Creating a Global Language Archive

Creating a Global Language Archive

For most of us, the language we speak is like the air we breathe. But what happens when we wake up and find that our air is going extinct?

According to Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, one of the world’s languages dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will disappear, as young people abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish.

Researchers estimate that over the last 500 years, half of the world's languages, from Etruscan to Tasmanian, have vanished. So what do we lose when a language goes silent?

When you mess with a person’s language, you mess with their heritage, their culture, and their affinity with their ancestors. Changing language somehow invalidates all of the work of the past, disgracing the culture of their forefathers.

For this reason I would like to propose the creation of a Global Language Archive, similar, in some respects, to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway which has archived 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops from around the world.

Different than some of the online efforts to archive languages that tend to lose much of the dimensionality of culture, I’d like you to think of the Global Language Archive as the “Louvre of Languages” where culture and language collide in a way that all can experience. Let me explain.

Language as a Source of Conflict

When the United States was founded, only 40 percent of the people living within its boundaries spoke English as their first language. Today that number is 87%.

Over the years, language has become a hotly debated issue, not only in the U.S., but also in countries around the world.

Most observers tend to explain today’s global political conflicts as stemming from racial, ethnic, religious, or territorial disputes. We rarely see language attributed as a direct and fundamental cause. But that’s not always true.

As an example, in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic ordered Albanians to speak Serbian. They refused. This became one of the primary causes of the war that followed.

When looking at past conflicts, it’s important to look at language as the source of tension: it is often more tangible than race or religion. For example, when you look at a person it can be very difficult to tell what race or ethnicity group they belong to. However, once they speak, much of the confusion disappears.

Over the coming years, the number of languages spoken around the world will decline sharply. At the same time, the more vulnerable a group feels about their language, the greater their devotion to keeping it. As one of the most important elements of a culture’s identity, language can also become incendiary. A group’s language can feel essential to its very existence.

Living Tongue’s map of endangered languages

Disappearing Languages

From Bolivia to Malaysia, hundreds of languages around the world are teetering on the brink of extinction—some being spoken only by a single person, according to a new study.

Of the 50 native languages remaining in California, none are being actively taught to schoolchildren today.

With only 5% of the world still speaking 6,500 of today’s “long tail” languages, we are on the verge of losing a significant piece of humanity.

Currently, more than 500 languages are spoken by fewer than ten people.

The pace of life is quickening. As people’s lives become busier, they have less time to pay attention to things that were important to their ancestors. The new language wars will be an inter-generational battle between the younger generations and their parents and grandparents.

Existing Archives

A few notable efforts are already underway.

  • Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has a mission to promote the documentation, maintenance, preservation, and revitalization of endangered languages worldwide through linguist-aided, community-driven multimedia language documentation projects. Through proactive efforts, the Institute arranges expeditions to find “last speakers” of endangered languages worldwide and archive pieces of their culture through books, stories, and videos for use by future generations.
  • Talking Dictionary - Living Tongues Institute is also producing a series of Online Talking Dictionaries for a range of languages. Here are some examples.
  • The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to develop a contemporary version of the historic Rosetta Stone for the next 10,000 years. This project is run by the Long Now Foundation. Their goal is create a broad online survey and near-permanent physical archive of 1,500 of the approximately 7,000 human languages.
  • Multilingual Manchester - A University of Manchester archive set up in 2010 to document, protect and support the languages spoken in one of Europe's most diverse cities, is now the world's largest. The web-based Multilingual Manchester documents the city's diverse linguistic tradition of over 100 languages.

The Global Language Archive - The “Louvre of Languages”

Creating a physical place that represents a focal point for language preservation brings with it tremendous opportunity. Unlike today’s cultural museums that capture physical fragments of history, the Global Language Archive will have a mission to preserve the communications, stories, and dreams of our ancestors.

Online efforts only go so far. By adding physical dimensions, human contact, audio stories, and peripheral experiences, we breathe life into these otherwise single-dimensional languages.

As “last speakers” begin to dwindle, the final-person-responsibility brings with it tremendous stress and anxiety. The loss of a language means the loss of birthright, heritage, and customs. It somehow breaks the connection with their ancestors and invalidates all of the accomplishments of the past, dishonoring the culture of their families.

But much of this stress can be diffused by taking these speakers through a formal preservation process that transforms them from “crazy person clinging to the past” to “cultural expert with a deep understanding of their ancestors.”

Curators of languages are different than curators of artifacts. Languages are tools of expression with deep emotional ties. Done correctly, the Global Language Archive will attract massive crowds from around the world. It will be a one-of-a-kind facility serving as a Mecca for linguistic scientists and cultural researchers around the globe.

In this context, language itself becomes a cultural taxonomy, and with upwards of 7,000 languages left to preserve, it has the potential for becoming the largest museum in the world with associated universities, hotels, culture-inspired retail centers, and much more.

Final Thoughts

Ironically, the creation of a Global Language Archive will speed the reduction of spoken languages. Once the onus of responsibility has been removed from last speakers to keep their culture alive, they will be more likely to let their children decide their own career path.

Having fewer languages creates societal efficiencies on many levels – less confusion, reduced standards, and fewer decision points within most business structures.

From a nation-to-nation relationship standpoint, it will be a great diffuser of cultural tensions.

With English becoming the de facto international language standard of science, technology, and the Internet, it will be in the best interest of English-speaking countries to fund the Global Language Archive in a big way. For them it will create an unprecedented competitive advantage for business and industry.

My goal in writing this was to help readers understand how this looming language crisis could be transitioned into a significant opportunity. But I tend to look at the world through an overly optimistic lens, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

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12 Responses

  1. Louis Baudry

    Hello Thomas, great article. As an amateur linguist I find your idea extremely interesting. One problem is that most countries tend to preserve at best its own regional dialects. So, it will be hard to count on public funding for a project like that. I know that SIL http://www.sil.org/ has already done some interesting work. Do you know of any association, foundation, etc. that might be interested in this kind of project?

  2. Alessandra

    Hi Thomas,

    What about Sardinian Language?

  3. admin

    Louis,

    When you look at groups that may want to be involved, that list could involve everyone from the Smithsonian, to TED, to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. National Geographics has already done some interesting pieces on this topic. Should the UN be involved? Should a single country like Greece, who is in desperate need of a shot in the arm, take the ball and run with it?

    Other than the ones I mentioned in the article, I’m not aware of anyone else.

    Tom

  4. Grant Whittle

    This is a truly worthwhile cause. Language carries identity and culture that has even more dimensions to it than does indigenous art. The idioms of a language particularly define how the world is understood by a culture. Sadly, economics offers incentives for the demise of language (and with it cultural) diversity.

    I lived in the Kochi Prefecture of Japan in the late 1980’s, and my first Japanese was a dialect called “Tosa-ben.” Tosa-ben had a rich cultural heritage, and Tosa had played a critical role in the development of modern Japanese society. There is much richness to the Tosa cultural heritage that was embodied within the Tosa dialect.

    However, after WW2 the Japanese government decided to standardize Japanese around the Tokyo dialect. All TV and radio stations, all publications, and all education teaches Tokyo-ben. The numerous other Japanese dialects have become viewed as “uneducated” and therefore undesirable. In the late 1980s, young school children in Kochi, trained in Tokyo-ben, could not understand their grandparents who spoke Tosa-ben.

    The Tosa dialect may not have been another “language” but it was different enough from the modern Tokyo dialect that I found myself (as a foreigner) helping to translate between a Japanese man who could only speak a similar ancient, regional dialect (Osaka-ben) and a Japanese man who could only speak the modern Tokyo Japanese. There was inexplicable cultural heritage wrapped up in the different regional dialects that is now utterly lost.

    20 years later, I returned to Kochi during a business trip and could not find anyone who still spoke fluent Tosa-ben. It is very sad for me. Unique cultural richness has been lost from Japan with the loss of the regional dialects of Japanese. The rich heritage of the Kochi region will never be as fully understood with the demise of the Tosa dialect.

  5. admin

    Alessandra,

    In addition to real languages we will have to decide on whether to preserve some of the made-up languages like Esperanto, Vampirese, Klingon, Gelfling, and Sindarin. These at least have existing documentation.

    Should these also be part of the archive?

    Tom

  6. Tom
    I am on the other side. My look into the future sees one people with one language.
    Saving history is a worthy effort. Go for it if you will.
    Yet it will be history, not the current status. That status is changing ever more quickly. You know that. My “Way of Change” says that change happens, everywhere and all of the time. The only way to manage change is with change.
    Managing language is changing language. There is no other option. Never will be.
    Best to all
    Gary

  7. Good idea to wake up some latent thoughts. I went to Regis where taking Latin and Greek
    were imposed on many students…didn’t like it then but love it and use it now…to me, it’s
    now cool.

    Marshall McLuhan suggested that new ideas arrive in opposites…a “language museum” might not only save dying languages for future generations, but coincidently spur new usage not by imperatives, but because it’s cool…cheers, Peter

  8. admin

    Peter,

    Interesting Marshall McLuhan comment. So we may very well have a language convergence with an expanding word base, with new words coming from all the diverse languages around the globe. Or perhaps a central language with bolt-on dialects for each culture. :-)

    Tom

  9. Glenn Mungra

    Nice Marshalplan Thomas.

  10. Brilliant idea! Sounds like a very expensive, but worthy endeavor. I can imagine the Smithsonian taking this on. Not the U.N.

    I would guess the Celtic language is in that category.

  11. […] Our globalizing world has many benefits, we all realize very well the benefit of being able to communicate with humans from other cultures. Unfortunately globalization is pressing his stamp on humanity. According to Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, one of the world’s languages dies every 14 days. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on earth will disappear, as young people abandon native tongues in favor of English, Mandarin, or Spanish as perfectly denoted  on Futurist Speaker. […]

  12. You should have started with the difference between written and spoken forms of language, and that the spoken form of language is by its nature meant to change.

    I think it is okay to say that making proper use of basic IPA or other formats to store the languages of the world is a step in the right direction. Spoken words change by the second and there’s little we can do about that except embracing the change.

    Egyptians from very Ancient times experienced the same problem, so did Babylonians and Assyrians. Not just in language but in fading facade of their national symbols.

    What these empires did – especially Egyptians – was to hedge against the daily changes of language by creating a data-base of all written and sometimes spoken languages of the world. They updated the information over time and developed new techniques of transmitting them.

    This is what we must do to avoid the fate of ‘Tosa Ben’ although its a dialect

    Your essay is rated good.

  13. This is a truly worthwhile cause. Language carries identity and culture that has even more dimensions to it than does indigenous art. The idioms of a language particularly define how the world is understood by a culture. Sadly, economics offers incentives for the demise of language (and with it cultural) diversity.

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