Protecting the World’s Linguistic Diversity
Like plant and animal species, languages are becoming extinct. While world languages catalogue Ethnologue currently reports around 7,000 living, spoken languages, this number may quickly drop in the coming years. Over 40% of those languages are now endangered and many of them have less than 1,000 living speakers.
Languages can disappear when their speakers die out or start using other languages. Though it is not a new phenomenon, languages are currently dying at an accelerated rate. Wars, natural disasters and poor living conditions may wipe out entire populations of native language speakers. In other cases, people are actively discouraged from speaking their native tongue. It could be through political repression or, more subtly, when adopting another language offers considerable benefits (such as access to education, better jobs, social status).
Language loss is often tied to the loss of culture and traditions. Protecting languages means preserving not only a greater linguistic diversity, but also a greater diversity in art, ideologies, knowledge and unique world views. Luckily, there are various organizations dedicated to language preservation. Below we highlight a few of those projects.
Endangered Languages Project (ELP)
The Endangered Languages Project aims to use modern tools and technology to collect and exchange information about dying languages. The website provides information about the languages and its speakers, videos and other reference materials. Users can access the information, suggest updates or contribute text, audio or video content themselves. Through documentation and education, the ELP hopes to slow the pace at which languages are disappearing.
Wikitongues is a non-profit organization that supports both language documentation and revitalization. Their aim is to promote linguistic diversity by collecting video material and dictionary entries for every language in the world. By recording information and making it available globally, languages can be shared and taught.
The site hosts videos of volunteers speaking their language and offers a mailing list for people interested in linguistics and language revival. Wikitongues also supports revitalization efforts. Their Language Sustainability Toolkit includes best practices that empower people to keep their language alive.
Woolaroo, a Google Arts & Culture initiative, offers users an interactive way to explore indigenous languages. The tool combines the power of Google Translate and Cloud Vision to provide real-time translations of objects detected in photos.
It currently supports ten languages, including the Aboriginal language Yugambeh (with only 18 fluent speakers, though likely hundreds of basic speakers) and Louisiana Creole, spoken by fewer dan 10,000 people in Louisiana in the USA. Speakers of the supported languages can add and edit entries to help keep their language alive.
Even if you are not a speaker of an endangered languages, these projects are worth exploring if you are interested in language and culture. They offer lots of interesting facts, additional reading material and insights into the many languages of the world.