Future

The Digital Technology That’s Killing Languages Can Save Them Too

As the world gets more homogenized and closely connected, geographic-specific languages risk vanishing — with one-third of languages having fewer than 1,000 speakers left. But tech can help.

Learning about the CHamoru culture
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

Languages disappearing is not only a linguistic casualty — it is also the loss of a culture, history and people. Luckily, some of the same technologies blamed for killing languages can be used to preserve and spread those threatened around the world. Examples from Eastern Europe to Peru highlight the potential of digital tools, as well as the continued significance of more rudimental techniques to pass a language down from one generation to the next:

Google recently released the app Woolaroo, which has the goal of revitalizing some of the most threatened languages through artificial intelligence. Take a photo of an object and Woolaroo will tell you what its name is in 10 languages including Louisiana Creole, Nawat (spoken in El Salvador) and Calabrian Greek.

• Woolaroo, which is part of Google Arts & Culture, actually means "shadow" (the closest word to "photo") in the Yugambeh, an Australian Aboriginal language with only about 100 speakers.

• The open source app relies on Google's Cloud image recognition software, Vision API, and provides both the word and an audio pronunciation. For each language, Google also partnered with local entities dedicated to preserving its heritage, including a council of elders on Easter Island for the Polynesian language of Rapa Nui.

• The goal is to continue adding languages to Woolaroo as part of Google Arts & Culture's mission to preserve intangible heritage, or "the ephemeral part of heritage that is at risk of being lost or endangered," as Google division's head of preservation, Chance Coughenour, tells Fast Company.

Photo: Rafael Henrique/SOPA/ZUMA

In April, the popular language learning app Duolingo began offering Yiddish, the Jewish language combining German, Hebrew, Aramaic as well as some English and some Slavic languages. While Yiddish is now largely limited to some Orthodox communities, a new generation of Central and Eastern European Jewish descendants are hoping to revive the language.

• Approximately 11 million people spoke Yiddish before World War II, but the persecution of the Eastern European Jewish population and assimilation of Jews in the United States decimated it. There are now less than one million speakers.

• Many Yiddish words have entered English lexicon (klutz, oy vey and Tchotchke, just to name three). But Duolingo took on the particular challenge of streamlining a language defined by its regional pronunciation and grammar.

• As a promotional campaign, Duolingo partnered with delis around the U.S., offering free bagels to customers who ordered in Yiddish. Yiddish is now the 40th language on the popular app, which has also expanded its offerings to include other less widely used tongues like Hawaiian and Irish.

The media outlet Vice launched an initiative to teach Romani, the language of the Roma people, to the Google algorithm. While Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority, their language is largely oral and many Roma face discrimination in using their native tongue.

• Although it is spoken by millions and has around 17 dialects, Romani is not a national official language in any country, and is rarely taught in schools. The Roma people have long faced persecution and many speak one or more other languages to assimilate.

• Despite the fact that the Romani population numbers between 10-12 million in Europe, their language is not one of the hundreds included in Google Translate.Vice decided to take matters into its own hands, relying on translators to individually translate web pages into Romani. Anyone can submit a website to be translated.

• As Vice writes on the website dedicated to the project, "We discovered that with any mirrored content in a language the machine translation AI understands, it analyzes linguistic patterns and is able to learn a new language, that is eventually indexed and is perfected over time. When Romani will stand next to all other languages, it would serve practical purposes but also be a tool for culture legitimization."

Photo: Jacqueline Brandwayn

Not all language preservation projects are so high tech: Language nesting is proving to be one of the most successful strategies for making sure endangered Indigenous languages are passed down — from New Zealand to Hawaii to Peru.

• Language nesting involves regularly immersing toddlers (who can absorb languages like a sponge) with elders, who teach through play, songs and conversations. Māori elders innovated one of the first programs of this type in the 1980s, describing it as "like a bird looking after its chicks," hence the name language nesting.

• This model was also adopted with great success in Hawaii: The Indigenous language was close to extinct by the 1970s, with only about 2,000 native speakers. Language nesting combined with immersion schools and other initiatives have increased the Hawaiian-speaking population to over 18,600. A similar program is also being implemented on Guam for the Indigenous CHamoru language.

• Despite the challenges of in-person learning posed by the pandemic, some have gotten creative to teach indigenous languages. A teacher in Peru created a bilingual robot that helps students learn Quechua, a language of the region dating back to the Inca empire. While about 13% of Peruvians speak Quechua and it is the most widely spoken Indigenous language in the Americas, usage has dwindled because of the domination of Spanish. The Kipi robot aids with reading comprehension with the goal of supporting children who don't have access to the internet or other digital resources.

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Society

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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