Efforts to save endangered languages

December 14, 2009 by Lin Edwards, Phys.org weblog

Efforts to save endangered languages
Recitation of oral texts by the late Latte Apa, senior ritual practitioner of the Thangmi community, India. Image credit: World Oral Literature Project
(PhysOrg.com) -- There are an estimated 6,500 languages in the world, with around fifty percent of them endangered and likely to cease to exist by 2100, but efforts are now being made to save them from extinction.

Languages are dying out around the globe through globalisation, social change, a shift in populations from rural areas to cities, and often well-intentioned education in national languages and national cultures rather than local indigenous languages and traditions. Of the 6,500 languages estimated by UNESCO to be still in use, only 11 are spoken by half the world's population, and 95 percent of the languages are spoken by five percent of the global population.

A new project, the World Oral Literature Project, led by Dr Mark Turin of the University of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, aims to preserve the being lost as elders die and young people turn to the national languages taught in schools and used by the media. The project is recording and documenting languages that face the prospect of dying out, with the goal of preserving their poems, chants, stories, and anything else that can be recorded.

Turin receives boxes of DVDs from small indigenous communities around the world, who hope the project will preserve their language and literature for future generations. The project uses a range of media including voice recorders, video cameras and other multimedia technologies, and is building a digital archive that will be accessible on demand both by academics and by people of the communities themselves.

An oral tradition is central for many of the groups, rather than a written tradition, and many communities have never had their songs and stories recorded by anyone. Groups collaborating with anthropologists to have their languages recorded for the first time are widespread, and include communities such as the Amurdag community in Northern Australia, the Maka in Paraguay, Chulym in Siberia, and the Kallawaya community in Bolivia.

The idea for the project began when Turin documented the language of the Thangmi community in Nepal for his PhD in endangered languages at Leiden University in The Netherlands. The choice of language was random, with Turin selecting the community from a map on his supervisor's study wall. The language was virtually unknown outside the tiny community, and was completely undocumented.

Turin's project eventually created a trilingual word list in Thangmi, Nepali, and English, that is still sold in the community and which is being used to teach children about their own language and heritage. Turin said he was amazed so few linguists are working on endangered languages, and people "do PhDs on the apostrophe in French," but no one knows precisely how many undocumented languages there are. When a ceases to exist, so does its cultural world view, and much of the heritage of the community is lost.

The World Oral Literature Project has secured funding of £30,000 to aid communities in the recordings. Its first international workshop is to be held in Cambridge this week. Similar projects are being carried out by National Geographic and their Enduring Voices project, the Arcadia fund, and the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project. It is also worth noting that in Europe there are many languages in need of efforts to preserve them, such as Cornish in England, Gaelic in Scotland, and Breton in France.

More information: World Oral Literature Project
The World Oral Literature Project is currently seeking sustainable long-term funding to ensure that it can make a permanent contribution to the
urgent documentation of endangered traditions.

© 2009 PhysOrg.com

Explore further: Investigating the world of languages

Related Stories

Investigating the world of languages

September 27, 2006

As this week marks European Day of Languages some of us may harbour thoughts about brushing up our French or perhaps even taking on German, but for a group of Surrey academics every day is a languages day. The Surrey Morphology ...

Endangered languages threaten to disappear, researcher says

January 29, 2007

Endangered animal and plant species regularly make the news, but another type of endangered species is often overlooked: human languages. A University of Missouri-Columbia researcher has dedicated much of her career to studying ...

Multilingualism brings communities closer together

February 10, 2009

Learning their community language outside the home enhances minority ethnic children's development, according to research led from the University of Birmingham. The research, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research ...

Probing Question: What is lost when a language dies?

February 15, 2008

Oy vey! Although English dictionaries list "Oh dear!" as a rough equivalent of this Yiddish expression, Yiddishists will tell you how short that falls in conveying the phrase's varied, flexible and nuanced meanings, ranging ...

Deaf children use hands to invent own way of communicating

February 15, 2009

Deaf children are able to develop a language-like gesture system by making up hand signs and using homemade systems to increase their communication as they grow, just as children with conventional spoken language, research ...

Recommended for you

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...

Apple pivot led by star-packed video service

March 25, 2019

With Hollywood stars galore, Apple unveiled its streaming video plans Monday along with news and game subscription offerings as part of an effort to shift its focus to digital content and services to break free of its reliance ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Dec 14, 2009
I just don't see the purpose of saving "endangered" languages. Do we constantly need to be saving everything that threatens to die out? Society just can't let ANYTHING go anymore. If the language is dying out it's because NOBODY SPEAKS IT ANYMORE!!! WHY SAVE IT?! Just my 2 cents...
not rated yet Dec 14, 2009
I have no problem with recording all these languages before they vanish. Its part of our history. Just archive it somewhere on the internet and if anyone wants to learn about the languages let them access all the information for free.
not rated yet Dec 14, 2009
Anyone care to thank the Catholic Church for keeping Latin alive?
There are no native speakers of Latin anymore.
Instead I'd like to thank the Greeks for keeping their language alive.

The modern Greek language is no more related to classical Greek than Italian is to Latin. The only similarity is the name.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2009
If you don't want you don't need to.

So I can somehow aovid my taxes and not fund this project?
5 / 5 (2) Dec 20, 2009
Latin, although relatively immobile, has had a continuous chain of fluent speakers since the fall of the Roman Empire. Most of the cultural production of Western civilisation, until around 1750 - was in Latin, not in the vernaculars - and secular universities conducted their business in Latin - producing vast amounts of poetry, theatre and novels. Almost all scientific and philosophical writing was in Latin. Spoken Latin is now endangered, with only a few fluent speakers left. A revival project for oral Latin has been set up,which is proving quite successful - it has had over 5 million audio files downloaded over the past 2 years, from students across the globe: http://latinum.mypodcast.com
5 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2010
Depending on your view, language is either reflective of, or responsible for, the form and content of the very structure of our thoughts. Diversity of language can aid in identifying different perspectives on known phenomena, thus allowing us to try alternate means of conceiving of and addressing the problems that face us today. Depending on the relationship between a given language and a culture, we can understand the biological, environmental, social, and political forces that shape and maintain a culture's values and beliefs.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.