The Endangered Languages Project

What Is the Endangered Languages Project?

About half of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages may disappear from the planet in the next 100 years. Enter the Endangered Languages Project.

It’s an effort led by Google and the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. Its goal is to document the vitality of these languages. The online resource is a place “to record, access, and share samples of and research on endangered languages.”

Many of these languages have no written form, so speech is critical to their survival. If younger speakers of rare languages fail to learn the tongue of their elders, the world’s linguistic diversity will shrink.

The Project categorizes 3,054 languages as at risk, endangered, severely endangered, or vitality unknown. For example, Southern Alacaluf, spoken in the south of Chile, is classified as severely endangered. (In 2006, only 12 people spoke it natively.)

Google supervised the development and launch of the project. But “oversight of the project will soon transition to First Peoples’ Cultural Council and The Institute for Language Information and Technology (The Linguist List) at Eastern Michigan University in coordination with the Advisory Committee.” [from the Endangered Languages Project’s About page]

What Is the Significance of the Project?

Have you ever heard of Aragonese, Ghadamès, or Pana? What about Bukharic or Spiti Bhoti? For speakers of these languages, the project’s worth is apparent. Their linguistic legacy will live on, not just for their language community but for people across the globe, from scholars to schoolchildren.

Thanks to the Endangered Languages Project, the descendants of endangered-language speakers will have access to an important part of their cultural heritage. This is true even if they are unable to speak the language themselves.

Linguists, anthropologists, and other scholars will no doubt welcome convenient access to such rich linguistic data. This is data that might otherwise be difficult or costly to get.

Imagine a German researcher interested in studying a disappearing South American language. Years ago, that linguist had to travel into the depths of the Amazon to conduct in-field research.

Now, authentic examples of the spoken language are available as video or audio clips. Written language examples are available as text files.

Click to view the map feature of Google’s Endangered Languages Project.

Last, consider the benefit for speakers of the world’s dominant languages. (These include Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi-Urdu, and Arabic.) These speakers will be able to hear disappearing languages before they vanish—and extinct languages after they’re gone.

If the planet represents a massive linguistic ecosystem, then the disappearance of over 50% of its “species” is cause for alarm. The Endangered Languages Project may not reverse the trend or even slow it, but it will contribute greatly to the world’s knowledge about language, that most human of traits.

How to Contribute

The Project allows speakers, scholars, and amateurs to upload a sample of an at-risk language. The sample can be a text, audio, or video file. Listen to an audio clip of Shoshone, a Native American language spoken in the western United States.

The richness of this project is in its participatory nature. The cataloging of rare languages is no longer a task that only linguists can perform. If you are wondering whether your sample qualifies, then read the Content Guidelines on the Endangered Languages Project About page.

Red Cloud, seated second from left, was a venerated leader of the Lakota Sioux. With only 2,000 first-language speakers, the Lakota language is close to extinction.

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