The Endangered Language Edition

On technology, globalization, and the future of the spoken word

Ian Greenleigh (ISG) is an Austin-based writer who leads growth and brand at Postlight, a digital strategy, design, and engineering agency. 

Ian here. In a small California town in the early 2000s, I met a man from Guatemala who spoke only a rare Mayan language. To live so close to thousands of other Guatemalans, so far from home, and yet unable to speak with most of them? I can't imagine.

You’re reading this in English, one of nine languages spoken by more than half of the people on earth. We speak roughly 7,000 languages today, and 50% of them are at risk of falling silent by the year 2100. One-third of languages have fewer than one thousand speakers each. Approximately every two weeks, a language’s last speaker passes away. When languages die, they’re usually killed by globalization, urbanization, disease, colonialism, the digital divide, and other forces. People who speak endangered languages are almost always marginalized in other ways, too.

“When language is endangered, human knowledge is endangered,” the linguist Dr. Lyle Campbell told me. When linguists study language, they discover more about the ways we think and perceive the world. Native Dutch and Farsi speakers, for example, think about and describe the same musical pitches differently. But the idea “that each specific language has its own influence on the thought and action of its speakers” is a matter of debate. A dying language may contain vital knowledge of the natural world. The Seri people in the Gulf of California harvest and consume eelgrass from the sea. Fewer than 1,000 people speak Seri, but the language has revealed key information about this previously little-known source of nutrition which requires no fresh water, pesticides, artificial fertilizer, or farming land to cultivate. When groups lose their mother tongues, they lose their heritage and something that makes them distinct. 

Why is this interesting?

A language isn’t automatically considered endangered when the number of speakers dips below a certain level—that is one of nine factors UNESCO uses to determine that status, including “availability of materials for language education and literacy” and “intergenerational language transmission.” This is why experts list Yiddish (3,000,000 speakers) as “definitely endangered” but Navajo (120,000 speakers) as the less dire “vulnerable."

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger classifies 2,572 languages by degree of endangerment.

My fascination with endangered languages began a decade ago when I came across The site works by surfacing tweets containing words it matches to a database of indigenous words. Computer Science professor Kevin Scannell designed it to help speakers of 185 indigenous languages find each other. Sort by number of users, and at the top you’ll find 17,052 people tweeting in Basque. At the bottom, you’ll find solitary Twitter users posting in Bahasa Sinama, the language of the widely-dispersed Sama-Bajau communities in Southeast Asia. 

Linguists, technologists, and indigenous communities are working together on preservation, documentation, and revival. And while in the aggregate, the future for endangered languages looks bleak—by one estimate, only 5% of the world’s languages will cross the digital divide—there are many innovative technological efforts that focus on different dimensions of the issue.

Amongst the most well-known attempts at solving the problem of lost languages comes from language training apps. More than 1 million people take Duolingo’s Irish lessons every week, for instance, making it the app’s most popular language in Ireland. This might help to counteract the language’s endangered status, which comes from a lack of “intergenerational transmission.” Duolingo crowdsources much of its endangered language curriculum—which includes Navajo, Hawaiian, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Yiddish—from volunteers like Meena Viswanath, a civil engineer who grew up speaking Yiddish in New Jersey. The question of dialect complicates such efforts: should Duolingo teach Northern or Central Yiddish?

I take for granted that I can text and tweet in English on my phone because its operating system ships with a Latin-alphabet keyboard. But those who wish to do the same in many endangered languages need to use third-party keyboards and apps, like FirstVoices, which provides more than 100 custom keyboards for use across mobile apps. Motorola phones running Android 11 now support Kaingang and Nheengatu, two endangered languages spoken in South America in communities that “heavily rely on mobile phones for all their internet access needs.”

In the end, the story of endangered languages is a good way to tell the general story of technological change. On the one hand, you have large swaths of knowledge and culture that risk being lost because they don’t fit easily into the structure of our modern technological world. But on the other hand, those same technologies offer many of these languages hope of survival as online communities, and transmission techniques emerge. While more languages will surely be lost in the future, I find hope in that fact that more people care about preserving endangered languages than ever before, and, because of fields like AI, more people are working at the intersection of language and technology who can pitch in to help. (ISG)

Listen of the Day:

The fascinating story of pirate radio, featuring clips from Brooklyn-based pirate radio stations.  (ISG)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ian (ISG)

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