish and Chinese are increasingly dominant.

    But there are some 7,000 other languages spoken around the world and linguists say up to half of them are at risk of disappearing by the end of the century.  That works out to one language going extinct every two weeks.

    Now, some defenders are turning to technology in hopes of reversing that trend.

    'Moribund' language

    Members of the Siletz tribe on the Oregon coast take pride in a language they say "is as old as time itself."  But today, you can count the number of fluent speakers on one hand.  

    Bud Lane is one of them. "We had linguists that had come in and done assessments of our people and our language and they labeled it - I'll never forget this term - 'moribund,' meaning it was headed for the ash heap of history."

    The Siletz tribal council was determined not to let that happen.  Realizing he would need outside help to revive the Siletz language, Lane turned to several National Geographic Fellows, who helped him record 14,000 words and phrases in his native tongue.

    Talking dictionary

    The word translations are now available online, along with lesson plans, as part of a "talking dictionary."  

    The site is hosted by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where linguistics professor David Harrison has also posted talking dictionaries for seven other highly-endangered languages from around the world.

    "This is what I like to call the flip side of globalization, or the positive value of globalization," Harrison says. "We hear a lot about how globalization exerts negative pressures on small cultures to assimilate."

    However, according to Harrison, language activists can now go on the offensive with modern digital tools such as iPhone apps, YouTube videos and Facebook pages devoted to disappearing tongues.

    Translating Windows

    Harrison and a colleague in Oregon have mapped hotspots for endangered aboriginal languages. One is the Pacific Northwest. Others include the upper Amazon basin, Siberia and northern Australia.  

    In Canada's far north, the Inuit people are struggling to preserve their native language. Part of their strategy is to get Microsoft's help in translating its ubiquitous Windows operating system and Office software into Inuktitut.

    The programming group had to invent new words to cover all the terms in some Windows and Word document menus, but project leader Gavin Nesbitt says it was worth the effort.

    "So many people will spend their entire day sitting in front of a computer," Nesbitt says. "If you're sitting in front of your computer in English all day, that just reinforces English. If you're now using Inuktitut, it is reinforcing [that] this is your language."

    That’s why Microsoft has also worked with language activists in New Zealand, Spain and Wales to translate its software into Maori, Basque, Catalan and Welsh, respectively.

    Back in Oregon, Siletz language teacher Bud Lane cautions that technology alone cannot save endangered languages.

    "Nothing takes the place of speakers speaking to other speakers and to people who are learning, he says. "But this bridges a gap that was just sorely needed in our community and in our tribe."

    Lane points to one sign the tide is turning for his people: tribal youth are now texting each other in Siletz.  

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Timur Tyncherov
    March 08, 2012 4:51 AM
    Sure, it is a pity to lose one’s native language, but it is a natural process, evolution in a sense. Languages develop, exchange, assimilate, get assimilated. You may well say those that disappear are not lost completely, they give a lot to the new global language, and not only place names to be sure but the logic itself, though it is not so evident. Celtic dialects had disappeared, but Celtic vowels live and prosper in open syllables of the great and mighty modern English language.

    by: Khudeejah
    March 06, 2012 1:33 AM
    Very nice struggle

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeasti
    X
    June 29, 2016 6:15 PM
    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora