It’s been estimated that of the 7,000 languages in the world, half of them are endangered and may disappear in this century and this is happening for a variety of reasons, mostly because of social pressure and attitudes that devalue those small languages and tell people that they’re not worthwhile or they’re not modern enough to continue using.
Some people see technology as a threat to the existence of small languages but the really savvy small language communities are using technology to sustain themselves to expand their reach to broadcast themselves out through many different channels, whether it be social media text messaging to use technology as a way to survive.
Under their enduring verses program which I co-direct, we’ve been building talking dictionaries and the goal of the talking dictionaries is to give some very small languages a first-ever presence on the Internet.
We’ve been working with a variety of communities around the world, one of them is the Siletz Dee-ni language which is spoken in the state of Oregon, so let’s Dee-ni has probably one fluent speaker and a small handful of people who have some knowledge of the language, and we’ve been working with Bud Lane who is the acknowledged as the fluent speaker. He has sat down and patiently recorded thousands and thousands of words in the language, and we bring these recordings back to my lab at Swarthmore College, and my students work on them and create a talking dictionary, so you can go to the Siletz Dee-ni talking dictionary, type in the word salmon or the word basket, and you begin to see the very rich lexicon of terms that they have, you start to appreciate some of the cultural knowledge.
The Siletz nation is using this talking dictionary as a tool to revitalize the languages, they are conducting language classes and helping the younger generation acquire some of the language through the talking dictionary.
We’ve also built a talking dictionary for a language called Matuka Panau , this is a very small language spoken in Papua New Guinea by 600 people, they all live in one village, they knew about the internet before they had ever actually seen the internet, and when our National Geographic team visited the village a couple years ago, they said we would like our language to be on the Internet and this was really interesting because they hadn’t seen the internet yet. They had heard about the internet and so with collaboration from the community we built a talking dictionary for the language.
The following year they got electricity in the village and then eventually they got an internet connection in the very first time they went on the internet, they were able to see and hear their own language spoken and this sends a very powerful message that their language is just as good as any other even though it may be very small and no one has ever heard of it. It’s just as good as any other; it can exist in a high tech medium.
The very first talking dictionary I built was for the Tuvan language. Tuvan is spoken by nomadic people in Siberia, they’re migratory, they raise animals goats and sheep and camels. they have a very rich lexicon pertaining to the natural world and environment.
I built the Tuvan talking dictionary and I also launched it as an iPhone application. so you can actually hear the Tuvan language and many other languages in the future, I hope, on a smartphone platform.
The triple-s is a great venue to talk about language diversity. It’s not a topic that you might typically think of in connection with a gathering of scientists but linguistic diversity is one of the most important parts of our human heritage and as it gives us insight into history, into culture, into how the brain functions.
Without linguistic diversity we really wouldn’t be human and so scientists as well as indigenous communities are responding to a crisis of language extinction and that’s what this panel is about and that’s why we’ve chosen the triple-s. We want to get the word out to not only to scientists but to journalists and to indigenous communities whose languages are struggling to survive that there’s a common goal that we can work together.
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