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Posted: November 30, 2012

The futurist: Lost languages

One disappears every two weeks

Thomas Frey

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A few notable efforts are already underway.

  • Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has a mission to promote the documentation, maintenance, preservation, and revitalization of endangered languages worldwide through linguist-aided, community-driven multimedia language documentation projects. Through proactive efforts, the Institute arranges expeditions to find “last speakers” of endangered languages worldwide and archive pieces of their culture through books, stories, and videos for use by future generations.
  • Talking Dictionary – Living Tongues Institute is also producing a series of Online Talking Dictionaries for a range of languages. Here are some examples.
  • The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to develop a contemporary version of the historic Rosetta Stone for the next 10,000 years. This project is run by the Long Now Foundation. Their goal is create a broad online survey and near-permanent physical archive of 1,500 of the approximately 7,000 human languages.
  • Multilingual Manchester – A University of Manchester archive set up in 2010 to document, protect and support the languages spoken in one of Europe’s most diverse cities, is now the world’s largest. The web-based Multilingual Manchester documents the city’s diverse linguistic tradition of over 100 languages.

The Global Language Archive – The “Louvre of Languages”

Creating a physical place that represents a focal point for language preservation brings with it tremendous opportunity. Unlike today’s cultural museums that capture physical fragments of history, the Global Language Archive will have a mission to preserve the communications, stories, and dreams of our ancestors.

Online efforts only go so far. By adding physical dimensions, human contact, audio stories, and peripheral experiences, we breathe life into these otherwise single-dimensional languages.

As “last speakers” begin to dwindle, the final-person-responsibility brings with it tremendous stress and anxiety. The loss of a language means the loss of birthright, heritage, and customs. It somehow breaks the connection with their ancestors and invalidates all of the accomplishments of the past, dishonoring the culture of their families.

But much of this stress can be diffused by taking these speakers through a formal preservation process that transforms them from “crazy person clinging to the past” to “cultural expert with a deep understanding of their ancestors.”

Curators of languages are different than curators of artifacts. Languages are tools of expression with deep emotional ties. Done correctly, the Global Language Archive will attract massive crowds from around the world. It will be a one-of-a-kind facility serving as a Mecca for linguistic scientists and cultural researchers around the globe.

In this context, language itself becomes a cultural taxonomy, and with upwards of 7,000 languages left to preserve, it has the potential for becoming the largest museum in the world with associated universities, hotels, culture-inspired retail centers, and much more.

Final Thoughts

Ironically, the creation of a Global Language Archive will speed the reduction of spoken languages. Once the onus of responsibility has been removed from last speakers to keep their culture alive, they will be more likely to let their children decide their own career path.

Having fewer languages creates societal efficiencies on many levels – less confusion, reduced standards, and fewer decision points within most business structures.

From a nation-to-nation relationship standpoint, it will be a great diffuser of cultural tensions.

With English becoming the de facto international language standard of science, technology, and the Internet, it will be in the best interest of English-speaking countries to fund the Global Language Archive in a big way. For them it will create an unprecedented competitive advantage for business and industry.

My goal in writing this was to help readers understand how this looming language crisis could be transitioned into a significant opportunity. But I tend to look at the world through an overly optimistic lens, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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