Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

One Language Disappears Every 14 Days

One Language Disappears Every 14 Days

Saturday, 8 May, 2021 - 05:15
A teacher gesturing during an Arabic language class at a school on the outskirts of Paris on October 3, 2018. (File photo: AFP)

For many reasons, including globalization and cultural assimilation, a handful of languages, such as English, Spanish, and Mandarin, are dominating the world's linguistic landscape—and that often comes at the expense of older and less popular dialects, which slowly fade out, Tribune Media Services reported.

It's estimated that a language goes extinct every 14 days; almost half of the world's 6,000 to 7,000 languages are endangered. UNESCO has a scale for threatened languages, called the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, where tongues range from vulnerable to critically endangered.

This modern-day reality creates a distressing sense of loss for many people who understandably want to preserve their cultural heritage and keep their family traditions from fading into obsolescence.

That's why Google Arts & Culture is deploying its machine-learning tech to allow anyone in the world to easily find words for common objects in 10 of these endangered languages.

The free app is part of Google Arts & Culture's mission to "democratize access to the world's arts and culture," says Chance Coughenour, the Google division's head of preservation, which it does with the help of 2,500 partners in 80 countries. The division first started by digitizing pieces of museum art for public online access, and it's now branched into using its tech to help preserve "intangible heritage," or "the ephemeral part of heritage that is at risk of being lost or endangered," Coughenour says. Users can pull up the app, called Woolaroo, on their mobile browsers and take a photo of any object, or a scene containing several objects.

The 10 languages include two Italian languages: Sicilian and Calabrian Greek, a dialect of Greek still spoken in some villages in the southern region of Calabria (the toe of the Italian boot) by about 2,000 people. There's Louisiana Creole, a French-based language, spoken by about 7,000 in certain Louisiana parishes. There's Nawat (or Pipil), a language found in El Salvador spoken by 200 people, labeled by UNESCO as critically endangered, the most threatened level before extinction.

In order to be accessible to a wide range of people, the app works in English, Arabic, Spanish, French, and Italian.

Editor Picks