posted by Thom Holwerda on Thu 21st Jun 2012 11:17 UTC
IconWhile I sometimes see Dutch as an endangered language, reality is that with nearly 30 million speakers worldwide, we're actually doing pretty well. Sadly, this can't be said for the 3000 truly endangered languages of the world - nearly half of the world's total number of languages is on the verge of extinction, and with it, large amounts of human culture are in danger of disappearing forever. In collaboration with several universities and language institutions, Google has launched the Endangered Languages Project to document these languages - textually, visually, and auditorially.

I have a specific interest in languages and linguistic subject matter; both my BA and MA are language-related, and I earn my money by being a translator. I always like to think I'm pretty good at what I do, and especially after a few weeks of lots of intensive work and 'solving' difficult texts, I kind of feel like a bad-ass. At those points in time, I often load up my favourite Wikipedia page, just to bring me back to earth. A dose of Icelandic grammar is incredibly humbling.

Imagine just how humbling it is to realise that half of the world's languages - around 3000 of them - are in danger of disappearing forever. Often, we know relatively little of these languages as the elders that still speak them pass away and leave no records behind, making it hard to pass on the knowledge and culture encoded in them onto younger generations.

This is something we should not allow to happen, and of course, technology can play an important role here. In that light, Google has partnered with several universities and language institutions to launch the Endangered Languages Project. The goal of this project is to allow people the world over to document these languages - textually, visually, and auditorially. For instance, researchers and individuals can upload videos of their grandparents speaking these endangered languages, or manuscripts of languages we barely know how to decode. Research can also be uploaded, of course. All this material will be accessible to everyone.

As cynical as the industry's current state of mind has made me - and many of you - it's still amazing to see how technology can play a role in matters like this. Language is so much more than a mere means of communication; it's a database for cultural information, norms, values, ideas, and wisdom, things even we in the modern world could learn from. You can't translate the Dutch word 'gezellig' into German or English, and you can't translate 'to cringe' into Dutch - and those are closely-related languages. You can imagine just how many nuances are stored away in these small, nearly-dead languages.

This is a great initiative, and with the extensive support from the academic community, it can grow into something quite extraordinary.

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