On Endangered Languages

It turns out that here in Redmond we’re sitting in the middle of one of the global hotspots of language endangerment, as identified by this NY Times article on the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. It is heartbreaking to realize that of the world’s 7000 or so languages, half are expected to vanish before the end of this century. It’s also humbling: our group spends much (probably most) of its time trying to extend the reach of natural language software to as many languages as we can (the language packs for Office 2007 include proofing tools support for dozens of languages). We’re exploring many ways to speed up development for natural language software, and empower people in lots of language communities to use software that “speaks their language”. But the work is painfully slow compared to the rate at which this tragedy is unfolding.

Some of the linguists in our group know from experience just how fast that clock is running. For instance, before coming to Microsoft I worked for an all-too-brief period with the folks in the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, Washington, on their language preservation project. Though sadly the last living native speaker of Makah has since passed away, they continue their efforts to teach the language to young speakers so that this rich piece of cultural heritage is not lost entirely.

The folks in the Living Tongues project are really in the trenches, working to preserve some of the languages in the most immediate danger. It’s well worth some time to take a look at their website and inform yourself about just what is lost to humanity when another language disappears.


--James Lyle (Test Lead)