Google has launched a new website this week aimed at helping preserve the more than 3,000 languages of the world that are at risk of extinction.
The goal of the Endangered Languages Project is to compile the most up-to-date and comprehensive information about endangered languages and share the latest research about those languages and efforts to preserve them.
About half of the world's estimated 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing in the next 100 years, Google said in a blog post earlier this week announcing the launch of the project.
"We have so many languages which are in danger of dying, and though there has been work done by linguists to document these languages, there are nowhere near enough linguists to do that," said Anthony Aristar, professor of linguistics and co-director of the Institute for Language Information and Technology at Eastern Michigan University, which helped create the site.
"It's not just a matter of documenting the languages, it's also a matter of revitalizing them if we possibly can."
As part of the effort to revive dying languages, the website will use video, audio and social media tools to connect speakers with each other and with those who want to learn their language.
"Many First Nation tribes have scattered communities," Aristar said. "For example, the Potawatomi people live in Michigan, Kansas, Oklahoma and Canada … They do have the annual meeting, but there aren't many opportunities for them to get together and exchange information."
Native speakers will be encouraged to upload videos, audio recordings and books in their own language and share their insights on grammar and vocabulary.
"One person, for example, in Australia produced a series of rock songs in his language, and these became very popular in the aboriginal community that he was involved in and actually encouraged some people to actually start learning the language that they had lost," Aristar said.
Canadian First Nations part of project
The languages in the project span the globe and include those spoken in regions as varied as Papua New Guinea, the Siberian region of Russia, Indonesia and Canada, which, according to the UN, has 88 aboriginal languages nearing extinction.
Several Canadian First Nations are involved in developing the site, including the B.C.-based First Peoples' Cultural Council, which will oversee outreach and strategy for the project.
"Many of the First Nations people in Canada have very small numbers of people that speak the language, and it is difficult to get funding and resources to do any revitalization efforts, so what this is intended to do is to build a kind of alliance between a company like Google, the academic linguists and the First Nations people to raise awareness," Aristar said.
The backbone of the project is the evolving Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) created by the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the Institute for Language Information and Technology at Eastern Michigan University, which runs the Linguist List, the world's largest online linguistics resource.
The catalogue aims to compile all the available information about a given language such as the number of speakers, who speaks it and in which circumstances, whether there are gender differences in who speaks the language and whether the language is being passed on to younger generations.
Finding that information and keeping it up to date is a gargantuan and expensive task but key to determining whether a language is at risk of extinction, says Aristar.
"If you look at the languages, you find only about nine or 10 per cent have really good data on them. All the rest of them, there are a few academic articles, but we don't know anywhere near as much as we ought to," he said.
"There aren't any grammars, there aren’t any lexica, and if, indeed, you want to keep a language alive and, in fact, revitalize it, you need those things, and those things require trained linguists to go out in the field."
The project's creators hope the website will generate enough interest over the next three years to inspire private investors to fund some of that field work.
Funding so far has been provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Institute for Language Information and Technology and the University of Hawaii but is only guaranteed for the next three years.
'Many First Nations people here and who speak endangered languages elsewhere feel their language isn't worth much.' — Anthony Aristar, linguistics professor
Beyond generating interest among funders, Aristar and his colleagues hope the site will inspire pride in the elders who speak the world's endangered languages but are often wary of passing them on to children in the belief that more dominant languages are more useful for surviving and succeeding in the society at large.
"You're fighting a lot of cultural influences that are very difficult to overcome," Aristar said. "For example many First Nations people here and who speak endangered languages elsewhere feel their language isn't worth much.
"One of the things the site, we hope, will do is to show them that, in fact, these languages are very interesting. They aren’t worse than English or worse than Spanish or French. They're actually very interesting languages and worth learning, and what's more, you can actually learn your own language and still learn the dominant language without any harm to your culture."
The project will be overseen by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, a newly created group of institutions interested in language preservation. Its members include, among others, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and CBC Radio.