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Bilingva Translation and Interpreting

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An interesting story came out on NPR today about attempts to use modern digital technology to keep the dying languages alive. There are over 7,000 spoken languages in the world, many of them are dialects spoken by a very limited cultural group. With the assimilation of these groups, the number of the native speakers of the language dwindles dramatically. Experts estimate that by the start of the next century only about half of the currently spoken dialects will survive.

That is probably an inevitable change - languages have their own life span, and while some are born (algorithmic languages, for example, have experienced a tremendous growth in the recent decades), others die. Sometimes, people attempt to keep ancient languages alive, and these efforts could be successful: Welsh, Basque, Catalan, Hebrew or Yiddish are all prime examples of these efforts.

According to the NPR story, members of the Native American Siletz tribe in Oregon attempted to preserve their unique language by working with a group of National Geographic Fellows to record 14,000 words and phrases in their native tongue. The word translations are now available online, along with lesson plans, as part of a so-called "talking dictionary" hosted by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Similar efforts have been attempted by other tribes and ethnic groups: for example, Microsoft Windows and Office have been translated into the language of Inuits.

It seems, however, that although this would work to preserve the history of the language, it will do little for keeping it alive. Nothing can replace the actual live conversations between language speakers. The reason Welsh, Catalan or Yiddish were restored from extinction is that a critical mass of speakers was accumulated, whether through government efforts or through grassroots campaigns. Without this component, digital dictionaries and YouTube language lessons will remain just that - an educational material for the language gone.

You can read the full NPR story here.