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Researchers Develop Digital Tools to Save Endangered Languages

Vancouver, British Columbia — Technology is sometimes portrayed as an evil force of globalization, flattening local cultures as it sweeps around the world. But now some researchers are trying to reverse that story, using digital tools to save languages that exist only in tiny cultural pockets.

About half of the world’s 7,000 languages are considered endangered, with just elderly speakers left. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Vancouver, researchers described using online dictionaries, social media, and mobile-phone applications to document and revitalize some of those languages.

The session’s tone was sorrowful at times, with some researchers describing having to watch languages, and the culture stored in them, fade out. Margaret Noori, a lecturer in Native American studies at the University of Michigan, said that she could no longer show a slide estimating that there are 8,000 to 10,000 speakers of Anishinaabemowin, a language used in about 200 communities around the Great Lakes.

After sending e-mails around to colleagues in those communities to update that estimate for the AAAS meeting, she thinks the number of speakers is substantially less. “We really don’t have a perfect count,” she said, “but we’re thinking it’s about 5,000 people.”

Ms. Noori tries to show the importance of the potential loss of the language by describing its richness. A counterpart for the English word “nomadic,” she says, doesn’t exist, but a similar word has a meaning more akin to “leaving a presence in multiple places.”

She and her colleagues are trying to revitalize the language using a variety of digital tools based at a Website, “Noongwa e-Anishinaabemjig: People Who Speak Anishinaabemowin Today.” The researchers use Web analytics to learn how to entice the site’s users to go to pages where they will learn and use Anishinaabemowin words.

The site uses Facebook to connect the language’s speakers and Ms. Noori and colleagues have also made flash cards that can be used to play word games on mobile phones. She writes poetry herself in the language and encourages others to create stories, songs, and videos, since new literature is a hallmark of a living language.

K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, is also developing online language-support tools. Mr. Harrison is on sabbatical this year working with the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project. The project has developed “talking dictionaries” for eight endangered languages, including Matukar Panau, a language spoken by only about 600 people in Papua New Guinea, and Siletz Dee-ni, spoken by fewer than a thousand people in Oregon. The National Geographic dictionaries contain 32,000 words, 24,000 audio recordings, and photographs of objects mentioned in the languages.

In Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada, 32,000 people, mostly Inuit, are spread across an area the size of Western Europe. The territory’s government is trying to strengthen the use of Inuktitut, an Inuit language largely spoken above the tree line, and the Internet is a logical way to communicate with the territory’s far flung population. The Web site for an institute in the region that supports Inuit language and culture, the Piruvik Centre, is the hub of much of the territory’s language-teaching efforts.

Microsoft has been working with the institute to develop interfaces for Microsoft Office that are completely in Inuktitut. However banal an interface for software might sound, says Gavin Nesbitt, operations director at the Piruvik Centre, “It is a very profound moment for people when they see it.” (Inuktitut applications for Apple products are also on the way.)

Developing the software interfaces means finding or creating Inuktitut names for such common functions as file, cancel, close, exit and even for the World Wide Web itself. For the latter English term the interface’s developers chose “ikiaqqivik,” meaning roughly the ability to project the senses so someone can perceive what is happening elsewhere.

Mr. Nesbitt thinks that he recognized a small sign of success in supporting Inuktitut when a young man learning the language told him “I think that I text more in the language than I speak in it.”

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