Google is attempting to build the world’s most comprehensive resource on the thousands of spoken and written languages currently at risk of extinction.
The search engine announced on Thursday the launch of the Endangered Languages Project, a website that allows users to archive audio, video and written information about the world’s rarest languages and dialects. The project could prove a boon to cultural preservation in Canada, where dozens of aboriginal languages are at risk of fading away.
The site already has an archive of information about more than 3,000 languages, or nearly half the number believed to be endangered around the world. The list ranges from the Harsusi language, spoken by about 700 people in Oman, to the Assiniboine language, spoken natively by fewer than 150 people in parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
“A diverse group of collaborators have already begun to contribute content ranging from 18th-century manuscripts to modern teaching tools like video and audio language samples and knowledge-sharing articles,” Google said in a post announcing the new site.
“Google has played a role in the development and launch of this project, but the long-term goal is for true experts in the field of language preservation to take the lead.”
The idea for the website surfaced a couple of years ago, when a group of YouTube users approached Google for help with an endangered-language preservation project they were running on the video site. Google’s staff decided to expand the project, and went searching for partners.
At around the same time, the First Peoples' Heritage, Language & Culture Council (FPHLCC), a British Columbia-based Crown corporation charged with supporting aboriginal culture, was starting to use new technology to aid in preserving endangered languages. The group had begun developing various keyboards that allowed users to type in some of the 34 languages and 61 dialects present in B.C. alone – many of them spoken by only a handful of people. It also developed an online app that allowed users to chat in some of the languages.
As such, the FPHLCC became one of the earliest partners in the project. In all, more than two dozen language and cultural groups were involved in creating the site, with Google’s philanthropic arm providing funding.
In a few months, Google will hand over control of the entire project to the FPHLCC and the Institute for Language Information and Technology at Eastern Michigan University. Together, the two groups will be responsible for maintaining and expanding the site.
“I’m really excited about it because it gives us an opportunity to be visible,” said Tracey Herbert, executive director of the FPHLCC. “We're doing this work behind the scenes and only a handful of people in the world are excited and care about it.
“[This project is] going to bring a lot of attention to the issue. It says: ‘Hey, this is important.’ ”