Using technology to preserve languages

One technology company is working on an algorithm-driven audio recorder that could help document little-known and little-used languages.

You might be surprised to learn about 7000 different languages are in use around the world today. But some of the most unusual are in danger of being lost. As technology allows us to communicate globally, more communities are being forced to abandon their local language in favour of those that are more widely used – such as English, Spanish or Chinese.

The Aikuma Projecta Melbourne-based technology venture, is working on innovative technology to help preserve these little-known languages for the future. It’s currently used by indigenous communities in Africa, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and Australia. Many of these languages have never been written down or recorded.

The primary technology is based around an app. Speakers of little known languages use the app to record a story. The app uses a complex algorithm to isolate each word and compare it to other words already recorded of the same language. By doing so, it develops an understanding of what each word means in context, and builds upon its existing library.

The solution isn’t as sophisticated if there’s no existing recording of the language. In this case, the storyteller must also provide a phrase-by-phrase translation of the story – helping jumpstart the app’s library.

Another hurdle is words that are unique to the language, and have no comparison in English or other commonly-spoken tongues. Examples include the Greenlandic word makittaqanngitsoq, which refers to someone who has never learned how to roll over in a kayak, and the Lakota word naȟléčA, which refers to the act of tearing something apart using only the feet.

As development continues, the algorithm will be able to translate phrases and conversations between a multitude of languages – creating a global learning platform. In the future, you may spend your spare time learning an ancient language from indigenous Australians or South Americans, helping to preserve parts of this culture for future generations.

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Image credit: Aikuma