Google Begins Effort to Help Preserve Languages Nearing Extinction

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2012-06-21

Google Begins Effort to Help Preserve Languages Nearing Extinction

Google is starting and seeding a project to fight the extinction and loss of more than 3,000 endangered languages around the globe to help preserve the history, cultures and knowledge of mankind.

The effort was announced today in a Google blog post by Clara Rivera Rodriguez and Jason Rissman, two managers of the company's Endangered Languages Project

Google says the new site can be used by people to find and share the most up-to-date and comprehensive information about endangered languages so that they don't disappear because they haven€™t been passed down to younger generations.

"Documenting the 3,000-plus languages that are on the verge of extinction (about half of all languages in the world) is an important step in preserving cultural diversity, honoring the knowledge of our elders and empowering our youth," the blog post stated. "Technology can strengthen these efforts by helping people create high-quality recordings of their elders (often the last speakers of a language), connecting diaspora communities through social media and facilitating language learning."

One example of an endangered language, according to the post, is the Miami-Illinois language, which was once used heavily by Native American communities in what is now the U.S. Midwest. The language is considered today to be extinct by some people, with its latest fluent speakers dying in the 1960s, the post reported. It is being revived slowly, though, through the efforts of one man.

"Decades later, Daryl Baldwin, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, began teaching himself the language from historical manuscripts and now works with the Miami University in Ohio to continue the work of revitalizing the language, publishing stories, audio files and other educational materials," the post stated. "Miami children are once again learning the language and€”even more inspiring€”teaching it to each other. Daryl€™s work is just one example of the efforts being made to preserve and strengthen languages that are on the brink of disappearing. "

In an interview, Rissman said Google unveiled the project as part of its philanthropic efforts to help organize the world's information and to make it more accessible to people everywhere.

"This is more than information€“this is language" with roots in cultural history and customs, he said. "We realize this is an urgent and global problem. We realize that some of our tools might make a difference," including storage space, collaboration, connectivity and YouTube video capabilities. "YouTube is built into the site as a way to preserve content and as a teaching tool."

Google to Eventually Turn Project Over to Language Experts


By recording endangered languages using YouTube, participants can preserve spoken languages for anyone to learn, hear and share, Rissman said. "That can be a great way to share your language with your kids."

The effort was ripe for organizing because thousands of people around the world are already preserving and working on endangered languages but often are not collaborating to the fullest because they are doing their work on their own, Rissman said. "This can be a tool to help bring those people together. We feel that our contribution of technology is really just the start, but this is being driven forward by a coalition of endangered language experts and dedicated communities around the world. That€™s what is needed."

The languages project is being supported by a new coalition, the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, which will provide storage, research, advice and collaborations to assist in the efforts. The Alliance includes a diverse membership of groups, including the Alaska Native Language Archive, Association for Cultural Equity, CBC Radio, Center for American Indian Languages, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, First Peoples€™ Cultural Council, Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia, Indigenous Language Institute, Laboratorio de Linguas Indigenas, Universidade de Brasilia and The Endangered Languages Catalogue team at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Google will eventually turn the project over to others who are "true experts in the field of language preservation," the blog post stated. When that happens, the project will be led by the First Peoples' Cultural Council and The Institute for Language Information and Technology (The LINGUIST List) at Eastern Michigan University.

The issue of disappearing languages has been a global concern for years. In 2007, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus Michael Krauss spoke about the issue at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to a story by

Over the years, humans lose sections of their languages as the populations of groups of people dwindle, Krauss said in his presentation.  He compared it to losing sections of the Earth's biosphere due to pollution and other factors. "I claim that it is catastrophic for the future of mankind," Krauss said at that meeting. "It should be as scary as losing 90 percent of the biological species."

Preventing the loss of languages should be important to us all, he said. "Every time we lose (a language), we lose that much also of our adaptability and our diversity that gives us our strength and our ability to survive."

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