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The Endangered Languages Project: Linking the Top and the Bottom

When we think of cultural heritage, the stereotypical image of museums, historical artefacts and other tangible things come to mind. Since the world is moving towards a more "digital" approach in nearly all aspects of life, it comes as no surprise that our "cultural heritage" is also increasingly virtualised. Museums portray their collections on their websites, the public is more and more involved with online databases, and, you can even "visit" 3D representations of world heritage sites via Google Earth… However, this all concerns tangible heritage, but intangible heritage is a more abstract yet thriving realm as well. The virtualisation process is much more complex for intangible heritage since the latter is often attributed to processes or performances instead of actual things. Siberman and Purser (2012) claim the digitalisation of cultural heritage is unquestionably useful, and despite discussing material heritage it is not a big stretch to also include immaterial culture in this assumption. A prime example of digital heritage based on intangible heritage is the Endangered Languages Project (ELP). This project is a worldwide collaboration between many actors, from linguists to universities, with an objective of strengthening endangered languages. Language, according to UNESCO, can be seen as one of the greatest immaterial heritages of humanity. Users all over the globe can digitally upload text, audio and video fragments on their website in order to learn, document and spread information about at-risk languages. The project highlights how technology in combination with worldwide collaboration can play an important role in the preservation and protection of intangible cultural heritage. In this blog post, we will discuss research into the field of digitalisation of museums and cultural heritage to finally have a look at how the ELP is a fitting example.
The Endangered Languages Map (ELP)

Digitalised Museology

After the advent of modern technology, approaches towards museums and cultural heritage preservations have changed significantly. Digitalisation, therefore, has touched even the most "conservative" field, museology (the study of museums, Wikipedia). Today museums use digital technologies to, for example, communicate with members of indigenous communities in order to maintain and, thus, increase the quality of research on objects stored there. Additionally, a remarkable number of online platforms and databases were launched to categorize all the objects and enable people to see them even without directly visiting of a place (think of Google Earth). However, the aforementioned are mostly used by archaeological and anthropological museums (Srinivasan et al., 2009). In modern society, new technologies, by means of being more interactive and facilitatory,  help to maintain and revive our 'collective memories' after many previous forms of solidarity and communication are increasingly lost (Silberman and Purser, 2012). The interaction and non-expert communication, interpretation, and especially contestation of heritage are seen as crucial to the 'construction of unofficial communities of sympathy.' Silberman and Purser (2012) in their paper, among others, provide the example of genealogy networks, e.g. Ancestry.com, which unite newly found relatives all over the world. An analogy can be made to the Endangered Languages Project. The ELP similarly uses networks of not only experts, i.e. archaeologists, cultural preservationists and curators, but also includes the public and especially the indigenous communities from where the heritage derives (Srinivasan et al., 2009). The museum, or online database, in this case, can serve as a 'contact zone' between the professionals and the public. Not only do these digital initiatives serve an educative function, but they are also cheaper, accessible for everyone, and a brilliant way to preserve something "forever."

The Endangered Language Project


Resources offered by the ELP
'Languages are the vehicles of our cultures, collective memory and values' (UNESCO, 2011). No one contests the importance of language for both culture, communication and identity. Regardless of this necessity of humanity, '40% of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are endangered and with them, a unique vision of the world would be lost' (The Endangered Language Project). Due to social factors such as the development of the nation-state, the dominance of colonial lingua franca such as English or Spanish, and socio-economic dynamics within societies the decrease of linguistic diversity nowadays is alarming. Experts have predicted that 'in the worst-case scenario 90% of all languages will be extinct within 100 years. (Endangered Languages Information and Infrastructure Project). And as most of these languages do not have a literary but an oral tradition, most of them will go extinct without any of us noticing. For instance, documentation, in both written and oral form, becomes vital to the survival of unique (scientific) knowledge individual indigenous languages possess.
At least 43% of languages spoken in the world are endangered (UNESCO, 2011)
Next to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Endangered Languages, which is an institutional resource, the Endangered Language Project was launched in 2012 with the help of Google. The site is currently managed by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the Endangered Languages Catalogue/Endangered Languages Project team at the University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa. As explained, the site provides technology to individuals and organizations to confront the language endangerment through for instance an interactive map of the world’s endangered languages, but also with options of multimedially upload, share, and learn about various language varieties. From the creation of a dictionary by the last speaker of the Wukchumni language to the building of a jungle gym described in the Aulua language. Therefore, the ELP caters to the need 'to maintain cultural continuity' by using 'the creative value of digital heritage [which] lies in its power to stimulate unique, community-based reflections on past, present and future identities' (Silberman and Purser, 2012).

Final Consideration

The Endangered Languages Project is a great example of how (local) communities can work together with experts and institutions on a platform such as this website. The site functions as a "contact zone" (Srinivasan et al., 2009) just like a museum would on their online collection by means of facilitating a place wherein people can collectively create memories and work together to preserve and protect their cultural heritage. 

However, is it possible to fully capture the complexities and fluidity of a changing entity such as language? Drawing upon your own experience and knowledge of language, do you think efforts to "preserve" language can ever truly be successful? 

BY: MD, NH, AD, TB

Sources:
Silberman, N. and Purser, M. Collective memory as affirmation: people-centered cultural heritage in a digital age. In Giaccardi E. (Ed.) Heritage and Social Media, London: Routledge (2012), 13-30.

Srinivasan, R., et al. Digital Museums and Diverse Cultural Knowledges: Moving Past the Traditional Catalog. In: The Information Society (2009), pp. 265-278.

The Endangered Language Project. Website. http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/ (Accessed 15 April, 2018). 

UNESCO. Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. Publication. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0019/001924/192416e.pdf (Accessed 16 April, 2018). 


Comments

  1. Interesting blogpost! The endangered language project is a great initstieve to give visibility to minority languages. Regarding your question on preservation. When a language is completely documented (pragmatics, semantics, phonology, morphology, and syntax) they can freeze the language and 'defrost' it. But this is a reductionist view of language as a separate entity. Personally I think you should see language in a holistic way where it is part of a bigger notion, for example culture. This the endangered language project won't be able to capture

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