14 February 2020 (The Guardian)
Languages do not become endangered peacefully. Duolingo’s efforts to teach such languages have entangled the company in often fraught historical contexts.
In October last year, Meena Viswanath, a 31-year-old civil engineer from Berkeley, California, joined a small team of volunteers who were developing a Yiddish course on Duolingo, the free language learning app with over 300 million users. Having grown up in the only Yiddish-speaking family in a majority English-speaking New Jersey neighborhood, the prospect of broadcasting her mother tongue to a global network of students was exciting.
Throughout October, Viswanath and three other contributors regularly met to discuss the curriculum over a shared Slack channel. They had a target to get the course up and running towards the end of 2020, and to begin, progress was solid. But then they hit a roadblock.
Yiddish, which combines elements of German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic, is a language of many dialects corresponding to the different regions of Europe where they emerged. The differences in pronunciation and grammar between these dialects are subtle, but for a native speaker they carry meaningful information about identity, culture and religious affiliation.
3 February 2020 (Byline Times)
John Mitchinson on why biodiversity helps explain how we are all impoverished by the loss of languages.
We humans are an odd species. As individuals, our generosity is endless when applied to conservation of national environments or endangered animals, but we seem peculiarly uninterested in the plight of human cultures.
While the World Wildlife Fund for Nature boasts annual revenues in excess of £250 million, Survival International, one of the largest global charities dedicated to indigenous peoples’ rights, operates on a mere £1.5 million. This is because most of us are functionally ignorant when it comes to the cultural extinction crisis our species faces.
Here are some basic facts.
Of the 7,011 languages currently spoken, 2,895 (41%) are now endangered, each with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. A language goes extinct every 3.5 months. By 2050, some estimate that 90% of the currently spoken languages will have gone forever. And, rather like climate change, this isn’t an inevitable erosion over time. Of the 420 language families known to have existed, a quarter have already gone – 90% of those in the past 60 years. To put that in perspective, if a language extinction is akin to the loss of a species, the loss of a language family is like losing all the whales or big cats.
18 December 2019 (The Conversation)
Launched to coincide with St Andrew’s Day this year on November 30, language app Duolingo’s Gaelic course attracted an impressive 103,000 active learners in its first two weeks – outstripping the number of actual Gaelic speakers in Scotland. The figure also represented more than 18 times the number of adults learning the language in 2018.
Gaelic was spoken in most of Scotland until the 11th century, but a gradual decline in the language means that today, most of the of the country’s Gaelic speakers in Scotland live in the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar).
It is recognised as a national language of Scotland and initiatives such as the dedicated Gaelic language channel BBC Alba and the growth of Gaelic Medium Education have brought opportunities to those living across Scotland to hear and learn the language.
These initiatives were given a further boost when Gaelic joined a range of endangered languages (including Hawaiian, Navajo and Irish) to be added to the Duolingo platform after a successful social media campaign lobbied for its inclusion.
Of course, not all of the 103,000 people who signed up to Duolingo will be new to Gaelic – and not all will continue with it – but the potential to bring new speakers to the language is considerable. It also raises the question of how this can be used to support the long-term survival of the language, which is considered to be in trouble in Scotland.
28 September 2018 (Atlas Obscura)
Over the past few decades, as efforts to save endangered languages have become governmental policy in the Netherlands (Frisian), Slovakia (Rusyn) and New Zealand (Maori), among many others, Scotland is in an unusual situation. A language known as Scottish Gaelic has become the figurehead for minority languages in Scotland. This is sensible; it is a very old and very distinctive language (it has three distinct rsounds!), and in 2011 the national census determined that fewer than 60,000 people speak it, making it a worthy target for preservation.
But there is another minority language in Scotland, one that is commonly dismissed. It’s called Scots, and it’s sometimes referred to as a joke, a weirdly spelled and -accented local variety of English.
7 August 2018 (UNESCO)
The International Day of the World's Indigenous People's is well-timed for UNESCO to launch a special website, IYIL2019, dedicated to the International Year of Indigenous languages (IY2019) which will be commemorated by UNESCO’s members and partners throughout 2019.
The website will contribute to raising the awareness about this International Year and about the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages around the world.
13 April 2018 (The Times)
The future of the Scots language is being put under threat by the unstoppable march of American English, Alexander McCall Smith has claimed.
The best-selling author fears that the enthusiastic adoption of US phrases means traditional words such as sleekit scunnered and shoogly are in danger of being lost forever.
McCall Smith’s works have been translated into more than 40 languages but he is concerned that Scots, and other tongues and dialects, are being undermined by the establishment of US English as a global lingua franca.
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7 July 2017 (BBC Radio 4)
Penzance-born Rory McGrath writes and performs a Cornish song at the SUNS International Festival - a multilingual alternative to the Eurovision song contest, where English is banned.
Rory talks with fellow performers, and to academics, about how the internet and the spread of English as a lingua franca is threatening to smother small languages. The United Nations predicts that 90% of Europe's 200 minority languages will have ceased to exist by the end of the 21st century.
24 March 2017 (The New European)
In what could be a perfect metaphor for the chaos unleashed by Brexit, the future of the British Isles’ minority languages has been thrown into doubt by the decision to leave the EU. And, says Maurice Smith, that uncertainty could have profound cultural and economic implications
From street signs, to television stations, schools, music and literature, the British Isles is a linguistically diverse archipelago, home to various native languages, whose fortunes have always fluctuated through the centuries.
But with Brexit has come a new threat, to menace them all. The situation is politically acute in Ireland, where promotion of Irish Gaelic education is a key element of the peace agreement in the North, and has particularly strong overtones as a result. At Stormont, in recent months, the two main parties – Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Fein – have been at loggerheads over the latter’s demand that Irish becomes the devolved government’s second official language.
There may be a less abrasive political dimension in Scotland and Wales, but Scots Gaelic and Welsh have nevertheless become increasingly important in terms of preservation, education and broadcasting investment. But as Scotland moves towards another referendum on independence, we can expect more abrasion on this issue.
The politics of language funding is the politics of national diversity, and Brexit, and agitation for a vote on Scottish independence, are bringing such differences into sharp relief.
These minority languages, and others such as Cornish, have all benefited from UK and devolved government support. But that has been underpinned by their status as recognised minority languages within the EU. The fear is that Brexit will lead to less support, and especially less money, for education, promotion and cultural support.
19 March 2017 (BBC)
Until two years ago, university student Kevin Martens Wong had never even heard of his ancestral tongue, let alone spoken it.
The Singaporean linguist was researching endangered languages when he stumbled upon Kristang in a book. As he dug deeper, he realised it was the language of his maternal grandparents.
Mr Wong had heard smatterings of Kristang while growing up. But his grandparents were hardly fluent. His mother couldn't speak Kristang at all.
"As a child I had learnt Mandarin and English in school, and my parents speak in English to me. So I never really recognised that side of my heritage," says Mr Wong, who is half Chinese and half Portuguese Eurasian.
Kristang is the language of the Portuguese Eurasians, a minority group descended from Portuguese settlers who arrived in the region in the 16th Century and married locals.
A unique creole of Portuguese and Malay, with elements of Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Hokkien, it was spoken by at least 2,000 people across the Malayan archipelago at its peak in the 19th Century.
But today there may be as little as 50 fluent speakers left, according to researchers' estimates.
20 February 2017 (Diplomatic Courier)
Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost.
More than 50 percent of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world are likely to die out within a few generations, and 96 percent of these languages are spoken by a mere 4 percent of the world’s population. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given pride of place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.
Cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, the promotion of education for all and the development of knowledge societies are central to UNESCO’s work. But they are not possible without broad and international commitment to promoting multilingualism and linguistic diversity, including the preservation of endangered languages.
While the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has signed an agreement with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to measure global citizenship and sustainable development education, the persistent marginalization of mother languages worldwide is threatening Goal 4 of the UN for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The Agenda 2030 includes seven targets in Goal 4 that aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.
The seventh target – Goal 4.7 – obliges the international community to ensure that in the next 15 years “all learners (would) acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.
UNESCO relates global citizenship to the empowerment of learners to assume active roles to face and resolve global challenges and to become proactive contributors to a more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure world.
But the chances that Goal 4.7 would be achieved are rather bleak unless adequate steps are taken urgently. The reason can be deduced from some important data released by the UNESCO on the occasion of the International Mother Language Day, celebrated annually on February 21.
17 January 2017 (The Telegraph)
The Italian language is under assault from a growing tide of English words, the abandoning of verb tenses and a shrinking vocabulary, and could be driven to extinction altogether, the head of the country’s most illustrious language institute has warned.
The language of Dante and Petrarch is becoming vulgarised and made more simplistic as young people dispense with the subjunctive and future tenses and sprinkle their day-to-day language with Anglicisms, even where there are perfectly adequate Italian alternatives, according to the Accademia della Crusca, an academy that guards the purity of Italian, said.
“There’s been a big increase in the number of foreign words and expressions and the trend will continue, above all with English words,” said Prof Claudio Marazzini, the president of the academy, which was founded in Florence in 1582. “We are heading towards a more meagre Italian.”
Thousands of words are at risk of extinction through not being used anymore in daily discourse, he said. They include “accolito” (acolyte, henchman), “maliardo” (bewitching), “tremebondo” (tremulous, trembling), “zufolare” (to whistle), and “abbindolare” (to be taken for a ride, to be led by the nose).
15 October 2016 (The Herald)
Gaelic is facing a fight for its survival and every Scot needs to play a part to ensure that it continues to receive much-needed support, it has been warned.
Opening the Royal National Mod last night, the head of the Gaelic media service warned that one of Scotland’s cultural “jewels” is at serious risk of being lost forever unless it is given greater support.
Maggie Cunningham, chairwoman of MG Alba, the Gaelic Media Service, made an emotive speech about the future of the tongue which, despite receiving millions of pounds of public funding, has continued to decline.
13 March 2016 (The Guardian)
It is an impending extinction that will change the world and how people communicate: within 20 years, half of all the planet’s languages will be dead.
Experts agree that nothing can stop it happening but one academic is trying her hardest to slow it down, to help preserve what may be part of a golden ticket for our brains. Professor Antonella Sorace – a Sardinian who was discouraged from learning her own dying language in favour of “proper” Italian – is one of a growing number who believe learning a second language has enormous untapped benefits for the human brain. This is true not only for young children but also for adults and people at risk from dementia, where research consistently shows that learning a new language could delay the onset of the disease for four to five years – a better result than with any medication to date.
It is those benefits of bilingualism that should encourage us to preserve and protect Britain’s minority languages – Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Irish, Cornish and Ulster Scots, she says.
“All minority languages are declining,” said Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. “If a language is not learned by children then that language is bound to die. There are big forces out there that help to speed this process along. Eventually Gaelic will die, Welsh and Sardinian will die. Many of these are languages that are still relatively healthy; others are being actively suppressed or stigmatised.
“We are trying to contribute to slowing that decline. We know linguistic diversity is important because it makes us human. We lose that and we lose an essential part of what it means to be human.”
16 January 2016 (The National)
Few people know more about the power and influence of minority languages than linguist Hector Poullet, an expert on the Creole tongue of the Caribbean.
The softly-spoken 75-year-old is a source on Creole in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe. You could say he wrote the book on the language, co-authoring one of the world’s first Creole dictionaries and helping to introduce it into the school curriculum.
This week, Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland launched a free online resource for children. Gifting Every Child includes Scots songs and Gaelic lullabies, providing an introduction to the traditional arts for the classroom or family home.
“All of the world’s languages are like a kaleidoscope – every single one of them is multiform and each one must be protected,” Poullet says.
20 August 2015 (The Guardian)
Comprehensive documentation of several Indigenous Australian languages, some of which are highly endangered and at risk of extinction, has begun.
The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language is building a library of audio and video recordings, grammar lists and dictionaries for at least 10 languages.
Professor Jane Simpson from the Australian National University said Australia’s Indigenous languages remain “inherently fragile under the onslaught of English and government policies which make it hard to keep [them] going.”
A 2014 National Indigenous Languages Survey found that of 250 Indigenous languages only 120 are still spoken, with 13 of these considered “strong” – five fewer than when the survey was first conducted in 2005. Around 100 languages are described as “severely or critically endangered”.
6 April 2015 (Huffington Post)
We are moving toward one tongue: 97% of the world speaks only 4% of the world's languages. Once we realized that plant and animal species were disappearing from the earth, we worked to protect them out of concern that losing even a single species may have dire consequences for the well-being of the whole planet. We need to do the same for languages.
27 March 2015 (The Guardian)
Singer-songwriter Gina Williams’ creative life hit a high point in 2014 when, along with musical partner, Guy Ghouse, she released their debut album Kalyakoorl – sung entirely in Noongar, the Indigenous language of south-western Australia.
No mean feat considering it was just five years ago that Williams, then 40, signed up for a Noongar language course. “In my first class I remember feeling a bit sick from embarrassment and shame; I’m a Noongar and I have to come to a Tafe course to learn my own language! I was the only Noongar in the class,” she says on the phone.
20 January 2015 (Mail Online)
Sci-fi visions of the future may focus on soaring skylines and flying cars, but the world in 100 years may not only look different, but sound different too.
While there are more than 6,000 languages spoken globally at present, less than 600 are likely to endure in 2115, and they could be simplified versions of what we recognise today, one linguist has claimed.
He told MailOnline that the advent of technologically-advanced translating tools will not be enough to save the diversity of Earth’s languages either.
What the World Will Speak in 2115 (The Wall Street Journal, 2 January 2015)
9 November 2014 (The Independent)
Tourists looking for sun and sea but keen for something extra from their holiday break can now help save an ancient language.
Four languages spoken on British territories feature on a new "endangered" list, with the numbers of people using them seriously dwindling. There are particular fears for the future of Jersey French and Guernsey French, which are marked as "severely endangered" on a list of 33 under-threat languages.
3 September 2014 (BBC)
Economic development is driving the extinction of some languages, scientists believe. A study has found that minority languages in the most developed parts of the world, including North America, Europe and Australia, are most at threat.
6 June 2014 (BBC)
Hundreds of our languages are teetering on the brink of extinction, and as Rachel Nuwer discovers, we may lose more than just words if we allow them to die out.
26 March 2014 (The Guardian)
The internet and its technologies are eroding many languages, especially in the Baltic countries. What can be done about it?
8 April 2013 (The Guardian)
With more than 40% of the world's estimated 7,000 languages "endangered and at risk of extinction", an army of tiny publishers is fighting an unsung battle to save them. UK press Diglot Books is one of them, and this week took on the might of Amazon to get its Cornish children's story out to readers.
13 February 2013 (BBC News)
The reporter who broke the news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation got the scoop because she understood his announcement in Latin.
16 December 2012 (BBC News)
Home to around 800 different languages, New York is a delight for linguists, but also provides a rich hunting ground for those trying to document languages threatened with extinction.
Our language in your hands
(BBC Radio 4, first broadcast 17 December 2012)
23 November 2012 (The Guardian)
Other languages have a state to defend them and their speakers don't have to contend with a state that acts against their tongue.