When ancient, dying languages meet modern technology, miracles can occur. That’s the simple yet powerful idea behind the Endangered Languages Project.
Launched last week by Google’s philanthropic arm, the website allows people to learn about the staggering 50 percent of world languages that are facing extinction — and take action to help preserve them.
One of the stand-out features of the site is an interactive map users can explore to glean information about a specific language, including examples of it in use. Users can zoom in on a region of the world to check out its at-risk languages; each entry includes a description, the language’s vitality level, Google Books search results, and an area where individuals can upload their own samples to the site.
There’s also a knowledge center where community members can share best practices for language documentation and learning.
As we previously reported on this blog, a language is lost every 14 days. It’s an overwhelming and depressing statistic. But there are examples of languages coming back from the brink of extinction. The Google team points to Miami-Illinois, or Myaamia, a U.S. Midwestern language largely considered to be extinct after its last fluent speakers died in the 1960s. Decades later, Daryl Baldwin, a citizen of Oklahoma’s Miami Tribe, used historical manuscripts to begin teaching himself the language. Now, working with Ohio’s Miami University to produce learning resources, his efforts are helping the tribe’s youth pick up the lost language.
The reality for most of the languages currently on life support, however, is that they will not recover. But as Google project managers Clara Rivera Rodriguez and Jason Rissman wrote on the company’s blog, documenting them “is an important step in preserving cultural diversity, honoring the knowledge of our elders and empowering our youth.”
Google has played a large role in the development and launch of the project, using its weight in the tech space to shine a bright light on the plight of these languages. But the long-term goal is to let experts in language preservation lead the effort. In a few months, the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and The Institute for Language Information and Technology at Eastern Michigan University will take over.
For more about the project, check out this introductory video: