Today, Google announced the launch of the Endangered Language Project, "a website for people to find and share the most up-to-date and comprehensive information about endangered languages." The project was built in conjunction with the Alliance for Language Diversity.
Google and its partners hope the Endangered Language Project will help by providing "an online resource to record, access, and share samples of and research on endangered languages, as well as to share advice and best practices for those working to document or strengthen languages under threat."
Although Google helped develop the site, they plan to turn it over to the First Peoples' Cultural Council and The Institute for Language Information and Technology at Eastern Michigan University.
The problem of language loss is bad, and it's getting worse. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, estimates that about half of the world's 6,000 languages will disappear at the current rate if nothing is done. Languages change, some gaining predominance and others withering. To some degree this is natural. But with the accelerated growth of technology, the predominant languages are penetrating further faster. To lose languages at such a rate isn't natural. And when languages go, the knowledge carried by them also goes.
"With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages," UNESCO said, "humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages."
Anyone who speaks more than one language has the experience of saying. "well, there's not direct translation for that word." That is because that word captures a segment of the spectrum of meaning that another language does not. When we lose it, we lose awareness of that distinction and the values behind making it in the first place. In much the same way that the growth of the popular word "impact" dulls the distinctions inherent in words like "affect," "effect," "influence" and "force," the loss of distinctions carried by the vocabulary and grammar of different languages impoverishes our collective linguistic environment. Just as the destruction of a forest, like those in the Amazon basin, may destroy the cures for disease, the destruction of languages may damage possible answers to our intellectual and spiritual questions.
"A diverse group of collaborators have already begun to contribute content ranging from 18th-century manuscripts to modern teaching tools like video and audio language samples and knowledge-sharing articles," wrote Clara Rivera Rodriguez and Jason Rissman, project managers for the Endangered Language Project.
"Documenting the 3,000+ languages that are on the verge of extinction," they maintain, "is an important step in preserving cultural diversity, honoring the knowledge of our elders, and empowering our youth. Technology can strengthen these efforts by helping people create high-quality recordings of their elders (often the last speakers of a language), connecting diaspora communities through social media, and facilitating language learning."
That's all pretty theoretical until a flock of kids on the Warm Springs Reservation teaches you how to say "horse" and "dog" in Sahaptin, a language they are being taught for the first time in several generations. Then the merit of language preservation gets pretty real pretty quick.
Perhaps the cooperation of an international corporation such as Google will focus a bigger lens on this problem and bring together various efforts at combating it.
Hopkins, Curt. 2012. "Google launches Endangered Language Project". Ars Technica. Posted: June 21, 2012. Available online: http://arstechnica.com/science/2012/06/google-launches-endangered-language-project/