Talking dictionaries give endangered languages a global audience

By Signe Brewster

Eight endangered languages are now immortalized in online talking dictionaries, researchers announced Feb. 17 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver.

The dictionaries, part of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project, include more than 24,000 recordings of words and phrases pronounced by native speakers. They represent a growing trend to preserve some of the world’s disappearing languages with digital media.

“Language extinction is not inevitable,” National Geographic fellow David Harrison said. “Savvy communities do not see technology as a threat, but rather as a means to expand their presence to have a global audience and to connect far-flung speakers.”

Most of the world’s 6,000 to 7,000 languages are oral, meaning they are rarely or never written. Up to 50 percent are close to extinction, according to the National Science Foundation. Some have dwindled to fewer than 1,000 users, such as Papau New Guinea’s Matukar Panau, which has less than 600 speakers. Others are struggling to return from the brink; Siletz Dee-ni, a language of the Siletz Native Americans in Oregon, has only one known fluent speaker.

The dictionaries, plus other media like YouTube videos, phone applications, Facebook pages and software suites, allow formerly off-the-grid communities to establish an online presence and become advocates for their language’s preservation. Resources like the dictionaries can be used in classrooms for free, opening up learning opportunities to local children and a broader global audience.

Some communities benefitting from digital media had never used the internet, let alone taken the time to come up with a word for it. Others, such as the speakers of Matukar Panau, immediately saw technology as a means to keep their language alive, Harrison said.

Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, said the digital tools are a positive outcome of globalization, but they present the need for balance between what one native speaker deemed “cultural identity” and the modern world. While younger speakers might consider text messaging a “cool” way to use their linguistic skills, older generations sometimes take issue with casual use of their language.

Panelist Margaret Noori, a researcher at the University of Michigan, grew up as a part of the Ojibwe tribe of the northern Midwest. She said there is a “vast divide” between those in favor of adapting to modern technology and others wanting to maintain traditional means of transferring knowledge.

“I knew elders that told me, ‘You shouldn’t write,’” said Noori, who is also a poet. “That’s a hard thing to overcome because I also now have kids who tell me, ‘I’m going to text you in the language.’ We have to look at how we can use new things in ways that don’t change us.”

Noori closed with a song in her tribe’s language: Anishinaabemowin. High and low notes oscillated over a steady drumbeat before she stopped to explain the grammatical structure of the song.

She said teaching the true structure is eased with singing.

“You get the full resonance of the language, all the things that it can mean,” Noori said.

Signe Brewster is a senior studying life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the editor-in-chief of the independent daily student newspaper The Badger Herald. Reach her at or on Twitter at @signejb.

February 20, 2012

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