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

How Wikitongues is saving world languages from linguicide

“In the next 80 years, 3,000 languages are expected to disappear.” That’s what it says on the homepage of the Wikitongues website. And then it adds: “We won’t let that happen.”

Last week, ‘we’ was Daniel Bogre Udell, one of two original founders of Wikitongues, and Kristen Tcherneshoff, its volunteer-in-chief. The frontline of their fight: Bedford. They were there to open a new ‘chapter’ of their non-profit organisation at Bedford School. It would be the first of its kind in Europe.

Wikitongues is a young company (founded in 2014), powered by an ever-expanding volunteer base that seeks to envelope the globe in its all-encompassing embrace. While we were talking in Bedford the news came through that three more recruits had come on board, from three different points in Kazakhstan.

The brief is to provide a refuge, a safe space, a home, for all the world’s languages. Especially, but not only, the endangered ones. Wikitongues volunteers are building an exhaustive database of audiovisual testimony, but Daniel and Kristen, and fellow co-founder Freddie (Federico Andrade) are as much activists as archivists. They are less interested in preserving dead languages for the academic interest of posterity than in protecting and growing living ones, and helping to sustain the communities that speak them.

Increasingly, Wikitongues is motivated by educational imperatives. Daniel and Kristen want people even younger than they are (mid-20s) to appreciate the vital importance of linguistic diversity. The next day they would be teaching Català and Kiswahili to the Bedford boys and opening their minds to a host of possibilities. Contrary to the idea that post-Brexit Britain is going to be strictly monolingual, they stress the truth that the United Kingdom, and in particular the south of England, is already one of the most linguistically diverse places on earth

Read more: The Independent

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

This nonprofit wants to build a tool to share and document all the world’s languages

Like most of his compatriots in Kosovo, 19-year-old Plator Gashi grew up speaking Albanian.

As a linguistically curious young man (some might say, a “language nerd”), Gashi discovered the dialect he and his neighbors spoke — which is different from the one used across the border in Albania — was beginning to lose many of its older, richer expressions. Blame the influence of English, French and the general tendency to simplify language in the age of texting acronyms and Bitmojis.

“There are lot of very beautiful words and expressions that have started to fade away. A lot of people tend to use simpler language, and I think that is a shame,” Gashi says. “I’m not a purist, but not only do you lose words that are beautiful in an objective sense, they are also related to our culture.”

Gashi’s concern with preserving the uniqueness of his native dialect is not unique. Under pressure from economic globalization, the Internet, and government policies favoring centralization, regional dialects and languages are increasingly under threat. According to one oft-cited statistic from the United Nations, more than 3,000 languages currently spoken today will become extinct by the end of this century unless current trends are reversed.

But the Internet, home to polyglot YouTubers with dedicated fan bases, and language-rights activists who have built large communities on Facebook and Twitter, is also an indispensable tool for those who want to preserve endangered languages. As a volunteer with Wikitongues, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving and recording linguistic diversity, Gashi is at the forefront of the movement.

Read more: PRI