Google is on a quest to save the world’s endangered languages
Every two weeks, a language disappears.
By MANUEL RUEDA
With a new platform launched at the end of June, Google now makes it easier to identify the world’s most endangered languages and share information about them.
The California-based company is hoping that academic institutions, and indigenous tribes throughout the world, will upload information on tongues like Kulina, Kiliwa and Parajuano (spoken by 20 people in Venezuela) onto endangeredlanguages.com.
On Tuesday I attended an event at Mexico City’s wonderful National Anthropology Museum, where Google executives presented their new platform to the Mexican press.
Google’s Latin America Marketing boss, Miguel Alba (second from left) presented a new platform for sharing information on endangered languages. (Photo: Manuel Rueda)
“Today there are more than 7,000 languages in the world, but experts estimate that only half of them will make it to the next century,” said Miguel Alba, Google’s Marketing director for Latin America.
“We want to put this platform at the service of [language] communities, so that they can upload documents, photos, and videos that speak of their community, their tradition and their history.”
Languages disappear for a plethora of reasons. During the European conquest of the Americas for example, communities that spoke certain languages were physically exterminated through violence and disease. One problem nowadays is that parents who speak endangered languages do not teach them to their children, because they don’t feel that there are any benefits to it.
In Mexico, officials estimate that there are 364 dialects, which belong to 68 different languages. Sixty-four of these dialects are considered to be “endangered” as they are spoken by less than 100 people.
“One of the problems we have [in Mexico] has to do with attitudes,” said Francisco Barrega, a linguist for Mexico’s National Anthropology Institute who also spoke at Tuesday’s event.
“In great measure, indigenous tongues are in danger because those who speak them are abandoning them as they seek better economic opportunities,” Barrega said.
Barrega explained that indigenous groups are often subject to discrimination from the majority culture because they are different. Community members, eager to be accepted into mainstream society, may therefore feel that traditions, such as language, are not worth keeping up.
Discrimination and the dominance of Spanish in mass media also discourages youth from learning their parents’ tongues, particularly if families move away from rural areas into more urban parts of the country.
Barrega explained however, that one way to save endangered tongues, is by “positioning,” them in mass media and in other spaces such as schools.
“To the extent that [endangered] language speakers see their tongues in the media, they will appreciate their own tongues, and they will create new contexts in which to preserve them,” the linguist argued.
With its fancy browser, Google’s new language platform will probably be inaccessible to many indigenous groups and speakers of endangered languages, who tend to live in remote areas with little web access.
But this web tool will enable academics to store and share information about thousands of tongues. And eventually, the most well connected speakers of endangered languages might begin to post and share their heritage on the site, which allows anyone to create a user account and upload content through tools like YouTube, Picassa, and Google Docs.
Google says it doesn’t have any plans to monetize the endangered languages platform. According to its Latin America marketing director, Miguel Alba, this is purely a nonprofit operation.
“We dedicate ourselves to organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible,” Alba said. “A language is the most basic form of capturing and processing information.”