“Talking dictionary” could help dying languages survive
Inuit in Canada's north are leading the way, meeting hears
VANCOUVER — Bud Lane III is believed to be one of the last few people on the planet fluent in the aboriginal language Siletz-Dee-ni.
His language, spoken by a small aboriginal community in Oregon, is teetering on the brink of extinction.
But it has now been immortalized in Lane’s soothing voice in a “talking dictionary” — one of eight unveiled here Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Lane, who spoke to the media briefing Friday by phone from Oregon, said he will never forget the day experts came to his community in the 1980s and labelled the language “morbid.” He said the community has been working ever since to revive the language.
The talking dictionaries — one from Siberia even has a smartphone app — are giving the languages unprecedented reach and, it is hoped, a better chance at survival.
The world is facing a crisis of language extinction, researchers said. Of the nearly 7,000 languages spoken today, they predict half may be gone by the end of the century.
The researchers said that the loss to humanity goes beyond the death of a language.
“Linguistic diversity is one of the most important parts of our human heritage,” said David Harrison, an endangered language expert at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, who co-leads the talking dictionaries project.
He and his colleagues said languages give invaluable insight into history, culture and how the brain functions.
Many communities are embracing technology — the Internet, YouTube, social media, text messaging — as a way to save their languages.
The Inuit in Canada’s north are, in many respects, leading the way. Microsoft programs have been translated into Inuktitut, enabling young and old to flip on their computers and communicate in their language, Leena Evic, executive director of the Pirurvik Centre for Inuit Language in Iqaluit, told the conference.
She said there are also online learning tools and a new smartphone app that now enable people “anywhere on the planet” to access Inuktitut, which is spoken by 30,000 people in the north.
“This is what I like to call the flip side of globalization,” said Harrison, pointing to the positive effects of technology now giving small languages global reach and audiences.
His team, which works with National Geographic, has been to some of Earth’s most remote corners to find the last speakers of vanishing languages.
So far the talking dictionaries have 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages, and more than 24,000 audio recordings of native speakers pronouncing words and sentences. They are often accompanied with photographs to help get across the language’s nuances.
Three years ago, Harrison said the team headed to a community in Papua New Guinea, where about 600 people speak a language known as Matukar Panau.
When they first arrived, the community had no electricity. But community members knew about the digital world and said they wanted their language to be on the Internet. The team helped them build a talking dictionary. A year later the village got electricity.
“The very first time they went on the Internet, they were able to see and hear their own language spoken,” said Harrison.
It sent the very powerful message, he said, that their language “is just as good as any other. It can exist in a high-tech medium.”
He said many aboriginal languages in Western Canada and the U.S. are considered endangered — or, as in the case of Siletz Dee-ni, extremely endangered.
The Siletz reservation in Oregon, formed in the mid-1850s, brought together people from many different bands, who spoke different languages and dialects. To communicate, the people began to speak Chinook jargon. That, and the increased use of English, has seen the number of fluent Siletz Dee-in speakers dwindle to just a few.
Lane said technologies such as the talking dictionary are playing an important role in the revival of the language, which is now being taught to youngsters in the community. It will never take the place of people who can speak the language, he said, “but it can bridge the gap.”