How Technology Preserves Endangered Languages

The number of languages that disappear year after year is growing at an alarming rate. Around 3,500 are expected to die out by the end of this century. Languages can die out due to several reasons. Some have become extinct relatively quickly due to natural disasters, civil conflict and world wars. The indigenous people of El Salvador, for example, abandoned their cultural practices and their language to avoid getting killed during the Salvadoran peasant massacre in 1932, which targeted the poorest citizens of El Salvador, many of whom were indigenous people.

In the 21st century, language loss mainly occurs due to a lack of people speaking the language. In fact, UNESCO describes endangered languages as those whose speakers have disappeared or switched to another language, normally the main language of a dominant group. This usually takes the form of parents passing on their native language to their children, who later on in life use the dominant language of the country they’re in to obtain socioeconomic advantages or avoid discrimination.

Although breakthroughs in modern technology are seen as a factor that contributes towards language loss, many developers, philanthropists and linguists use technology to help preserve endangered languages all over the world.


Technology against language loss


Non-profit organizations such as the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages publish scientific articles, conduct linguistic fieldwork and even create online dictionaries to preserve indigenous languages.


The institute adopts a unique approach to language acquisition by organizing digital workshops where local endogenous activists are trained on how to record and edit phrases in their language with the elders of local people.


Not only do these language activists gain additional technical skills, but many activists also become highly trained researchers within their region and become local ambassadors of the institute. Since 2005, The Living Tongues Institute has helped create more than one hundred dictionaries containing tens of thousands of words and images.


Perhaps one of the most notable languages that have made a comeback in the 21st century is Yiddish. Once spoken by more than 10 million Jews across the globe, the number of Yiddish speakers dramatically decreased due to the Holocaust as the survivors were obliged to assimilate and use the native language to avoid persecution. The use of Yiddish had all but disappeared except in a small number of Hasidic communities.

With the surge in popularity of forums in the 2000s, the Internet became a common place for Yiddish speakers to converse in their language and, over time, the virtual world became the primary destination for Yiddish speakers.

Saving a language is not just a matter of recording words and phrases and digitalizing them to store them in an online vault. Language is inherently about people, culture and identity. To keep a language alive, it must be spoken by many; it must be part of everyday culture and actively handed down to future generations.

For example, African countries are considered to be vulnerable to language loss, despite the African continent being home to some 2,144 languages. That’s not surprising considering the continent’s history—almost 200 years of colonization and many indigenous languages historically being passed down orally, through images and in written form.

The Internet is ruled by only a handful of dominant languages (such as English, Mandarin and French) and there’s even evidence that suggests that only 5% of languages have a chance of surviving in the digital world. But only time will tell whether language activists can really win the long game of language preservation.