According to the BBC, nearly half of the world’s 6,500 languages are expected to disappear over the next 100 years. Languages die when people stop speaking them and stop teaching them to their children. This has happened all over the world, with one of many examples being the fate of Native American languages after Europeans began to settle the continent.
Native Americans were confined to reservations, and Native American children were taken from the parents and sent to boarding schools, where instructors would punish them for speaking their native languages.
However, many Native American tribes are now making efforts to revitalise their languages through language learning and immersion programs in schools. One Native American couple, Mary Hermes and Kevin Roach, founded a non-profit organisation called Grassroots Educational Multimedia to provide people with tools to learn Native American languages.
The organisation teamed up with a company called Transparent Language to create language learning software for the Ojibwe language. The software allows Ojibwe students to create flashcards and watch videos of native speakers conversing in Ojibwe.
Another benefit of this software is that it has helped to document the vocabulary and grammar of the Ojibwe language. Before this project, the language’s grammatical structure was poorly documented.
So, with this software, GEM and Transparent Language have created a portable system people can use to learn Ojibwe at home, created a record of native speakers’ conversations, and created a map of Ojibwe grammar.
Even better, this approach provides a way to circumvent the emotional issues involved in trying to revive a dying language. As the Earth Times notes,
‘The history of the near genocide of the indigenous people of North America and the repression of their cultures and languages has meant that many emotions can get stirred up when indigenous people try to learn their own languages. They may encounter feelings of shame that they don’t know their indigenous language, feelings of anger at the trauma their people have endured, and feelings of embarrassment when they attempt to speak their language with the vocabulary of a two year old. Tribal elders who are fluent in the indigenous language may feel too jaded or just be too few in number to offer enough assistance. Often the indigenous language learner hits a place of cultural loss and insecurity that they have great difficulty overcoming.’ –Earth Times
Practicing at home, at a computer, gives language learners a chance to overcome these issues privately, and means that elders who grew up speaking the language can more easily pass it on. Also, this software gives students learning the language at school a fun way to practice outside of class.
Hopefully, this approach will help linguists document endangered languages and help language activists teach them, at least in places where computers are readily available.