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Technology Rescues Dying Languages

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.

Tribal teens now texting in native tongue

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.

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