Did you know that in the face of globalization and technology, the tapestry of languages that extends across our globe is shrinking? We’re taking a look at how people around the planet are working towards saving languages and why this mission is so important for all of us!
Language holds the key to our history—the backlog of our generational wisdom and the tales of our societies’ changes, passed down orally or transcribed in hope that someone in the future will pick it up and read. But if there is no one left who knows the language it was delivered in… where does that knowledge go? And will we ever know what the original speaker really meant?
In this article, we’re taking a look at how two languages, and the knowledge they pass down, are being preserved in unique ways at opposite ends of the world!
More and more we’re seeing languages struggle to stay alive—half of the worlds 7,000 languages are at risk of dying in the next century.
And with that, we’re losing access to written and oral accounts of what it means to be human; how to mend ourselves, grow plentiful nutritious food, celebrate, and make educated decisions. (I believe we call them “life-hacks”.)
But this is a problem we are tackling! Did you know there are many people out there working tirelessly to save these languages from extinction so that we can keep access to these parts of our humanity? In the face of the digital age, this is not an easy, nor cheap, feat.
So we’re traveling to Iceland and Hawaii to have a look at two of these efforts!
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” ‒Ludwig Wittgenstein
What Losing Languages Means for the World
In an article from 2018, National Geographic reports that “between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, 50 to 90 percent of them are predicted to disappear by the next century.” 1
Those are scary figures, sure, but what does this mean for us right now?
Well, one of the coolest characteristics of us humans is how much we grow when we share our experiences with each other. The fact that we can directly communicate exactly how we do something gives us the ability to share tactics and find the one best suitable for the job. Trial and error. Collaboration. Thousands of years of knowledge are locked up in language.
So, to put it concisely: Losing languages stops progress. We need those depictions of the past, and the stories that come with them, to build upon and create healthier environments for ourselves. And if we don’t do something to stop them from dying out now, it will only become more difficult to tap into this knowledge in the future when people aren’t fluently speaking the languages.
First stop: the beautiful country of Iceland
Iceland’s ancient language is at risk of succumbing to the digital world. Since only a small selection of humanity’s 7,000 languages are offered on devices, this has been one of the biggest factors impacting their longevity.
We live in a technological age and it’s only the very beginning. (The World Wide Web just turned 30! That’s so young!) If there are only a few languages offered on these platforms, those are the languages people will gravitate to. They need to know them to get by and take part in the world. But what do we all lose when this happens? And how can these lesser spoken languages keep up in this quickly developing field?
Who knew there was so much that goes into keeping a language relevant!
“From a scientific point of view, from a linguistic point of view, just undeniably, there is an incredible amount of knowledge about history, the world, ecology, plants, animals, life-saving, critical information that is encoded and is in these languages that can’t, and shouldn’t, be just extracted surgically.” —Ross Perlin, Co-Director of the Endangered Language Alliance
The Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), mentioned in the video above, is an organization out of New York City, one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world. There are over 200 languages spoken in its borders alone and over half of New Yorkers speak multiple languages!
ELA has a multitude of information over on their site as to why protecting humanity’s languages is so vital to all of our lives, even if we can’t speak them. Click here to head over and begin your journey with them—just be prepared to be wowed.
And seriously, go check out a few more videos from Quartz over on their channel. They’ve very quickly become one of my favorite channels to watch. I always leave their videos a little more curious about the world!
Hawai’i: A Culture Locked in Thousands of Newspapers
“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” ‒Rita Mae Brown
Before missionaries came over from the West, the Hawaiian islands were already home to a society rich in knowledge; peoples who knew all the tricks needed to get the most out of the land they lived on.
When they sensed that their culture was shifting, they had the foresight to begin to write down all of the tips and tricks that had been passed down for generations. They were encouraged to transcribe anything they knew. All of these tips were then published in multiple newspapers around the islands and thus, preserved!
And it’s a good thing this happened because we need that knowledge right now.
Our planet is heading into a time of change. And if we don’t have the know how to survive on limited resources or in different environments, it’s going to take us a lot longer to adapt to them.
Okay, now here’s the point where I tell you how many people know the language to translate the newspapers. (It was really difficult to find any sort of detailed, and credible, information about the history of the Hawaiian language and its status today. But luckily, I did find one thing.)
In the Detailed Languages Spoken at Home in the State of Hawaii report from 2016, which analyzed three different reports from the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s stated that 5.7 % of Hawaii’s population who speaks another language than English, speaks Hawaiian. 3 That’s approximately 19,000 people right now who could translate these newspapers to tap into that knowledge. To put it in perspective, a football stadium can hold 5 times that!
Thankfully, there are some who are sharing this knowledge.
Our next video from Atlas Obscura brings us into the Hawaiian Language Newspaper Archive to learn how Hawaiian language scholars are digitizing, translating, and training people to access over a century’s worth of untapped knowledge!
They’re essentially doing the same thing that the people who wrote those newspapers did years ago. By digitizing and translating those artifacts, this knowledge will be available to generations to come!
In this video, we hear from the man who’s leading this initiative, Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier, a professor at the University of Hawaii Mānoa, about how they’re ensuring these historical transcripts and knowledge are made accessible to the world and the impact they will have. Check it out:
Amazing, right? Just think of all that we’ll learn in regards to how to sustain ourselves, and our planet, in healthier ways! We never know when we may need that information.
Learn more about the efforts in Hawaii to bring back traditional methods of agriculture and spread the knowledge of their ancestry in this next article:
The Impact of Saving Languages
When we lose a language, we lose a part of human history.
“Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
We’re a species dependent on storytelling. It’s how we’ve survived; finding and passing down life advice in almost every tale we tell. But we’re losing access to these stories. The people who know them are passing away, and a limited number of younger people fluent in the languages are available to take their place.
And who’s to blame them? We’ve created a world that makes it almost impossible to thrive if you don’t know the languages used in modern technology.
If the focus for younger generations is to become as successful as they can, then that small handful of languages chosen for devices will be their focus—not the one that only a few thousand people speak.
So how can people be encouraged to continue learning these languages?
The efforts from the organizations we learned about in this article are doing it in different ways. But both are making the language easier to access. Maybe that’s the first step. Or maybe this is…
Meet Wikitongues, Our First Step in Linguistic Preservation
In researching this article, I came across Wikitongues. This organization has seen a resurgence in our motivations in preserving languages and cultures in the past few decades. Now, they’re on a mission to record dialogues between people speaking all tongues.
They see the impact of technology on language a bit differently. Here’s a little snippet from their about page:
“Perhaps the greatest misconception about cultural diversity is that the Internet has had a ruinous effect, swallowing up smaller cultures in a torrent of English, Spanish, and other mass media languages. However, the Internet has equipped people with the possibility of sustaining their mother tongues. The ability to create and share media makes it possible to promote your language without external support. Social media is a powerful tool for using your language on a daily basis, even if you can’t expect to use it at restaurants, shops, or government institutions.” 5
An interesting idea, no? While technology has had a few negative impacts on languages, there are still ways that we can utilize tech to help us out in preserving the ones we speak and appreciating the beauty in the ones we don’t.
Wikitongues is helping us all have the chance to hear the beautiful languages spoken by humans around the globe. Check out their library of over 400 different ones over on their YouTube channel by clicking here!
To get you started with them, we get a little overview of what Wikitongues is up to from Co-Founder and Executive Director, Daniel Bogre Udell in the following video. As an awesome bonus, we also get the privilege to hear “Happy New Year” in dozens of languages!
What a brilliant look around the world!
At this point, we’re all so connected that we are deeply impacted by what happens across the globe from us.
There’s so much potential for progress if we can learn more about and preserve this beautiful tapestry of cultures that make up our humanity.
Stay open to new possibilities!
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” —Albert Einstein
Learn more about the cultures around the world!
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- Strochlic, Nina. “The Race to Save the World’s Disappearing Languages.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 16 Apr. 2018, news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/04/saving-dying-disappearing-languages-wikitongues-culture/. Accessed 12 Mar. 2019. ↩
- “The Icelandic Language ‘Digital Extinction’ ?” YouTube, Quartz, 18 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=xutfcOh4oCg. Accessed 8 Mar. 2019. ↩
- United States, Congress, Hawaii State Data Center Research and Economic Analysis Division, et al. “Hawaii.gov.” Hawaii.gov, State of Hawaii, Mar. 2016. files.hawaii.gov/dbedt/census/acs/Report/Detailed_Language_March2016.pdf. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019. ↩
- Obscura, Atlas. “Step Inside Hawaiʻi’s Native-Language Newspaper Archive.” YouTube, Atlas Obscura, 7 Aug. 2018, https://youtu.be/ggj-aH1JOEc. Accessed 8 Mar. 2019. ↩
- “About.” About, Wikitongues.org, wikitongues.org/about/. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019. ↩
- Happy 2019 from Wikitongues.” YouTube, Wikitongues, 31 Dec. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PKycEkSsF8. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019. ↩