Internet breathes life into dying languages

HOLYHEAD, Wales, June 12 (Reuters Life!) - Endangered languages like Welsh, Navajo and Breton have regained speakers and popularity in their communities and are now even “cool” for kids -- thanks to the Internet.

Welsh language expert David Crystal said the Internet could forestall the dismal fate of about half of the world’s 6,500 languages, which are doomed to extinction by the end of the 21st century at a rate of about two language deaths a month.

“The Internet offers endangered languages a chance to have a public voice in a way that would not have been possible before,” said Crystal, who has written over 50 books on language including “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language”.

Languages at risk of extinction are appearing on blogs, instant messaging, chat rooms, video site and social networking site, and their presence in the virtual world curries favor with youngsters who speak them.

“It doesn’t matter how much activism you engage in on behalf of a language if you don’t attract the teenagers, the parents of the next generation of children,” Crystal, who was raised speaking English and Welsh, told Reuters.

“And what turns teenagers on more than the Internet these days? If you can get a language out there, the youngsters are much more likely to think it’s cool.”

Online free Encyclopedia, written and built by volunteers, has entries in dozens of endangered languages, from native American Cherokee to the Austronesian language Tetum, spoken by less than a million people in East Timor, to the Maori language of New Zealand.

Tens of Welsh chat rooms exist for its 600,000 speakers -- just over 20 percent of Wales -- where young people look for the best pubs in town, or hunt for potential dates.

Crystal said there are 50-60 languages in the world which have one last speaker, and around 2,000 have never been written.

“If these languages die, they are gone forever. This is a huge intellectual loss to humanity. The Internet is very important in this respect,” he said.

Money is usually required to go virtual however, and this is problematic for African and indigenous South American languages, where resources are low and governments favor dominant languages Spanish, French and English.

Native American languages, especially Navajo, are fortunate to have many virtual communities on the Internet as most are funded by the lucrative casinos the Navajos run, Crystal said.

“To put it into perspective only two to four percent of the world’s botanical and zoological species are in serious danger, whereas it’s 50 percent of languages. The language crisis hasn’t attracted the same degree of public awareness”.