Saving Languages From Extinction, With The Help Of AI

Let’s begin with a little quiz: Across the earth, there are 7 continents and 197 countries. How many languages are spoken?

The answer is around 7,000, but if this number surprises you, it’s because you suffer from the distorted perspective that half of the 7.8 billion inhabitants of the planet express themselves or communicate through only about 20 of them (Arabic, English, Spanish, French, Hindi, Mandarin, Portuguese…), while the other 97% of these 7,000 languages have a total number of speakers that does not exceed 4% of the population.

Our world linguistic heritage, as rich it may be, is very fragile. The overwhelming majority of these 7,000 languages have no written tradition, and today are only spoken by a handful of old people. This heritage is both the fruit and the guarantor of humans’ cultural diversity, and is no less significant than the biodiversity of plant and animal species. The crisis it faces can be considered the sixth major extinction that threatens the world.

“We estimate that 50% of the 7,000 languages will disappear by the end of this century, a rate to be compared with the 26% of mammal species or 14% of bird species threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” says Evangelia Adamou, a linguist at the CNRS laboratory, LACITO (Languages and Civilizations with an Oral Tradition).

This threat of massive linguistic extinction is what motivated researchers to create the Pangloss collection in 1995, named after a character in Voltaire’s “Candide,” whose name in Greek means, “all languages.” Equipped with a website making it accessible to the general public, this collection is to linguistic diversity what protected areas are to biodiversity. Its sound library has been enriched over the years and now contains more than 3,600 audio or video recordings in 170 languages, nearly half of which are transcribed and annotated.

Read more: Worldcrunch

Chinese minority languages among those at risk of dying out, with no one left to speak them, study finds

Dozens of languages and dialects in China are in danger of disappearing, a new study has found.

According to the study by website WordFinder, based on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 25 of China’s spoken languages are “critically endangered”.

This puts it seventh in the world behind the United States, with 82 languages critically endangered), Brazil, with 45, Australia, with 42, India (41), Indonesia (32) and Canada (30).

“Languages are about more than vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar,” says WordFinder editor Michael Kwan. “Languages provide insight into how a cultural group views and interacts with the world around them, as well as the history of the people in a particular area.”

The latest census (2009-2013), released last month, revealed that 28 per cent of critically endangered languages are spoken in just three countries – the US (which accounts for 13.5 per cent), Brazil (7.4 per cent) and Australia (6.9 per cent) – and that they and seven other countries account for more than half of the critically endangered languages in the world.

The study found that more than 291 million people aged five and over speak only English at home in the US, with only 45 using the critically endangered Chinook Jargon, an indigenous language originating as a pidgin (or simplified) trade language used in the Pacific northwest.

In Australia, more than 17 million people speak only English (around 73 per cent of the population) at home compared to just 156 people who speak the Aboriginal Miriwoong language (0.00066 per cent). Fewer than 20 of those speak it fluently.

Language experts say the decline in minority languages is an unwelcome trend being felt across the globe.

Read more: South China Morning Post

Language and identity: the stories behind the world’s endangered languages

As Europeans began to colonize North America, Native Americans were placed in reservation boarding schools, where students were taught English and subjected to forced cultural assimilation.

This forced assimilation took a toll on linguistic diversity on the continent and as a result, North American indigenous languages have been on the decline since 1790.

For human biology sophomore Alexa Oldman, language revitalization is critical to keeping indigenous North American languages and identity alive.

“It’s important for not only me but all other Native Americans to revitalize the language, because that is a part of who we are,” Oldman said. “Our ancestors fought to keep the traditions alive and try to speak the language, even though they were reprimanded for it.” 

Since the age of two, Oldman has participated in cultural events and learned traditional Native American dances. 

She said she believes language preservation efforts are crucial given the centuries of struggle her ancestors endured in order to keep their culture and language alive under colonization.

Oldman has ties to two tribes: Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa in Petoskey, Michigan. 

Her grandmother was among those who were placed in English boarding schools, resulting in language loss.

“My grandma had attended a boarding school, and her mom and dad were both fluent speakers in Anishinaabemowin,” Oldman said. “Due to having to go to the boarding schools, my grandma then lost how to speak their own language.” 

Despite her grandmother losing her family’s native tongue, Oldman said her family has managed to pass Native American customs down the line. 

“I had attended ceremonies — Native ceremonies — when I was younger as well, and up until now,” Oldman said. “Even my mom herself grew up the same way too. So, that’s why she taught me my cultural ways. … There’s Seven Grandfather Teachings that we learned about when we were younger, and that we learn to live by and follow throughout our life. And then we learn about the four different directions. And we practice Sun Dance, which comes from my Northern Arapaho tribe out in Wyoming, which is only specific to them.”

These teachings continued to influence and shape Oldman as a young adult. 

“The Seven Grandfather Teachings, and a few that would be respect, truth, and honesty,” Oldman said. “And because we live by that, then it teaches you to respect people, respect your peers. Be truthful and be honest in certain situations.”

Anishinaabemowin’s status, according to the Endangered Language Project, or ELP is threatened, with about 1,500 native speakers left.

Read more: State News

On a Mission to Save Languages From Extinction

NEW YORK—There are 800 different languages spoken among New York’s 8.5 million residents, and unfortunately, that number may be decreasing. One man is on a mission to make sure the city and the world don’t lose their linguistic diversity.

The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger states that 230 languages have died since 1950. According to Ethnologue, approximately a third of extant languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers alive today.

When a language becomes extinct, a community collapses. That group loses the ability to speak their mother tongue, and pass it on to their children. A whole culture is ultimately lost.

“A community loses bonds to their heritage. A community loses the kind of glue that binds them together,” Daniel Bögre Udell, director of Wikitongues, told The Epoch Times.

Learning a Language

Udell is a sixth-generation American. His mother’s family came from Scotland and Hungary, and his father’s side were Ashkenazi Jews. As he was growing up, English was spoken at home in rural Pennsylvania.

When Udell turned 13, he got his first job as a busboy at a local restaurant. Many of his coworkers were Spanish speakers, and Udell made an effort to learn their language. By the time he was 16, he had conversational proficiency in Spanish. Initially, he saw language as just a practical tool.

“I think that at that time I still understood language as a primarily utilitarian phenomenon, something that could just get us through the day, help us in business, help us in travel,” Udell said. “But like most majority language speakers, I think I still understood language as something to be taken for granted, not something that was necessarily integral to my identity, my culture, who I was.”

During high school, Udell had the opportunity to study abroad in Zaragoza, Spain. Immersed in the Spanish-speaking city, he thought that Spanish was the only language spoken in the country.

Read more: The Epoch Times

More than 2,000 of the world’s languages are dying out

As a child, Kanako Uzawa treasured her school vacations, when she traveled from Tokyo to her family farm in Nibutani, a remote village in northern Japan. “There were rice fields extending into the distance,” she says. “It was all very green with fresh air… It was paradise for kids.”

Uzawa, who was born in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, is a member of the Ainu, an indigenous group from northern Japan. The story of this small community is one of erasure instigated by the state. In the late nineteenth century, the Meiji government sought a unified, cohesive vision of Japan; the very existence of the Ainu and other indigenous groups threatened Japan’s national myth of homogeneity. In 1899, the government passed an act now known as the Former Natives Protection Law, which stripped the Ainu of their identity: names were changed, language was curbed, and they were forced to give up hunting and gathering and begin farming on poor land.

As long as humans have formed shared identities around ethnicity, religion, race, language, and culture, those identities have been subject to erasure, from colonialism to war to economic globalization to linguistic homogenization to environmental change. Just look to the island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, preparing to sink beneath the sea, or to Greenland, preparing for its ice to melt away.

In the previous episode, we explored how asylum seekers struggle to define their identities, caught in limbo between their home countries and their adopted ones. Governments define official, legitimized forms of national identities, the structures into which new arrivals should be integrated. But these same structures are applied to groups who have long resided within countries’ borders—or, in the case of many colonized nations, predated the groups that currently hold power. How can a given group retain a sovereign identity within those national constructs?

The map of the world has never remained static. Right now, there are secessionist movements from Scotland to Kurdistan, each with their own particular historical origins and degrees of success. The ways and forms in which groups assert themselves might differ, but what unites them all is a clear sense of communal identity: one that demands to be seen, heard, and acknowledged as legitimate.

Read more: Quartz

The Race to Save the World’s Disappearing Languages

On a residential block at the border between Brooklyn and Queens, Gottscheer Hall appears like a mirage from 1945.

Blue awnings advertise the space for weddings and events. Inside, an entryway is covered with the saccharin smiles of “Miss Gottschee” contestants from decades past. “Back then you had to know the language to compete,” says 92-year-old Alfred Belay, pointing out his daughter’s beaming face from the 1980s. Nowadays, there are years with only a single contestant in the pageant.

Belay has been coming to Gottscheer Hall since he arrived in America more than 60 years ago. Then, the neighborhood was filled with refugees from Gottschee, a settlement that once occupied the highlands of modern-day Slovenia. Now, he’s one of a few thousand remaining speakers of its language, Gottscheerisch. Every Christmas he leads a service in his 600-year-old native language that few understand.

“Imagine if someone who plays music suddenly can’t use their fingers,” he says. “We’re still alive but can only remember these things.”

Belay and his sister, 83-year-old Martha Hutter, have agreed to let 26-year-old Daniel Bogre Udell film them having a conversation. They walk past the dark wood bar of Gottscheer Hall serving pretzels and sausages, and they climb the stairs to an empty banquet room. Bogre Udell sets up his camera and the siblings begin to banter in their inscrutable Germanic mother tongue.

Hearing such a rare language spoken on a residential block of Queens is not unusual for Bogre Udell, the co-founder of a nonprofit called Wikitongues. There are some 800 languages spoken within the 10-mile radius of New York City, which is more than 10 percent of the world’s estimated 7,099 languages. Since he has decided to record all of them, the melting-pot metropolis is a natural launching point.

Bogre Udell, who speaks four languages, met Frederico Andrade, who speaks five, at the Parsons New School in New York City. In 2014, they launched an ambitious project to make the first public archive of every language in the world. They’ve already documented more than 350 languages, which they are tracking online, and plan to hit 1,000 in the coming years.

Read more: National Geographic

Saving an Endangered Language

Walk past Abernethy Hall Room 102 on any given Friday afternoon during the semester and you’ll likely hear sounds of an endangered language wafting through the halls.

“Siyo.” (Hello.)

“Osigwotsu?” (How are you?)

“Osigwo.” (I am fine.)

“Ihina?” (And you?)

“Osda!” (Great!)

It’s “AniKahwi,” Cherokee Coffee Hour, for students interested in learning to speak Cherokee.

American studies assistant professor Ben Frey ’05 started the coffee hour in 2013 after returning to UNC-Chapel Hill as a Carolina Postdoctoral Fellow for Faculty Diversity. It is one of many ways he is working to revitalize the Cherokee language.

Indigenous people have spoken Cherokee in North Carolina for 11,000 years. Now, only 238 people — 1.4 percent of the 17,000 citizens of Eastern Band of Cherokees — speak the tribe’s Kituwah dialect. Most of them are 65 and older.

Preserving a culture’s language is important for many reasons, Frey said. Unique knowledge and traditions held by these cultures can offer solutions for today’s pressing challenges, from environmental sustainability to health care. Connecting to one’s heritage helps individuals and communities understand who they are.

Fortunately, Frey’s research on how language use declines — or shifts — offers a path forward to revive this endangered language.

Frey’s Cherokee language education began while he was a German and linguistics major at UNC in the early 2000s. A citizen of the Eastern Band, Frey grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Cherokee was not taught at home.

His grandmother was among the Cherokee youth removed from their homes, placed in boarding schools and punished for speaking the language by a U.S. government bent on eradicating native cultures. While she and Frey’s great-grandmother spoke Cherokee to each other when they didn’t want the children to understand, they did not pass on the language.

Read more: Carolina Arts & Sciences

Finding the Words for Hope: The Fight for Endangered Languages

Iktsuarpok” is a word with no direct English translation. From Inuit, it best translates to “the frustration of waiting for someone to show up.” It is a word imbued with special meaning, and a word that may now be threatened. The Endangered Languages Project classifies the Inuit language as “vulnerable,” with only around 20,000 speakers. For iktsuarpok, it seems, time may be running out.

Uncommonly pithy words that native English speakers struggle to pronounce, like “iktsuarpok,” are often presented to the general public as reasons for saving endangered languages. If we lose these languages, the argument goes, we lose their beautiful words as well. But Gregory Anderson, president of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, argues that romanticizing unique words from endangered languages is an inadequate way to capture their value to speakers and communities around the world.

In an interview with the HPR, he explained that “there is nothing special, per se, about a language being endangered.” Instead, he carries out his work for different reasons. “We have a fairly narrow set of windows of opportunity to understand how language develops and how humans divide their collective experience and metaphorize it,” he said. “The more of these windows that get permanently closed, the less we’ll ever be able to know about what is and what isn’t possible and why.”

It is our “vocalized expression of humanness,” as he calls it, that separates humans from animals. Around the world, the race to document and pass down these expressions is on. Leading the way are students and teachers, emboldened by technology to move away from learning hegemonic languages and instead dedicating their time to protecting endangered languages.

Read more: Harvard Political Review

Educators Try New Methods to Save American Indian Languages

The United States is home to 562 federally recognized American Indian Nations, each with its own language.

Yet the number of Native Americans with the ability to speak their tribe’s language has decreased over the past century.

Now, Indian Nations are trying different ways to expand the number of native speakers, and increase interest in their communities to learn tribal languages.

Language in the United States

Since the late 1800s, many American Indian children have attended boarding schools. At the time, Indian children were required to attend schools by law, and the federal government forced Indian families to send their children to such schools.

The purpose of this requirement was to educate young people, as well as assimilate them in “American ways of life.”

The children were separated from their families, and given English names. As many boarding schools were operated by religious groups, the children were also taught Christianity.

One of the most lasting effects of these schools was language. The teachers often taught Native American students in English, instead of the language of their parents.

AnCita Benally serves as education program manager for the Navajo Nation. She says the boarding school students were told they needed to learn English in order to get a job, earn money and buy a house or nice things.

Benally says the effect of these schools has lasted for generations. When the “boarding school generation” started having children, they were only taught English. At the time, many people believed this made sense – for economic and other reasons. But a lot of Native Americans could no longer speak their tribal language well enough to pass it on to their children.

Today, even though tribal-run schools exist on their territory, most tribes report that their youngest members have trouble speaking traditional, tribal languages. Fearing a loss of history and culture, the Indian Nations are experimenting with new ways to increase the language ability and interest of tribal members.

Read more: Voice of America

Carrying On His Great Grandfather’s Work, A Kansas Professor Helps Keep Their Language Alive

As a kid, Andrew McKenzie had an unusual affinity for languages.

He took French in high school (because everyone else was taking Spanish). But that wasn’t enough.

“I started to teach myself different languages, like Latin and Greek and Basque and Turkish,” he remembers. “I would drive into the city to a bookstore, and they’d have a section with language books. I’d say, ‘I’m just going to learn this language because the book has the prettiest font.'”

So it’s not surprising that McKenzie ended up as a professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas. But it turns out there’s another reason why he’s uniquely qualified for his area of research, which involves documenting the endangered language of Oklahoma’s Kiowa people.

A languages dies when children stop learning it naturally (as opposed to being taught at school) and when there’s no documentation. But if it’s been documented, a language can be revived (the best example of this is Hebrew).

The Kiowa tribe is small, with only about 12,000 members, many of them spread out around the country. Most of the native speakers are in Southwest Oklahoma.

“There are only a few dozen speakers, and some people would even estimate fewer,” McKenzie says. “And a lot of them are in their 80s and 90s.”

By one estimate, Kiowa is among 165 endangered languages in the United States; thousands of languages around the world are also in danger of extinction.

Read more: KCUR 89.3

Can translations save India’s endangered ‘mother tongues’?

In “Translation as Culture”, an article which theorises her work with Mahasweta Devi’s fiction, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak writes of the irreducible emotional and ethical charge of translating from the mother tongue:

“…translation in the narrow sense…is also a peculiar act of reparation – toward the language of the inside, a language in which we are ‘responsible’, the guilt of seeing it as one language among many…I translate from my mother tongue.”

Spivak’s words touch on the slippery affective terrain that opens up when we call a language “mother”, and seek to transcribe this “intimate” tongue in an “alien” sign-system: a site that is both personal and political, fraught with identity and difference, love and loss, guilt and responsibility, ridden with the angst of separation and the anxiety of reparation.

Always already strained, these filial relations are further fractured by the dysfunctional contexts in which literary translators operate today – multicultural yet hegemonic, globalised yet often segregated or displaced. What it generates is at best a complicated sense of linguistic belonging – to an enormous, broken family of languages, with multiple mothers, one’s own and those of others, in which degrees of kinship, equations of power, loyalties and alliances, the rules of engagement and the stakes of representation are forever shifting.

Read more: Scroll.in

Indigenous dictionary may save the Miriwoong language from extinction

Miriwoong is considered critically endangered — on the brink of completely disappearing — but a group in the remote Kimberley is making sure that does not happen.

The first official Miriwoong dictionary has been published by Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring (MDWg), a small language and cultural centre in Kununurra.

“It’s the language of the land and our people,” MDWg senior language consultant David Newry said.

The language is native to the Miriwoong people of the East Kimberley and Northern Territory. The remaining fluent speakers are elderly, so the dictionary is a critical step in ensuring the language survives.

The linguists and consultants at MDWg consider language as synonymous with identity. They believe saving Miriwoong will help save their connection to land and culture.

“We are just proud to be Miriwoong … we want to get our language back and teach it to other generations,” Mr Newry said.

“It describes the life around Miriwoong people and the way [we] communicate with each other, the connection that we have.

“[It] is really important for family connection.”

Read more: ABC News