All Tech Considered
3:41 pm
Mon March 19, 2012

Digital Technologies Give Dying Languages New Life

Originally published on Mon March 19, 2012 8:45 pm

There are some 7,000 spoken languages in the world, and linguists project that as many as half may disappear by the end of the century. That works out to one language going extinct about every two weeks. Now, digital technology is coming to the rescue of some of those ancient tongues.

Members of the Native American Siletz tribe in Oregon say their native language, also called "Siletz," "is as old as time itself." But today, you can count the number of fluent speakers on one hand. Siletz Tribal Council Vice Chairman 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 to the ash heap of history," Lane says.

The tribal council was determined not to let that happen, so Lane brought in help from outside. He worked with a group of National Geographic Fellows to record 14,000 words and phrases in his native tongue. The word translations are now available online, along with lesson plans, as part of a so-called talking dictionary hosted by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Swarthmore linguistics professor David Harrison has also posted talking dictionaries for several other highly endangered languages from around the world at the site.

"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." But he says language activists now have modern digital tools with which to go on the offensive, including iPhone apps, YouTube videos and Facebook pages.

Harrison and a colleague in Oregon have also mapped hot spots for endangered aboriginal languages. One such region is the Pacific Northwest. Tribal languages in Oklahoma and the American Southwest are also judged to be at risk of extinction.

In Canada's far north, the Inuit people are struggling to preserve Inuktitut, their native language. Part of their strategy was to work with Microsoft to translate the ubiquitous Windows operating system and Office software into Inuktitut.

"So many people will spend their entire day sitting in front of a computer, and if you're sitting in front of your computer in English all day then that just reinforces English," says Gavin Nesbitt, who led the project. "If you're now using Inuktitut, it's just reinforcing that this is your language."

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 speaker Bud Lane cautions that technology alone cannot save endangered languages.

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

Lane says he has seen signs that the tide is turning — tribal youth are now texting each other in Siletz.

Copyright 2013 NWNews. To see more, visit http://www.nwnewsnetwork.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now some digital efforts to rescue dying languages. There are about 7,000 spoken languages in the world is in and linguists reject as many as half of them may disappear by the end of the century.

Some language activists are trying to prevent that with high-tech tools, as we hear from Tom Banse of the Northwest News Network.

TOM BANSE, BYLINE: Members of the Native American 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.

BUD LANE: 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 to the ash heap of history.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING DICTIONARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let's dance out in front.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ch'ee-naa-svt-nit-dash

BANSE: Many Siletz words describe foods and basket making, showing how language entwines with culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING DICTIONARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Baby basket.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Gay-yoo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Baby basket laces.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Gay-yuu mvtlh-wvsh.

BANSE: The word translations are now available online along with lesson plans as part of a so-called talking dictionary. The site is hosted by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. There, linguistics Professor David Harrison has also posted talking dictionaries for seven other highly-endangered languages from around the world.

DAVID HARRISON: This is what I like to call the flip side of globalization or the positive value of globalization. We hear a lot about how globalization exerts negative pressure on small cultures to assimilate.

BANSE: But Harrison says language activists now have modern digital tools with which to go on the offensive, including iPhone apps, YouTube videos and Facebook pages.

Harrison and a colleague in Oregon have mapped hotspots for endangered aboriginal languages. One region is the Pacific Northwest. Also judged at high risk are tribal languages in Oklahoma and the U.S. Southwest. In Canada's far north, the Inuit people are struggling to preserve their native language. Part of their strategy was to work with Microsoft to translate the ubiquitous Windows Operating System and Office software into Inuktitut.

GAVIN NESBITT: Instead of file, you'll see (Foreign language spoken). Instead of home it will say (Foreign language spoken). Instead of, you know, save, it says (Foreign language spoken) and stuff like that.

BANSE: Project leader Gavin Nesbitt says the programming group had to invent new words to cover all the terms in Windows and Word document menus.

NESBITT: So many people will spend their entire day sitting in front of a computer. And if you're sitting in front of your computer in English all day, then that just reinforces English. If you're now using Inuktitut, it's just reinforcing that this is your language.

BANSE: 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.

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

BANSE: Lane says one sign the tide is turning is when he sees tribal youth texting each other in Siletz.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.