Hilary Boden investigates the steps being taken to rescue endangered languages

As an English student, I’m used to lecturers endlessly orating about how modern technologies like texting and social networks are undermining the English language: eroding grammar, spelling and vocabulary tirelessly. And digital technology such as the Internet appears all the more threatening because it seems to spread dominant and widely-spoken tongues to the detriment of more modest, local ones. Factors such as cultural change, ethnic shame and government repression also impact greatly on these vulnerable languages. And so it is perhaps not surprising that the BBC has reported that by the end of the century it is estimated that approximately half of the world’s 7,000 languages will have disappeared from use.

However, Dr David Harrison from Swarthmore College in Philadelphia is turning the notion of this ‘internet threat’ on its head – suggesting that technology can be a means to preserve endangered languages. By establishing a presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, obscure languages are able to reach greater audiences. Harrison explains the potential impact of such internet technology: “You can have a language spoken by only 50 or 500 people, only in one location, and now through digital technology that language can achieve a global voice. […] It’s what I like to call the flipside of globalisation. We hear a lot about how globalisation exerts negative pressures on small cultures to assimilate.”

The National Geographic Society has worked alongside Dr Harrison on a project which has been called ‘Enduring Voices’, producing eight audio dictionaries for languages that are in danger of becoming extinct. Usually, when obscure tongues in oral cultures cease to be spoken, they fade away into extinction, lost forever in unwritten history.  However, once recorded in these new ‘talking dictionaries’ they will not be forgotten. Currently, more than 32,000 written words and 24,000 audio recordings are featured in these digital dictionaries.

Dr Harrison, along with his colleague Dr Gregory Anderson, visited language ‘hot spots’ in remote corners of the world in order to document language and record native speakers. The project was immensely successful, for example it provided the first documentation of many rare languages such as Koro, which is spoken by just a few hundred people in north-eastern India. Furthermore, the dictionaries feature Matukar Panau, an Oceanic language from Papua New Guinea which has only 600 surviving speakers, and until three years ago, before ‘Enduring Voices’, had never been written or recorded. Despite not having access to or any experience of the internet, the community of Matukar Panua requested that their language be placed on the Web. When computers arrived in their village last year, they were finally able to see and hear their language, and recognise the huge audience their dictionary can now reach. Further endangered languages including Chamacoco, from Paraguay’s remote northern desert, Remo, Sora, and Ho, from India, and Tuvan, from Siberia and Mongolia can be added to the list of languages now preserved by these ‘talking dictionaries’.

All of these projects not only require technology for their success, but also for the native speakers to be motivated towards protecting their heritage whilst embracing modernity. At times this can prove challenging, especially when tribal elders endeavour to keep the modern world out, in an effort to safeguard their culture. Dr Harrison observes that not all languages can endure, but new digital tools offer ways in which some languages can survive for longer.


Hilary Boden


Image by Horia Varlan