There are roughly 7,000 spoken languages in the world today. However, it is thought that over half of them could disappear by the end of the 21st century. Every two weeks, the last living speaker of a language dies. One example is Hazel Sampson, who passed away earlier this year as the last native speaker of the Klallam language, spoken by the Klallam Native American tribe.
Globalisation is another cause of language extinction
The cultural and economic dominance of the Western world means that English is now the ‘lingua franca’ and English language books, films and television and be found in virtually every corner of the globe. Furthermore, minority languages are being replaced by more widely spoken, global languages such as English, Spanish, Hindi and Russian.
Recognising the need to save languages from extinction, linguists are now documenting disappearing languages through translation in order to preserve them for the future. For instance, the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages records rare languages and assists communities in maintaining and revitalizing knowledge of their native languages. The Living Tongues organisation records audio, visual and text documents using digital video, voice recorders, and other modern technologies. It also produces storybooks, dictionaries, online resources and multi-media educational materials to not only preserve languages for future studies, but to help members of these threatened cultures to conserve part of their heritage and learn the language of their ancestors.
Why is language preservation so important?
The death of a language also means the death of a culture. Many endangered languages express the rich cultures of the people who speak them, with stories and songs passed on to younger generations, but they have no written forms. Therefore, with the extinction of a language, an entire culture is lost. Also, studying various languages also increases our understanding of how humans communicate and store knowledge. This linguistic information can provide insight into dyslexia, language impairments, hearing loss and may help with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. If there are only a handful of languages to study, then there is not enough data to understand how language really works in the brain.
One of the projects of the Living Tongues Institute is the Chipaya Language Project in Bolivia. Chipaya is a language spoken by around 1,500 people in the highlands of Bolivia. Chipaya speakers are undergoing a shift to Spanish. The Living Tongue’s linguists travelled to Bolivia to work with some of the remaining speakers of Chipaya to record sample lexical and grammatical materials. As a result they have created a ‘Talking Dictionary’ that gives listeners a chance to hear a completely unknown language.
Furthermore, this year Living Tongues has launched a partnership with Viki, a popular video streaming site with TV shows and films from around the world. Viki uses crowd sourcing to translate subtitles for films and TV shows into a variety of different languages. The objective of the collaboration is to encourage speakers of endangered languages to translate subtitles. By doing so, they help build a record of the languages and keep them relevant for younger speakers. So far, content on Viki has been translated into 29 endangered or threatened languages, such as Zo, Nauruan, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, and Cherokee.
All in all, translation of endangered languages, especially those only spoken, is crucial in helping preserve these languages. With translation and technology, a language that perhaps has never been heard before outside of a small town in Bolivia can suddenly have a global audience. The approach can also help to revitalize previously extinct languages, such as Cornish in the United Kingdom. By combining translation with modern technology and the Internet, the effort to conserve languages is incredibly powerful.