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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs