'Talking Dictionaries' Help Preserve Endangered Tribal Languages

Feb 23, 2012
Originally published on February 4, 2013 3:17 pm

VANCOUVER, Canada - Usually it is good news when the Northwest appears on a top five list. But this one is not. Our region ranks near the top of a list of global hotspots for disappearing languages. The reason is that speakers of Native American languages are dwindling. Now digital technology is coming to the rescue of some ancient tongues.

Members of the Siletz tribe on the Oregon coast take pride in a language they say "is as old as time itself." But today, you can count the number of fluent speakers on one hand. Bud Lane is one of them.

He says, "We had linguists that had come in and done assessments of our people and our language and they labeled it -- I'll never forget this term -- 'moribund' meaning it was headed for the ash heap of history."

The Siletz tribal council was determined not to let that happen. Lane told the story over the phone to a symposium in Vancouver. He says he realized he would need outside help to revive the Siletz language.

He turned to an institute based in Salem that has backing from the National Geographic Society. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages helped Lane record 14,000 words and phrases in his native tongue.

Many Siletz words describe foods and basket making, showing how language entwines with culture.

The word translations are now available online along with lesson plans as part of a so-called "talking dictionary." The site is hosted by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

There, linguistics Professor David Harrison has also posted talking dictionaries for seven other highly endangered languages from around the world.

"This is what I like to call the flip side of globalization, or the positive value of globalization," Harrison says. "We hear a lot about how globalization exerts negative pressures on small cultures to assimilate."

But Harrison says language activists now have modern digital tools with which to go on the offensive ... including iPhone apps, YouTube videos and Facebook pages.

Harrison says half of the world's 7,000 spoken languages may be at risk of disappearing by the end of the century. That works out to one language going extinct every two weeks.

In Canada's far north, the Inuit people are struggling to preserve their native tongue. Part of their strategy was to work with Microsoft to translate the ubiquitous Windows operating system and Office software into the Inuktitut language.

"Instead of 'file,' you'll see 'ini.' Instead of 'home,' it will say 'pigiarvik.' Instead of 'save,' it says 'jaggajairli' and stuff like that," says project leader Gavin Nesbitt of the Pirurvik Centre in Nunavut. He says the programming group had to invent new words to cover all the terms in Windows and Word document menus.

Explaining why the massive effort was worthwhile Nesbitt says, "So many people will spend their entire day sitting in front of a computer. If you're sitting in front of your computer in English all day, that just reinforces English. If you're now using Inuktitut, it is reinforcing (that) this is your language."

That’s why Microsoft has also worked with language activists in New Zealand, Spain and Wales to translate its software into Maori, Basque, Catalan and Welsh, respectively.

Back in Oregon, Siletz language teacher Bud Lane cautions that technology alone cannot save endangered languages.

"Nothing takes the place of speakers speaking to other speakers and to people who are learning," he says. "But this bridges a gap that was just sorely needed in our community and in our tribe."

Lane says one sign things are turning around: he sees tribal youth texting each other in Siletz.

On the Web:

Map of language hotspots:


Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages:


Siletz Dee-Ni tribal language and talking dictionary:


National Geographic Enduring Languages Project:


Microsoft local language program:


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