Tech that preserves languages and cultures

Many forces in the modern world are squeezing out the use of traditional tongues. But apps such as Woolaroo may help to save them.

Jonas Walzberg/dpa via AP
A woman holds a poster with a photo of a Holocaust survivor and an inscription in Yiddish during a vigil, in Hamburg, Germany, July 10, 2021.

In Cherokee, a Native American language, no word exists to say “goodbye” (“I’ll see you again” comes closest). But the delight experienced when looking at an indescribably cute kitten or human baby has its own special word: oo-kah-huh-sdee.

The world’s estimated 7,000 languages are precious vessels that hold unique cultural and historical knowledge. But as many as half are in danger of being lost. They continue to disappear from the world at a rapid clip.

“The loss of a language translates into the loss of an entire system of knowledge, communication, and beliefs,” points out Bolanle Arokoyo, a linguist at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria in a piece in Discover Magazine. Her country has some 500 known languages.

The world’s major languages, such as English, Mandarin, Hindi, and Spanish, continue to crowd out local tongues for a variety of reasons. Gaining access to jobs or education usually means learning the dominant language. In some cases governments have suppressed the speaking of local languages in the name of national unity.

Even though the high-tech world of computer coding has digital languages of its own, talk among those who work in that world most likely requires English as a lingua franca. That has become yet another tug away from local languages.

But more and more, that same digital technology is being used to help preserve endangered languages.

The new Google app Woolaroo uses artificial intelligence to renew interest in disappearing languages, from Yugambeh (spoken by some aboriginal people in Australia) to Nawat (western El Salvador), Louisiana Creole, and Tamazight (North Africa and the Sahara). If the user takes a photo of an object, Woolaroo will produce the name of it in one of 10 threatened languages. 

Although users can’t learn to speak the language this way (since Woolaroo only responds with nouns) it can be a fun method of satisfying curiosity and may lead to a deeper investigation.

Duolingo, a language learning app, offers instruction in some 40 languages, including many of the world’s most popular. But it also offers Scottish Gaelic, Navajo, Native Hawaiian, and most recently Yiddish.

Once widely spoken throughout central and Eastern Europe among Jewish populations, Yiddish now has fewer than 1 million speakers.

To boost interest in disappearing languages, activists around the world are using technology as well as more conventional techniques, including cultural events, contests, and language retreats.

One of the most successful has been “language nesting,” in which elders teach a language to children through songs, stories, and conversations. The technique has helped save Maori, spoken among Polynesians in New Zealand and Australia, and Native Hawaiian from being lost. Hawaiian had shrunk to about 2,000 speakers but today has more than 18,000 who can speak it.

As digital technology helps to bring the world closer together, it needn’t act only as a homogenizing force. It can also be used to preserve what makes human societies around the globe unique.

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