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Save Dying Languages and Folksongs

Of the world's 6,000 natural languages, half will probably not survive for another generation - 2009

The World Oral Literature Project

The World Oral Literature Project: A Cambridge University project, led by Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to safeguard the world's 6,000 spoken languages aims to help cultures under threat from globalisation create lasting records of their native languages. Grants have been given to tribes from Mongolia to Nigeria - and the researchers admitted traditional British languages such as Cornish and Gaelic are also at risk.
Experts are encouraging native people and anthropologists to capture myths, folk songs chants and poems in their dying languages through multi-media tools.
The collected oral literature is being compiled into a digital archive that can be accessed on demand and will make the "nuts and bolts" of lost cultures readily available.
For many communities the transmission of oral literature, through ritual texts, songs, word games and historical narrative, lies at the heart of cultural practice.
But drastic socio-economic change and the rise of more dominant global cultures are disrupting the transfer of native languages and risk annihilating them completely.
Project leader Dr Mark Turin, a research associate in social anthropology, said the issue of protecting endangered languages was beginning to resonate with the public.
Dr Turin, of Cambridge University's Department of Social Anthropology, said: "When a language becomes endangered so too does a cultural world view.
"We want to engage with indigenous people trying to document their myths and folklore, which can be harder to find funding for if you are based outside Western universities.
"If you are a Himalayan tribesman you are might not have access to a video camera to record your shaman and elders.
"It's often the vernacular traditions of communities living on the margins of nation states that are most at risk.
"By supporting communities to document their own cultures for the future, and through working with engaged and committed scholars, our project is responding to this urgent challenge."
Dr Turin said the project was concentrating on non-Western cultures where natural disasters, famine and unstable government put indigenous languages at greater risk.
But he admitted traditional British languages such as Cornish and Gaelic were also under threat. He said: "People often think it's often only tribal cultures that are under threat. "But all over Europe there are pockets of traditional communities and speech forms that have become extinct. "It is the domain of stronger nation states with better resources to look after their own indigenous tongues, through Welsh language TV and Breton literature. "Given our small team we are focusing on the indigenous people who do not have the funding to help themselves."
The first batch of archives material includes a recording of folk music of the Lo Monthang region, Nepal, and ceremonial chanting in the Vaups Region of Colombia.
While funding is already secure for next year, the 100,000 pilot project is currently seeking sustainable long-term grants to make it a permanent fixture in the University's research agenda.

Linguist List Endangered Languages

The Endangered Languages Project




The Endangered Languages Project
is an online resource to record, access, and share samples of and research on endangered languages, as well as to share advice and best practices for those working to document or strengthen languages under threat.
Experts estimate that only 50% of the languages that are alive today will be spoken by the year 2100. The disappearance of a language means the loss of valuable scientific and cultural information, comparable to the loss of a species. Tools for collaboration between the world communities, scholars, organizations and concerned individuals can make a difference.
The languages included in this project and the information displayed about them are provided by the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat), produced by the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and The Institute for Language Information and Technology (The Linguist List) at Eastern Michigan University.

Google Begins Effort to Help Preserve Languages Nearing Extinction

Endangered Languages Project.  Google says the new site can be used by people to find and share the most up-to-date and comprehensive information about endangered languages so that they don't disappear because they haven’t been passed down to younger generations." Documenting the 3,000-plus languages that are on the verge of extinction (about half of all languages in the world) is an important step in preserving cultural diversity, honoring the knowledge of our elders and empowering our youth," the blog post stated. "Technology can strengthen these efforts by helping people create high-quality recordings of their elders (often the last speakers of a language), connecting diaspora communities through social media and facilitating language learning."One example of an endangered language, according to the post, is the Miami-Illinois language, which was once used heavily by Native American communities in what is now the U.S. Midwest. The language is considered today to be extinct by some people, with its latest fluent speakers dying in the 1960s, the post reported. It is being revived slowly, though, through the efforts of one man."Decades later, Daryl Baldwin, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, began teaching himself the language from historical manuscripts and now works with the Miami University in Ohio to continue the work of revitalizing the language, publishing stories, audio files and other educational materials," the post stated. "Miami children are once again learning the language and—even more inspiring—teaching it to each other. Daryl’s work is just one example of the efforts being made to preserve and strengthen languages that are on the brink of disappearing. "In an interview, Rissman said Google unveiled the project as part of its philanthropic efforts to help organize the world's information and to make it more accessible to people everywhere.
"This is more than information–this is language" with roots in cultural history and customs, he said. "We realize this is an urgent and global problem. We realize that some of our tools might make a difference," including storage space, collaboration, connectivity and YouTube video capabilities. "YouTube is built into the site as a way to preserve content and as a teaching tool."
The effort was ripe for organizing because thousands of people around the world are already preserving and working on endangered languages but often are not collaborating to the fullest because they are doing their work on their own, Rissman said. "This can be a tool to help bring those people together. We feel that our contribution of technology is really just the start, but this is being driven forward by a coalition of endangered language experts and dedicated communities around the world. That’s what is needed."
The languages project is being supported by a new coalition, the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity, which will provide storage, research, advice and collaborations to assist in the efforts. The Alliance includes a diverse membership of groups, including the Alaska Native Language Archive, Association for Cultural Equity, CBC Radio, Center for American Indian Languages, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, First Peoples’ Cultural Council, Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia, Indigenous Language Institute, Laboratorio de Linguas Indigenas, Universidade de Brasilia and The Endangered Languages Catalogue team at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Google will eventually turn the project over to others who are "true experts in the field of language preservation," the blog post stated. When that happens, the project will be led by the First Peoples' Cultural Council and The Institute for Language Information and Technology (The LINGUIST List) at Eastern Michigan University.

The issue of disappearing languages has been a global concern for years. In 2007, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus Michael Krauss spoke about the issue at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to a story by
Over the years, humans lose sections of their languages as the populations of groups of people dwindle, Krauss said in his presentation. He compared it to losing sections of the Earth's biosphere due to pollution and other factors. "I claim that it is catastrophic for the future of mankind," Krauss said at that meeting. "It should be as scary as losing 90 percent of the biological species."
Preventing the loss of languages should be important to us all, he said. "Every time we lose (a language), we lose that much also of our adaptability and our diversity that gives us our strength and our ability to survive."




Is an easy-to-use program which allows children and teachers to create their own bilingual, multimedia storybooks complete with digital photos. Bilingual stories help children learn other languages by using words, sounds and pictures to explore the similarities and differences. Fabula can be used to create stories in any pair of languages, but the five nation team which worked to develop this package – teachers, children, software engineers, translators and researchers – is particularly interested in the lesser used languages of Europe, such as Welsh, Irish, Catalan, Basque and Frisian.


3/9/00 Fabula authoring tool, which can be used to create own stories with text and sound in the two languages of the bilingual pair. by David Sutcliffe

Good to see that once again we have a question that can really gather momentum.
Regarding the question of education in the local vernacular being isolating. There are so many examples that give the lie to that idea: what about Welsh medium schools in Wales where English is a subject on the timetable like French is in schools in England. How far can you go with Welsh alone? But that is irrelevant since there are now virtually no Welsh monolinguals, just as there are few Dutch monolinguals. Or what about Catalonia where I live, where more than 95% of state schools and most private schools have Catalan as the medium of instruction - even though Catalan is a language without a state (without an army or navy as John Holm once put it) spoken by some 6 million with first-language fluency. People also speak Spanish and a growing number speak English.The local language is thriving, and isolation is not an issue.

But this brings me to a connected issue. The Ebonics in school furore showed that few schools in the USA will be left in peace to use AAVE as the point of departure from which to learn to read and go on to develop standard English. I'd really like to be proven wrong on that point.

Not least because at the present time I am working as a member of a European Union project on the development of multi-media bilingual materials. This is the Fabula project, organized from the University of Reading, UK. Under the auspices of Viv Edwards and Frank Monaghan.

The software developed for this project consists of a CD ROM reader with a very entertaining story ("I've got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts") in full colour with bilingual text - the same text presented in two languages, one of the two languages being a "stateless language". So for example, in one version there is Welsh at the top of the page and English at the bottom, another version intended for Spain has Catalan at the top of the page and Spanish at the bottom , and so on. There is sound also so the text can be heard, bubbles with the words actually spoken can be activated to appear, plus other interactive features.

Then there is the authoring tool, which can be used to create own stories with text and sound in the two languages of the bilingual pair. Illustrations - drawings, magazine pictures, etc. - are then imported into the page format. This software will be available free, and /or installed in the CD ROM (again an extra given free of charge).

So this kind of approach can be very usefully applied to any language (variety) pair that coexist in a given society. I would be very, very interested in seeing this applied

a) to AAVE and standard English


b) to Jamaican Creole (or some other Caribbean Creole) and standard English.

Just imagine that, and how effective it would be. It uses the two ways of saying things as a teaching stimulus, secondly, as interactive multimedia it is attractive; thirdly, the vernacular is given "standing". Not only that, but in the US context, such bilingual and electronic-based materials will probably beless "threatening" to parents and authorities than monolingual vernacular materials on paper (conventional readers, etc).

I hope this creates interest, and / or can be passed on to teachers who would be interested.

David Sutcliffe david
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Rambla 30-32
08002 Barcelona


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