When a language dies, we lose a culture. We lose a sense of identity and belonging. Imagine that the language you speak is slowly becoming extinct. What would you do? How would you react?
This is what many Indigenous peoples in Canada, and in other parts of the world, are experiencing right now. The National Research Council of Canada is working to address this issue before it leads to the loss of cultures.
The Indigenous Languages Technology Project
As part of their Indigenous Languages Technology Project, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is collaborating with Indigenous language experts, instructors, and communities to revitalize endangered Indigenous languages. To achieve this, the NRC is using speech- and text-based technologies.
For example, the NRC recently released WordWeaver. This technology aims to create online verb conjugation tools for Iroquoian languages. Verb conjugation refers to how a verb changes to show a different person, tense, number or mood. The goal of Word Weaver is to build verb conjugators for various endangered languages, such as Kahnawà:ke and Ohswé:ken.
NRC initiatives are also focusing on creating predictive text software for SENĆOŦEN, the language of the First Nations Saanich people, to encourage youth to learn Indigenous languages and increase language use in everyday contexts.
The Importance of Recognizing and Rescuing Endangered Languages
We live in a diverse world where humans speak thousands of languages, so when humanity loses a language, we’re also losing diversity in many aspects of life such as oral traditions, music, art, and literature. Language endangerment is happening right before our eyes. In fact, it has already happened.
Take U.S. and Canadian Indigenous People, for example. They faced derision and discrimination for clinging to their languages and culture. Governments even set up systems that required Indigenous people to learn English and forbade them to speak their native tongue.
As a result, out of the estimated 154 Indigenous languages still remaining in the United States, half of those languages are only spoken by a handful of elders, and out of the more than 70 Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada, more than two-thirds are endangered. And children aren’t learning these languages, which means many of them risk going extinct.
According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, between 1930 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct. And if we do nothing to revitalize endangered languages, that number will only keep growing.
Many Indigenous tribes are experiencing the loss of their identity. To preserve it, they must hold on to their languages. Many Indigenous tribes want to revitalize their endangered languages, but they don’t have the funding, training, or technical support to produce new fluent speakers, so initiatives such as those promoted by Canada’s NRC are of great importance.
What Are Long-Tail Languages and Why Are They Important?
In 2004, Chris Anderson, a British-American writer and editor, coined the term “long tail” in relation to business and statistics.
The idea behind long tail was for businesses to gain profits by selling low-volume, rare items to many customers. The definition of long tail later expanded to translation and localization. In a nutshell, long-tail languages are those that get translated less often than the more widely spoken languages.
A long-tail language can refer to any language that’s less frequently localized, and this is often the case with North American Indigenous languages. For example, Blackfoot, an Indigenous North American language with almost 3,000 speakers, is considered a long-tail language. It’s important to note, though, that a language is not classified as long-tail based on the number of people who speak it. If it were, Bengali wouldn’t be a long-tail language. Being the 7th most spoken language globally, it still isn’t on the list of the most common languages used in localization and translation.
But why don’t these languages receive equal treatment when it comes to localization and translation? Because economically, businesses don’t see them as significant as other key language markets.
But things are changing.
From a business standpoint, many brands are tapping into the long-tail language market. And from a social justice perspective, translation and localization in long-tail languages have made great strides in empowering underrepresented groups.
We must do more to revitalize endangered languages and bring attention to overlooked dialects. Doing so will bring more diversity and enrichment to our world. We must look to organizations like the NRC for inspiration in empowering endangered languages.
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