Nothing connects you to a culture quite like language. Each dialect unlocks information about a group’s worldview, values, philosophy, and culture. However, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESEO), at least 43% of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages are considered endangered. The situation isn’t hopeless though. Linguists and activists are saving endangered languages with help from technology.

Facebook – Connecting Friends and Saving Endangered Languages

A team of Corsican speakers, led by Vannina Bernard-Leoni, worked together to translate the most common English words found on Facebook, including “friend,” “invite,” and “like.” This was just the beginning of a two-year effort by 2,000 participants to translate the words and phrases found on Facebook into Corsican, a romance language that’s similar to Italian.

Speakers of the language hoped that their translations would convince the world’s largest social network to offer Corsican as a language option for users – and their plan worked. At the end of September, Facebook announced that it would offer Corsican as well as Maltese and Fula as language options.

It might not seem like a big deal to add a new language to Facebook’s now 101 language options. However, the addition of Corsican is noteworthy because the language has been classified by UNESCO as “definitely endangered.” This means that “children no longer learn Corsican as mother tongue in the home.”

Corsican is the ninth endangered language to be translated for Facebook. Some other notable dialects include Basque, Tamazight, and Welsh. Additionally, nine more endangered languages, including Cherokee and Yiddish, are being translated as we speak. Speakers of these dialects hope offering these endangered languages on Facebook will halt their extinction and cement their place in the 21st century.

Much of the translation work is performed by a community of translators through the Translate Facebook App. The goal is to “make Facebook available to everyone everywhere, in all languages.” Facebook also provides a team of engineers to work with these language communities and write code for each dialect.

Facebook supports translation efforts for humanitarian reasons rather than monetary ones. According to Iris Orriss, Director of Internationalization and Localization, “The mission for Facebook is to enable people to share and make the world more open and connected. Language is such a vital part of connectivity.” Additionally, she believes that Facebook can help save endangered languages by making them relevant and fun for the next generation.

Yesterday’s Knowledge Meets Today’s Technology – Mobile Apps and Software

Languages become endangered for many reasons. In the past, dialects often disappeared due to military or cultural oppression. Today, increased migration and urbanization play a large role in pressuring groups to adopt a more dominant language.

While the reasons may vary, the result is the same – the devastating loss of linguistic diversity. Luckily, individuals around the world are working with speakers of endangered languages to develop mobile apps and software to help others learn these dialects.

Joshua Hinson, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is working to save his people’s language, which was fluently spoken by less than 100 people in 2013. Hinson moved to Oklahoma in 2004 to apprentice with one of these speakers. Then, in 2007, tribal leaders appointed him to direct the Chickasaw Language Revitalization Project.

One part of the program involved pairing fluent speakers of Chickasaw with novice speakers, but Hinson knew that he needed to reach a larger audience to save his language from extinction. His solution was to incorporate technology into the learning process.

With permission from tribal elders, Hinson built an online presence for the Chickasaw Nation and he oversaw the creation of an online television network. As the movement picked up momentum on social media, Hinson realized that he needed to find a way to teach more people. After all, there were more people who wanted to learn Chickasaw than there were fluent speakers. That’s when he decided to create a mobile app.

With help from third-party developers, Hinson created Chickasaw Language Basic to teach language learners the alphabet, important words and phrases, and basic grammar rules. To help with pronunciation, the app also included recordings of native speakers.

Since the app’s launch in 2009, people of all ages have started showing more interest in learning Chickasaw. Hinson even reports that some families have started labeling household items with the Chickasaw names to increase comprehension and usage in daily life.

The latest language learning tool on the horizon is a customizable program from Rosetta Stone, which will include 80 lessons that will be created over the next two years. At this point, the program will be available only to Chickasaw citizens.

The Chickasaw Nation isn’t the only group that’s using technology to save endangered languages. For example, linguists from the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages work with speakers of indigenous languages around the world to preserve dialects with video and audio. In Papua New Guinea, the non-profit group is developing talking dictionaries as a way to pass language and ancient knowledge to the next generation.

Why Should We Care About Endangered Languages?

When a language goes extinct, we lose more than just words. We lose centuries of cultural knowledge, including ecological, historical, and spiritual information that can benefit both speakers and non-speakers of the language. Additionally, language is an enormous part of a culture’s identity and heritage. The extinction of a dialect is often the extinction of a culture.

In the past, people could do nothing more than watch as languages disappeared. With help from technology, we now have the power to capture and learn languages, saving them from becoming a thing of the past.

By Shannon Flynn