Wikitongues Seeks to Save World’s Dying Languages

12 February, 2019

Experts say there are about 6,500 languages spoken throughout the world. But the United Nations estimates that about half of these languages are in danger of disappearing.

The U.N. cultural agency, or UNESCO, lists languages it considers endangered on its Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. UNESCO collects information on the languages and then increases efforts meant to prevent them from dying out.

One non-profit organization seeking to save world languages is a New York-based group called Wikitongues. Officials from Wikitongues say the organization has a simple goal: to provide the tools and support that people need to save their languages.

Daniel Bogre Udell is the co-founder of Wikitongues. He told VOA that when a language disappears, many other things can go away as well. For example, parts of a community's culture, knowledge and identity can also be lost.

Because of this, Udell believes the process of bringing languages back must be done by community members themselves, "from the ground up," he said.

"There is no way an outside organization can save someone's language for them."

How it works

Wikitongues was launched in 2016 as an open internet collection of world languages. The self-described "community" is operated by volunteers from around the world. The collection is in the form of language videos that people add to the Wikitongues website.

Wikitongues says that, even with the internet's wide reach, less than 1 percent of all languages are actively represented online. The organization seeks to serve as an internet resource to connect users who wish to keep a language alive.

There are currently more than 400 languages and dialects represented on Wikitongues' YouTube channel. Some, like English, Farsi and Mandarin, are spoken by hundreds of millions of people. Others are more uncommon. Bora, for example, is spoken by only a few thousand people in the Amazon regions of Peru and Colombia.

Udell says more than 1,500 people from 70 different countries have added videos to the system.

"We have people from India who record dozens of languages, which is beyond their own," he said.

"We have another volunteer from Scotland who is one of the last speakers of a variety of Scottish dialects," Udell added. "He's in the process of reclaiming them, revitalizing, and building a dictionary for them."

Udell says there are many examples of languages that disappeared but later returned to use. "Hebrew went extinct in the 4th century BC, and was revived in the 1800s. Now once again, it's the mother tongue of half of the world's Jewish population."

Native Americans and First Nations people join in on a drum circle during an Indigenous Peoples Day blessing and rally before a march Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Native Americans and First Nations people join in on a drum circle during an Indigenous Peoples Day blessing and rally before a march Monday, Oct. 8, 2018, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Another example is the Tunica-Biloxi Native American tribe in the southern U.S. state of Louisiana. The tribe's language went extinct in the 1940s. But Udell says the tribe was able to successfully build up a "language revival" in recent years.

One of Wikitongues' volunteers is Theron Musuweu Kolokwe, who lives in Namibia. His native language is Subiya, which is spoken by about 30,000 people along the Zambezi River in Namibia, Zambia and Botswana.

"I think in my language," Kolokwe said. "I dream in my language. It's the language that I was born into. I didn't have the choice to speak it."

However, he does not get the chance to speak his native language every day. Like many other educated people from his area, he speaks a lot of English and Afrikaans.

Kolokwe is hoping his involvement with Wikitongues can help keep Subiya and other African languages from going extinct.

"I want the world to know about my language," Kolokwe said.

But his goal goes beyond just sharing his language with others through video. He is also working to create a dictionary and language teaching materials that can be used in schools.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Faiza Elmasry reported on this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted her report for Learning English, with additional information from Ashley Thompson was the editor.

What things do you think can be done to try to save dying languages around the world? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

endangered adj. used to describe something that has become very rare and that could die out completely

online adj. connected to or involving a computer or telecommunications system

dialect n. a form of a language spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations

revitalize v. make something more active or exciting

extinct adj. when something no longer exists

revive v. bring something back from the past