09 Jan 2014

Tech Breathes New Life into Old Tongues

Coming over loud and clear: minority Indian languages are benefiting from the country’s technology

Technology is leading the way in helping to revive old languages seemingly given up for dead. The innovations translate to a huge boost for old dialects in anyone’s language. Nowhere is the internet and mobile communication services revolution making this a reality more than in India, Aljazeera reports.

India’s mobile and internet grasp has opened up the chances of harnessing digital tools. These include social media, such as Facebook, mobile apps, interactive games, online dictionaries, and open source software. The number of languages officially spoken in this vast country is 122. But unofficially the figure jumps to 780. This is according to Ganesh Devy, chair of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, who has traced all languages spoken there. Devy says 220 languages have become extinct over the past half-century. A further 197 Indian languages are endangered, especially those languages such as Sidi, Jarawa and Onge, voiced by only 30 or 40 people, said Devy.

These figures place India head of the list of UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. This is where technology comes in, promising to aid in the translation of these tongues as well as helping apparently dying languages flourish.

“India today is showing a remarkable phenomenon of growth in non-protected and minority languages,” says Devy. For example, Bhilli has seen an 85% growth over 20 years. Khasi, Garo, Koya, Tripuri have also all enjoyed an increase in people speaking their languages.

Linguists say these are stimulating days. Digital tools can help preserve the languages in archives and are already showing results. For example, Anderson and K David Harrison has introduced language services with eight online talking dictionaries. This is part of the Enduring Voices Project by the National Geographic Society and Living Tongues Institute. These dictionaries contain more than 32,000 word entries, and include Ho and Remo of India.

A comparable dictionary for Koro Aka, spoken in Arunachal Pradesh, is being constructed. “The Koro is a community that is embracing technology and carrying their language forward across the digital divide, to help it survive, while keeping many of their traditional values and knowledge base,” says Mr. Harrison. These innovations have all been helped by an internet boom in India. It is set to become the world’s second biggest online population next year with a predicted 320 million users, according to a 2012 McKinsey & Company study.

The Google Endangered Language Project is aiming to digitally archive 3,000 languages worldwide.

Meanwhile, latest figures signal grounds for optimism. Still endangered languages spoken by around 4,000 people, such as Mangeli, Hadoti, Haryanvi, are increasingly being used.  “Earlier villagers thought that access to modernity was only through another language. But now because of technology they can be in their own area and still feel that they are connected to modern life without having to migrate out of their language zones,” says Devy.

This all suggests that minnow languages such as Sidi and Onge will be keeping the big fish, such as Mandarin and English, company in the global language stream for some while yet.


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