Google Embarks on Language Rescue Mission

Latin may be the most famous “dead” language, at least in that it isn’t widely spoken beyond its use by the Catholic Church, but it is not lost to the ages. Linguists have been warning that nearly all human languages — save for the most commonly spoken tongues — could become extinct within the next 200 years.

Of the 7,000 languages currently spoken around the globe, 50 percent will not survive the century, according to the Endangered Languages Project, which aims to preserve these languages by uploading video, audio and even text files of rare dialects to a central website.

The project is a collaboration between the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, the Institute for Language Information and Technology at Eastern Michigan University, and Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org.

A Google spokesperson was not immediately available to comment for this story.

Raising Awareness

While First Peoples’ and ILIT have been looking to preserve these dying languages, having Google on board could help bring additional attention, along with its technology.

“Google has very carefully approached a number of leaders in the fields of endangered languages and technology, and they’ve been incredibly respective of those native speakers and the cognizant threat that these languages could be lost in our lifetime,” said Peter Brand, manager of FirstVoices for the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.

“To have such an important corporation’s not-for-profit arm take on the responsibility to raise the awareness of this issue and offer their technology is a very important contribution to preservation of these indigenous languages as well as its documentation and revitalization,” he told TechNewsWorld.

It therefore can’t help but raise awareness globally when a company such as Google takes on this responsibility, he added.

It also gets Google some good PR in the process.

“Projects like these have two purposes,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group. “One is to improve a company’s image — and Google, as the new ‘evil empire,’ definitely needs that at the moment. The other is so you can acquire and retain a key resource, and at the core of the man/machine interface is language.”

To have a few language experts on staff could significantly improve Google’s speed in creating a man/machine interface breakthrough that could bypass Apple and Microsoft, Enderle told TechNewWorld.

“Finally, Google’s core goal is to make information accessible,” he pointed out. “If a language dies out, then the information that was created with it likely dies as well, so this one is consistent with the core mission. So, in this case, there are tactical, strategic, and core mission reasons to do this.”

Google’s Return to Do-Gooding

While Google has famously been tied to the “don’t be evil” mantra for years, the company has lately been refocusing on its core business. Whether that is evil is left to debate, but philanthropic efforts like the Endangered Languages Project certainly don’t hurt its business as long as they don’t become a distraction.

In fact, when they’re done right, the company can do good and gain business opportunities in the process.

“The thing I’ve always liked and respected about Google is the company’s willingness to stretch the boundaries of conventional IT,” said Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-It. “From a purely engineering perspective, computing is mostly about moving or storing digitally encoded information in efficient, robust and elegant ways.”

Even in a longer or broader view, technology is still about facilitating the sharing of information, which makes virtually anything communications-related the purview of open-minded IT vendors, added King.

“Will Google ever build a commercial business around their work saving endangered languages? That seems unlikely,” he said. “However, it’s easy to imagine how what they learn from those efforts might enlighten or enrich any number of other company projects and initiatives.”

Old Languages and New Technology

The other aspect of this is how technology can be used to save old languages that might not even have words for the very technology being used to save it.

“That situation is becoming rarer than you think,” said Anthony Aristar, professor of linguistics and co-director of ILIT.

In New Guinea, for example, in addition to the traditional grass huts that seem to be a throwback to another time, Aristar also saw a satellite dish.

“You would think these speakers are very isolated — but even there, modern technology has intruded,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The same technology that appears to apply pressure to those languages is now being used to save them.

“If we can preserve this data digitally and make sure it isn’t lost, then this can be a very useful project to maintain diversity,” said Aristar.

Already, technology has been created that could aid this process, including an app from FirstVoices that allows “chatting” in indigenous languages. But what really needs saving are those languages that are hardly being spoken.

“While there are certainly indigenous people who are living close to their original lifestyle, there are many who are living in the same ways as non-indigenous people around them,” said Brand. “We’re looking to save those languages that aren’t spoken much at all. There are those who only use their indigenous language today maybe to speak to their pet.”

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