Technology to the Endangered Language Rescue?

As the second in this series looking at what's working to help endangered and threatened languages, we address technology: what kind of technologies are being used, which can empower people to take action, and which are having an impact on the numbers of speakers.
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Much has been written on how technology is helping endangered languages. Creative as they are, online dictionaries, mobile apps, interactive graphics and dedicated keyboards can't by themselves resuscitate or maintain a language. But as part of a larger cultural revitalization effort, technology can help. As William Brennan wrote last year in The New Yorker: "Simply embedding endangered languages into the keyboards of smartphones will not save them. But, keeping these languages enmeshed in the fabric of daily life--which, particularly for the newer, younger speakers who are key to these languages' survival, means being a viable way to communicate through technology--is the only way they will have even a slim hope of surviving."

As the second in this series looking at what's working to help endangered and threatened languages, we address technology: what kind of technologies are being used, which can empower people to take action, and which are having an impact on the numbers of speakers. Here is a sampling of what's out there:

1. Community Radio Stations
With all the emphasis on high tech, modest community radio stations are reaching thousands of people with easily accessible and low cost technology. They provide forums for indigenous peoples to listen and talk in their own language. Some are specifically geared toward revitalizing languages, like Cultural Survival's network of 80 radio stations in Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize. Others, like Radio Indonesia's Balinese programs, have developed organically. How many people still listen to the radio? UNESCO estimates that 75% of households in developing countries have radios, listening to 44,000 stations worldwide. Underscoring how important radio still is, even in the internet age, the UN declared Jan 14, 2013 as the first World Radio Day.

2. Films
Several of this year's new films highlight the challenges faced by speakers of minority languages. The European Minority Film Festival just awarded Y Syras, a Welsh film, the winner of its 5th annual contest which honors films minorities make about themselves in their own language. The purpose, according to President of the Jury, Omno Falkena, is to use film as a means to give underserved languages "a fair chance to be still alive and kicking one hundred years from now". Brian McDemott's The-Language Healers connects us with a seventh grade girl who is punished for speaking her native tongue in school and with an Alaskan dog musher and a wood carver who draw us in to understanding the importance of being able to speak their own language. In David Grubin's award winning Language Matters, Poet Bob Holman takes to three societies working hard - and succeeding - at keeping minority languages alive.

3. Mapping
Literally providing a different way to see the world, maps showing the location of endangered languages (Southeast Asia and Latin America have the most) and countries with the greatest number of languages (Papua New Guinea with a whopping 800!) help focus attention on some of the world's most linguistically vulnerable areas.

4. Databases and Documentation
Google's ambitious Endangered Languages Project, in conjunction with the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, strives to "record, access, and share samples" of endangered languages in addition to providing a forum for the exchange of best practices and helpful tips on language documentation. On line libraries provide important reference materials, often at no cost. SEAlang, the Southeast Asian Library, for example, provides dictionaries, texts, tools for complex scripts, and a number of specialized reference works for 14 Southeast Asian languages. Some of these resources have gone high tech, providing dictionaries which "talk" (like Living Tongue's talking dictionaries) and can be used with mobile devices.

5. Statistical modeling
Computer algorithms, like the Markov chain Monte Carlo sampler used by researchers at UC Berkely and the University of British Columbia, attempt to reconstruct ancient languages based on existing databases and take a stab at predicting how existing languages will change over time, giving clues to the interconnectedness of languages and where intervention might help.

6. Tracking
The linguist equivalent of "smart collars" used to track the movements of an endangered species is the Indigenous Tweets program. The program scans Twitter for linguistic patterns. To date, the program has "uncovered more than 250 languages on Twitter, of which 139 could be considered minority or indigenous. The discoveries reflect real people speaking these languages today, not just translations of texts stored online."

7. Crowd sourcing
An increasing number of projects employ social media to encourage language revitalization. In partnership with a government agency and local universities, BASAbali, for example uses wiki technology to encourage the public to participate in the development of a multimedia Balinese-English-Indonesian dictionary. The 2014 Indigenous Language Challenge tries to raise consciousness about minority languages by an icebucket-like Facebook campaign. Similarly, Aikuma is an app that allows users to record a person speaking, which can then be fed into a dictionary or database.

8. Telecommunications
Linguist Mark Turin talks about the power of email and voice programs to connect "increasingly dispersed communities of speakers living across different time zones." While English initially seemed to be displace other languages on the internet, minority languages are increasingly demanding a web presence. Google continues to make gmail, Google Translate, and its home page available in multiple languages (this photo is from Google's Balinese home page). And, with an increasing frequency, networks of indigenous "digital activists" are getting together to "create new digital content instead of being consumers of content. By sharing resources between them, these groups are looking to create more blogs, more podcasts, and more apps in local languages.

9. Electronic Flashcards and Online Learning
A number of programs such as Transparent Languages "7000 Languages" program, are increasingly targeting under-resources languages, bringing international attention to these languages while providing solid training tools with multi-media capabilities.

Technology is not only helping minorities "expand their voice and expand their presence" but it is providing space for minority languages to take their place in the international digital arena. For communities which have long been told that their language couldn't be used in schools or the press, having modern tools to use their language makes a statement that their language counts in the modern world. This is particularly important for the young generation of languages which still have sufficient speakers to turn things around. The message for them is clear: it's not too late and yes, the world does care.

Share your experiences in the comments below. What technologies have you found to maintain or revitalize languages?

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