There has been a little flurry of media stories about endangered languages in the last couple of days with titles like “Digital tools ‘to save languages'” on the BBC News website and “Cyber zoo to preserve endangered languages” in the Sydney Morning Herald (readers who are on Facebook can find a full listing on David Harrison’s home page). The stories were all triggered by publicity from a session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Toronto called “Endangered and Minority Languages Crossing the Digital Divide” co-organized by David Harrison and Claire Bowern (see Mark Liberman’s Language Log post for a report). The abstract for the session says:
“Speakers of endangered languages are leveraging new technologies to sustain and revitalize their mother tongues. The panel explores new uses of new digital tools and the practices and ideologies that underlie these innovations. What new possibilities are gained through social networking, video streaming, twitter, software interfaces, smartphones, machine translation, and digital talking dictionaries?”
It’s good that the mainstream media is focussing attention on endangered languages again, though as usual they find themselves falling back on the old tropes of “technology saves dying tongues” (surely the SMH has to win the booby prize with its use of the word “zoo” in this context!). I suppose I would be told it’s sour grapes if I were to point out that for over three and a half years already some of us have been writing about and making talking dictionaries on mobile phones (see James McElvenny’s 2008 blog post and the Project for Free ELectronic Dictionaries), and observing and participating in the use by minority language speakers of social media like Facebook and Twitter, but it’s interesting that it takes a news story out of
North America National Geographic to get some publicity for these topics.
Oh well, at least it’s in the news for a day or two.