Protecting Endangered Languages Through Technology and Digital Tools

Can digital apps be the salvation of the world’s endangered languages?
Kashyap Vyas
Blue globe with the territories of the countries Delfinkina/iStock

According to statistics shared by UNESCO, at least 43% of the total languages that are estimated as being spoken across the world are at the brink of extinction. Moreover, many languages around the world have less than 1000 speakers and are extremely vulnerable in the present times.

With these bleak numbers rising by the day, linguists and researchers believe that by the end of the century, at least half of the world’s languages (if not more) will have died. This is a troublesome thought, given that cultural identity and languages go hand in hand.


That said, language activists and polyglots who speak these critically endangered languages are fighting back tooth and nail. Scientists believe that social media apps such as Facebook and YouTube might be our only hope today to preserve some of these quickly disappearing native languages in the online world.

In the present day, we are bombarded with language mobile applications like Duolingo. Countless other apps are dedicated to teaching individuals these indigenous languages that are quickly getting lost amidst the widely spoken ones such as English, Mandarin, and Spanish.

In addition to that, some apps even allow people to record their native language, translate it, and then share it with language preservationists and linguists.

Can Humans Preserve Endangered Languages Using Technology?

More often than not, globalization is cursed for several reasons, such as destroying our contentment or giving us a “virtual escape” from the trials and tribulations of life. However, in this case, digitalization might be the true salvation of preserving endangered languages.

For example, North American tribes make use of social media to re-engage their kids. Moreover, Tuvan, an indigenous Turkic language of Southern Siberia even featured in a project of National Geographic where a digital talking dictionary, was created to preserve the dying language.

These are just two examples from several where endangered language communities are quickly embracing digital technology to help them survive and ensure that their voices are heard loud and clear throughout the world. Therefore, this can easily be called a very positive outcome of globalization.

Can Social Media Keep Languages Alive?

K David Harrison, a National Geographic Fellow and an associate linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, believes that in the present times, small languages are heavily relying on social media tools such as text messaging, YouTube and much more to expand their presence and voice in the online world.

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It is also interesting that Harrison is an avid traveler who travels far and wide in search of individuals who are the last few speakers of endangered languages. He has even worked with National Geographic to produce eight talking dictionaries that consist of over eight endangered languages and 32,000-word entries.

Native speakers have created these recordings in their native tongues and with their level of fluency to keep it accurate and authentic.

In the same vein, Professor Margaret Noori, the speaker of Anishinaabemowin and a Native American studies expert at the University of Michigan, says that the indigenous nations of the US and Canada use Facebook heavily. Therefore, the technology essentially helps them in preserving their language and stay connected with it.

Duolingo is a popular language app startup that has taken it upon itself to revive some of the most vulnerable languages in the present times. On the occasion of Indigenous People’s Day last year, the company launched courses in Hawaiian and Navajo, two languages that are on the cusp of extinction with doubts about regarding their long-term survival.

Duolingo has been an avid supporter of the cause and has worked significantly towards preserving the profound cultural heritage of lost languages by promoting them on its platform.

That said, Duolingo is not alone in this endeavor. Some other startups and companies are committed to helping these native languages live on long after their last few speakers are gone.

For instance, Oxford University Press also launched Oxford Global Languages a few years ago. It is an initiative that boosts “digitally underrepresented” languages.

This means that they are focused on promoting languages that might have close to a million speakers worldwide, yet have little to no online presence. Therefore, they have been creating digital dictionaries as a fundamental building block to help preserve them from the same fate.

There have been countless other projects like these with the same aim. Another such endeavor is the Rosetta Project that is supported by the American National Science Foundation, the Stanford University Libraries, the Long Now Foundation, and the National Science Digital Library.

This project aims to create a handheld digital library that will carry more than 1500 human languages. It will be appropriately sized to fit nicely into the palm of our hands, and this disk will come with around 13,000 pages of information.

It will also have a high life expectancy of anywhere between 2000 and 10000 years.

Initiatives like these have as their primary objective to ensure the preservation of indigenous languages long after their speakers have died. This language renaissance is widespread today, and there is a definite linguistic revival happening as we speak.

Food for thought

Countless languages are dying every day, and they will continue to perish as the remaining speakers die. Of course, we cannot merely rely on apps to preserve these dying languages or to deal with the worldwide language loss.

However, it is a step in the right direction as it will help protect marginalized languages at least in the digital world where people can access these languages any time they want. These digital tools also offer endangered languages an opportunity to bounce back and survive where many were simply doomed up until a few years ago.

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