Modern Technology Helps Save Dying Languages

May 16, 2012 by

Torricelli_languages_mapAs discussed in an earlier post, modern technology can be called upon to help save a dying language. Another example of this is a language called Arapesh, marked as #140 on the Ethnologue map of languages along the northern New Guinea coast. According to the Ethnologue, in 2003 some 4,340 people spoke Arapesh, out of almost 9,000 ethnic Arapesh. But the number of Arapesh speakers is constantly shrinking. Today, middle-aged and younger adults no longer speak the language, and children have almost no knowledge of their ancestral tongue.

Luckily, Lise Dobrin, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Virginia, conducted fieldwork in the village of Wautogik on the northern coast in 1998-99 and was able to record villagers telling stories, talking about how they did things in everyday life, such as gardening, and describing events like First Communion. At the time, the technology at her disposal was limited to a portable analog stereo cassette recorder and lavalier microphones. But in subsequent years, Prof. Dobrin compiled her recordings into a digital archive. When a group of urban Arapesh who use Facebook stumbled upon the Arapesh archive, they reached out to Dobrin asking for her help in preserving the language. In March 2012 Prof. Dobrin brought together a dozen people to discuss the best ways to make Arapesh, and possibly other endangered languages, available online to the tech-savvy generation and to connect far-flung villagers to one another. The conference was joined by Emmanuel Narokobi, an Arapesh man, who participated from Papua New Guinea via Skype. Professor Dobrin is working now with Mr. Narokobi and other urban Arapesh to determine what information would be most useful to them.

Papua New Guinea is slightly larger than California, but it is one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth, as it is home to more than 900 languages, none of which traditionally was written down. Since the 16th century, several European nations have occupied parts of the New Guinea island; the eastern half gained independence from Australia in 1975. As in other developing countries, younger Arapesh have moved to cities for education and work, sending money home to the rest of the family. Today, many Arapesh villagers — those who still live in native villages and those who moved to cities — use Tok Pisin, Papua New Guinea’s lingua franca,  as their medium of communication in daily life. Tok Pisin comes from the English “talk pidgin“, from the term for a system of communication developed between people with different languages. English is taught in PNG schools.


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