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Google Wants to Protect 3,000 Endangered Languages

The Endangered Languages Project is a dynamic online archive designed strengthen and re-invigorate languages that may not be long for the planet.

According to some estimates, there are at least 87 languages that are completely extinct. These languages aren’t "dead," which is how we characterize languages that are preserved or practiced in some form, like ancient Greek. They're simply no longer in use at all. What’s worse, while there are around 6,000 or 7,000 languages spoken around the world today, scholars estimate that fifty percent of those languages will not survive the turn of the century. That's around 3,000 languages that will likely be wiped out in the coming decades. That’s a frightening rate of decline, and one that has almost certainly been hastened by explosive globalization, the internet, and the growing dominance of English, Chinese, and Spanish.

Google, however, is determined to carve out a tech haven for some of these dying languages. On Thursday, the company launched the Endangered Languages Project, a dynamic online archive that will use technology and social media to strengthen and re-invigorate endangered languages around the world. Google hopes the platform will empower people to re-invest in endangered languages by offering tools that facilitate "creating high-quality recordings of their elders (often the last speakers of a language), connecting Diaspora communities through social media, and facilitating language learning." The site enables users to share research, audio and video files, and documents that will bolster endangered languages, as well as connect individuals who are working to preserve specific languages.

Languages on the site are categorized as "at risk," "endangered," "severely endangered," and "vitality unknown." Navajo, a language spoken predominantly in New Mexico today, is listed as "at risk," with about 120,000 speakers worldwide.

If the Endangered Languages Project works, it may not only help preserve Navajo, but also Southwestern Ojibwa, Irantxe, Onondaga, and hundreds of others. And while Neo-Aramaic may never rival English or Chinese as the language of international business, making sure knowledge of these languages doesn't disappear is important—for preserving the cultural heritage of our forebears and for providing anthropologists, linguists, and psychologists with valuable data that can help us better understand ourselves.

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