- Global Voices - http://globalvoicesonline.org -

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

Written by Global Voices On 3 July 2014 @ 16:17 pm | 5 Comments

In Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, El Salvador, Feature, India, Ireland, Kenya, Language, LANGUAGES, Latin America, Mali, North America, Norway, Oceania, Paraguay, Rising Voices, South Asia, Spain, Sub-Saharan Africa, U.S.A., Uzbekistan, Weblog, Western Europe

Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary by Niko Kitsakis (CC-SA-3.0)

Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary [1] by Niko Kitsakis (CC-SA-3.0)

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 [2] on the Ethnos Project blog.

One of the world's dying languages goes extinct every 10 to 14 days [3]. 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 [4]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:


North America

  • A CD-ROM self-study course [8] 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 [9].
  • The Ojibwe of Manitoba, Canada, are using an iPhone app [10] to revitalize their language, as are the Winnebago in the Midwest U.S.


Central and South America



  • Asynchronous online lessons [21] are available in Inuktitut, one of the languages of the Arctic.

Middle East


  • Indigenous sign language from Central Australia can now be learned via online videos [23].
  • Digital storytelling [24] in Pacific Island languages are available online.

For more updates on technologies in use for indigenous language education, take a look at Allyson Eamer's curated content site [25].

Article printed from Global Voices: http://globalvoicesonline.org

URL to article: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2014/07/03/technology-helps-people-learn-save-languages/

URLs in this post:

[1] Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kenkyusha%E2%80%99s_New_Japanese-English_Dictionary_5th_Edition_with_page_open.jpg

[2] originally published: http://www.ethnosproject.org/technology-and-language-revitalization-a-conspectus/

[3] every 10 to 14 days: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/vanishing-languages/rymer-text

[4] Miniature DNF Dictionary : http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miniature_DNF_Dictionary_055_ubt.JPG

[5] downloadable dictionaries: http://giellatekno.uit.no/

[6] sharing tips: http://blogs.transparent.com/irish/

[7] smartphone and tablet apps: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-20392723

[8] self-study course: http://shop.multilingualbooks.com/collections/navajo/talk-now

[9] virtual world: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmP17acPYCE

[10] iPhone app: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/save-endangered-languages-tribes-turn-tech

[11] Databases: http://sociology.morrisville.edu/readings/ANTH101/Wamalwa-Language-Preservation-Kenya-2013.pdf

[12] being recorded: http://www.storybases.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=55&id_pays=2&Itemid=56

[13] course in the whistle language: http://www.busuu.com/enc/silbo

[14] language documentation: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/student-profile-rafael-nonato-0722.html

[15] talking dictionary: http://talkingdictionary.swarthmore.edu/pipil/

[16] Recordings of personal narratives: http://dobes.mpi.nl/projects/ache/project/

[17] Digital storytelling software: http://www.chinasmack.com/2013/stories/phonemica-americans-mapping-and-preserving-chinese-dialects.html

[18] Lessons in the Tajik language: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWlSuuGMMbc

[19] have now been mapped: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/Jnwhm6vGQfNtTfNgbL9j4O/Ganesh-Devy--Each-language-is-a-unique-world-view.html

[20] archived online: http://peopleslinguisticsurvey.org/

[21] online lessons: http://www.tusaalanga.ca/lesson/lessons

[22] Online storytelling: http://elalliance.org/projects/languages-of-the-middle-east/neo-aramaic/

[23] online videos: http://iltyemiltyem.com/sign/

[24] Digital storytelling: http://italklibrary.com

[25] curated content site: http://www.scoop.it/t/indigenous-language-education-and-technology

Licensed Creative Commons Attribution, 2008 Global Voices Online. See attribution policy for details: http://globalvoicesonline.org/about/global-voices-attribution-policy