Digital World Could Save Endangered Languages

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By Veronika Hoelker on 24.2.2024

Digital World Could Save Endangered Languages

Whenever a language dies, a culture dies. At least that is what many linguists and anthropologists believe. It is no surprise then that language death has become a vital issue, especially after new figures concerning threatened languages have been revealed: it is believed that of the 7000 languages spoken in the world today, around half will be completely extinct by the end of the century. Currently as many as 473 languages are threatened according to Ethnologue, an encyclopaedic database of the world’s languages.

While globalisation is frequently blamed for this detrimental effect on cultural and linguistic diversity, it could actually play a crucial role in saving a number of endangered languages: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and many other social media networks have become platforms to raise awareness of this issue. By sharing recordings and creating online dictionaries, speakers of rare languages are making important steps towards preserving their mother tongues.

This development is fuelled further by efforts of many linguists, including David Harrison from Swarthmore College in Philadelphia. He is a National Geographic Fellow and part of the Enduring Voices project team.

“My journey as a scientist exploring the world’s vanishing languages has taken me from the Siberian forests to the Bolivian Altiplano, from a McDonald’s in Michigan to a trailer park in Utah. In all these places I’ve listened to last speakers – dignified elders – who hold in their minds a significant portion of humanity’s intellectual wealth.”

In an attempt to document dying languages and prevent their extinction, the Enduring Voices team has launched eight “talking dictionaries” on the web that contain around 32,000 word entries and 24,000 audio-clips. Some of the languages documented include Chamacoco (Paraguay) and Matukar Panau (Papua New Guinea) with about 40 and 600 speakers, respectively.

Other languages are even more marginal than that as the UNESCO Atlas for World’s Languages in Danger reveals. There are about 116 languages in the world spoken by only one to five speakers, many of which can be found in South America and Oceania.

While some have declared these languages dead, they might still have a chance to survive. According to the UNESCO Atlas, efforts to revitalise languages have been successful in the cases of Cornish and Manx. Some linguists believe that the new trend of digitising disappearing languages could facilitate such processes immensely. Harrison is convinced that “language revitalisation will prove to be one of the most consequential social trends of coming decades.”


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