Endangered languages, technology and social media (again)

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.


  1. Claire says:

    Peter, I think the difference isn’t the ‘story out of North America’, it’s the fact that David has National Geographic’s press resources behind him, and there is an art to knowing exactly how to pitch a story so that it will be taken up by the media.

  2. Peter Austin says:

    Well I guess I suspected as much — “knowing exactly how to pitch a story” can sometimes give us things like the SMH “zoo” also, eh? A little too much of the intrepid technological salvation vibe in the various stories I have read, but then again, I don’t know how they were originally pitched and how much of that vibe is down to the journalists who write them looking for a catchy hook to hang them on. My experience is that dealing with journalists can be tricky at the best of times.

  3. Felicity Meakins says:

    The ‘Sunday Mail’ in Brisbane also used the word ‘zoo’, so I think Australian media were just copying and pasting from the National Geographic press release (lazy journalism, but no unusual of course). ‘Zoo’ is an incredibly unfortunate metaphor (where to begin!). I would have thought the National Geographic would be a bit more careful than this, especially given all of the negative publicity around the Human Genomic Project.

  4. Claire says:

    Felicity, all those newspapers are Fairfax papers, aren’t they? Probably just copying from each other. The Age and SMH are close to identical sometimes…

  5. Andrew Garrett says:

    For what it’s worth, the National Geographic press release:


    does not use the word “zoo”, so I imagine it must have been an innovation of our journalistic friends in Oz.

  6. Felicity Meakins says:

    Claire – the Sunday Mail is the Sunday version of the Courier Mail (not to be mistaken for the fab Koori Mail!). Both are Murdoch press. Given that the zoo metaphor was also used in the UK, I think this is a case of word-for-word copying of a media release rather than shared content between papers. Hard to tell though. As you say, there is lots of copying between papers owned by either Fairfax or Murdoch.

  7. Felicity Meakins says:

    Ah Andrew’s comments just came up! I retract my grumble! Glad to hear that the National Geographic didn’t use ‘zoo’. It has done well as a meme, in which case.

  8. Felicity Meakins says:

    ‘Tis rather depressing to google “A “zoo” for endangered languages has been set up on the internet in a bid to save thousands of ancient tongues from extinction”. Seems to have been used by papers worldwide!

  9. Aidan Wilson says:

    It looks like all the reports originally come from an outlet called Press Association, or such is the byline given by many of the reports found by searching for the first paragraph as Felicity suggested. So either Press Association came up with the term, or they wrote the article from a press release that’s different from the one that National Geographic has published. Probably the former to be honest.

  10. Peter Austin says:

    Yes, Aidan, I found that out too by using Google on the “cyber zoo” phrase (I did it the day before Felicity commented and you can see the list of some of the papers I found that repeated the same story in my next blog post which I wrote on the 20th February — one of the oddities of posting stuff in the evening here in the UK is that it appears with the next day’s date on ELAC in Australia). The Press Assocation is a UK and Ireland based news service that, according to Wikipedia, “suppl[ies] multimedia news content to almost all national and regional newspapers, television and radio news, as well as many websites with text, pictures, video and data content globally”. So it looks like the Australian papers just copied stuff off the Brits, again.

  11. Peter Austin says:

    The report in The Economist takes a different tack on this story and presents an interesting point:

    “What these projects have in common, and what is most likely to make them succeed, though, is not just the technology. It is that in each place there is an enthusiastic local who is wise enough to care about saving his heritage and young enough to see that this requires embracing modernity.”

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