Social Innovation Saving 7,000 Vanishing Languages

Mar 8, 2012 6:45 PM ET
Campaign: CSR Blogs

Posted by Sangeeta Haindl

Social innovation might just save our planet's vanishing languages. Today, a staggering 7,000 or so languages are spoken around the globe, yet unfortunately, about half are expected to be extinct by end of this century. The good news is that linguists believe Facebook, YouTube and even texting could save many of the world's endangered languages. North American tribes are using social media to re-engage their young, while Tuvan, an indigenous tongue spoken by nomadic peoples in Siberia and Mongolia, has an iPhone app to teach the pronunciation of words to new students.

The cause for these languages and dialects to disappear is partly due to globalisation and progress. However, Professor K David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College and a National Geographic Fellow sees what he calls the "flipside of social innovation and globalisation.' He says, "Small languages are using social media, YouTube, text messaging and various technologies to expand their voice and expand their presence. We hear a lot about how globalisation exerts negative pressures on small cultures to assimilate. But a positive effect of globalisation is that you can have a language that is spoken by only five or 50 people in one remote location, and now, through digital technology, that language can achieve a global voice and a global audience."

Finding a way forward, Professor Harrison has collaborated with National Geographic to help produce eight talking dictionaries. These social innovation dictionaries contain more than 32,000 word entries in eight endangered languages. All the audio recordings have been made by native speakers, as nothing can replace actual speakers pronouncing a language to others speakers.

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Sangeeta Haindl is a staff writer for Justmeans on Social Enterprise. When not writing for Justmeans, Sangeeta wears her other hat as a PR professional. Over the years, she has worked with high-profile organizations within the public, not-for-profit and corporate sectors; and won awards from her industry. She now runs her own UK consultancy: Serendipity PR & Media.