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Using Technology to Try to Halt Death of 3,000+ Languages By 2100

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, March 13 2014

Screenshot of the National Geographic map of language hotspots

Of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, more than half are expected to disappear this century. In an attempt to halt that alarming rate, linguists are working with communities around the world to use technology to try to preserve dying languages.

The Enduring Voices Project, a partner project of National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, focuses on “the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages” around the world. When invited by a community, a team of linguists and a photographer and videographer will provide assistance documenting the stories and oral traditions of a community's last speakers.

Some of these communities have opted to make digital records of their language open to the world. The result is a series of “Talking Dictionaries” for languages like Siletz Dee-Ni, an Oregon Athabaskan language that is in severe danger of extinction, squeezed out of use by English and the pidgin language called Chinook Jargon common to the Oregon Siletz reservation, where the last of the Siletz Dee-Ni speakers live along with 26 other Indian groups and their languages.

Although certainly meant to help “revitalize” languages, the efforts of the Enduring Voices Project can seem a bit like a lost cause, in part because of their focus on the most endangered languages.

Other promising efforts focus on getting more obscure languages to be used in a visible way, like on social media.

In February a new Welsh-language news site launched. It draws, in part, on popular Welsh-language tweets that are aggregated by an algorithm in real time. There are existing aggregators at work for Basque and Catalan languages as well.

A project called Indigenous Tweets encourages users to use their native language on social media every day. It tracks more than 150 different languages on Twitter—the number of users, the number of tweets, the top tweeter and the first tweeter. The handle, run by computer scientist and math professor Kevin Scannell (who tweets in Irish from his personal Twitter account), also helps speakers of minority languages find a community on social media.

If you're looking for indigenous and minority language blogs, Scannell maintains a list of those, too.

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