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How Technology Is Helping People Learn—and Even Save—the World's Languages

This guest post was written by Allyson Eamer, a scholar in sociolinguistics at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. A version of this post was originally published on the Ethnos Project blog.

One of the world's dying languages goes extinct every 10 to 14 days. In the fight to save them from disappearing, speakers, scholars and IT specialists are collaborating to explore how digital technology can be used to revitalize a language. 

Languages become vulnerable to extinction over time as their speakers gradually shift to using a language with greater political and economic power. More often than not, the shift occurs because of colonial and expansionist agendas that see indigenous peoples, cultures, and land ceded to empire builders. 

Remarkably, some academics are unperturbed by what could be called “linguistic Darwinism”, or survival of the fittest language. They might argue: Isn't it easier if we all speak the same language?

I am not going to elaborate on how each language encodes a unique worldview: how the vocabulary of a language reveals the values of the people who speak it, how empirical knowledge is contained within linguistic features, and how art, self-expression, history, culture, economics and identity are inextricably linked with language. Instead I am going to proceed under the assumption that, like me, you believe that the loss of a language is tragic and that the world’s indigenous peoples have had far too much taken away from them.

Miniature DNF Dictionary  by Tomasz Sienicki (CC-SA-3.0)

Miniature DNF Dictionary by Tomasz Sienicki (CC-SA-3.0)

Technology can connect language teachers and content with learners across space and time. Technology can document endangered languages with voice recordings. It can produce and distribute curriculum and resources easily and quickly. It can facilitate independent learning through gaming, cloud-based downloads and apps. It can connect teachers and learners for one-way or tandem language learning.

Forward thinkers are harnessing the unprecedented power of technology to bring languages back from the brink of extinction, and in rare cases, to resurrect an extinct language.

Here is a brief overview of some of the ways that digital technology is being used in these efforts:

Europe

North America

  • A CD-ROM self-study course has been developed in Navajo, which is spoken in the southwestern United States.
  • Learners of Cherokee, spoken in the South Central U.S., can communicate within a virtual world.
  • The Ojibwe of Manitoba, Canada, are using an iPhone app to revitalize their language, as are the Winnebago in the Midwest U.S.

Africa

Central and South America

Asia

Arctic

  • Asynchronous online lessons are available in Inuktitut, one of the languages of the Arctic.

Middle East

Pacific

For more updates on technologies in use for indigenous language education, take a look at Allyson Eamer's curated content site.

  • Pingback: How Technology Is Helping People Learn—and Even Save—the World’s Languages | Freedom, Justice, Equality News

  • DialectCorner

    Also companies like DialectCorner.com are helping crowdsource translation for African languages. Great post

  • Nat Turner

    A great project and a good insight into diminishing languages,
    which also means the death of peoples,
    some who represent man from his earliest moments on the planet.
    The article states
    “Remarkably, some academics are unperturbed by what could be called “linguistic Darwinism”, or survival of the fittest language.”
    it’s not remarkable at all,that they are “unperturbed” when one considers that these academics represents the beneficiaries of those who have gourmandised and
    taken over the planet,
    “linguistic Darwinism” is the companion of physical genocide,
    which has decimated far more languages and
    people than subsuming of cultures ever has.
    “Global Voices” as a publication has the right name to
    keep this project constantly on the public agenda.

    Naga words http://sco.lt/5CNGoD
    This comment http://sco.lt/89GwWP

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