According to UNESCO, there are approximately 6,000 languages spoken across the globe, out of which nearly 2,500 are at risk of extinction. In the states, several Native American tongues are now listed as endangered, while European languages like Irish and Welsh are also at risk.
As part of a renewed effort to combat this wave of linguistic annihilation, some learning apps are offering lessons in rarer languages and a new tool from Google is helping communities preserve their dialects.
In addition to traditional learning apps adopting a broader range of languages, a lot of the best online tutoring services are also helping to buoy up the numbers of speakers, with sites like Preply offering tutors who can teach rare dialects on a one-to-one basis.
Woolaroo: the new Google AI translation app
Woolaroo is the name of the recently released tool from Google, which allows indigenous communities to preserve their languages via a photo-recognition interface. It’s simple to operate - just point your camera at an object and the AI tool will recognise it, then give you a translation. The interface then provides details of the word in your native tongue, along with the written translation in the target language and a recording of the correct pronunciation.
Indigenous communities can edit these entries, reporting when they think there’s an incorrect translation or pronunciation. They can also add entries into this clever little tool, to help bulk out the number of items already recognised by the system.
It works with your browser, so you don’t need to install a new app to play around with it. Currently, there are ten indgenous languages available on the app, including Maori and Louisiana Creole.
Learning platforms preserving rare languages
A lot of these language learning apps are available for free, too, or come with a free trial period. This means that it's easy to explore these lesser-known languages without committing to a full-blown subscription.
Endangered languages in Europe and America
In a recent blog post, Busuu outlined the most surprising European languages that are currently at risk. That list includes entries such as Welsh, which is spoken by 750,000 people, and Swiss German, which is actually used by a grand total of 4,930,000 people.
According to the UNESCO vulnerability scale, Welsh is rated as ‘vulnerable,’ while Swiss German is classified as a ‘severely endangered’ language. These ratings don’t directly reflect the total numbers of speakers, but also take into account factors like intergenerational language transmission, governmental language policies and proportion of speakers within the native population.
Over in America, there are 191 languages which are at risk of disappearing, including Sioux (classed as vulnerable) and Cherokee (classed as definitely endangered.) A lot of these disappearing languages are Native American in origin, although a few have Caribbean or Polynesian roots.
Busuu’s Lead Language Expert, Federico Espinosa, says: “Many might be shocked to discover that the more ‘famous’ regional dialects are dying, but sadly it’s unsurprising.
“People no longer choose to live their lives in the same regions as their families – globalisation means people move around and they don’t pass on their regional dialect.
“It’s great to see that some are committed to preserving their native tongue. The Welsh government have set themselves ambitious targets to double the number of native speakers by 2050. This is a really positive step forward.”
Endangered languages: Why preserve them?
UNESCO does a lot of work recording stats and figures related to languages. According to that organization, there are some clear reasons on why it’s necessary to preserve them.
Rather than thinking of languages as abstract or distinct from communities, used purely for communicative purposes, UNESCO argues that we should think of them as reflections of value systems, philosophies and cultural features.
As such, their disappearance could be a great historical loss, as we’d lose knowledge relating to specific traditions and practices - which could not only help us understand past communities, but also help us reflect on modern phenomena and events.