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.
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.