New Google Project to Save Endangered Languages

More than one third of the languages currently spoken on this planet may become extinct in the next 100 years. Google is partnering with the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity in an attempt to save thousands of languages in at least some form. It’s called the Endangered Language Project, and for anyone who cares about words and ideas, it’s worth a look.

You can check out the Endangered Language Project at its web site. Personally, I had no idea that more than 7,000 languages are spoken throughout the world – and more than 3,000 could die in just three or four generations. That’s really sad.  Any translator will tell you that there are some words that don’t translate well between languages. Every language reflects the culture that uses it; an entire perspective on the world and what’s important is woven into the words that people use. Every time we lose a language, we lose a point of view…forever.

On its website, the Endangered Languages Project expresses this fact even more strongly. “The disappearance of a language means the loss of valuable scientific and cultural information, comparable to the loss of a species,” it notes. Google and the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity hope to reverse or at least slow down this loss. The collaborative project is trying to develop a comprehensive database of at-risk languages that includes important statistics, high quality audio recordings of language samples, and more.

Users can browse the site either by using the search engine in the upper right hand corner or clicking on the world map. Colored dots reveal locations where endangered languages are spoken; a language can be “at risk,” “endangered,” “severely endangered,” or “vitality unknown.” There are apparently levels within these main four; for example, on the page for each language, you might find terms like “threatened” or “critically endangered” (that last was used for a language that had only a few elderly speakers). Some languages listed might have a million or more native speakers; others may have thirty or less.

Clicking on the dots on the world map brings up the name of the language; click on the name brings you to a page about the language that includes the number of native speakers worldwide, language meta data (such as other names it goes by,  its classification, variants, etc). You might also learn the language’s “context of usage,” which will let you know where it is used and how much support there is for its continued usage. If available, you may also hear audio or see video of the language being spoken. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a few songs in the endangered language as well. Or you might find a botanist explaining how certain plants are used in that culture (the Koro language features such samples).

As you’d expect for a collaborative project, it’s set up so that others can contribute samples; Google may be overseeing it to start with, but hopes to put it entirely into the hands of linguistic experts, educational organizations, and others with an interest in preserving endangered languages. You can check out Google’s blog post for more information about this project.

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