Indigenous peoples speak more than 4,000 of the world’s 7,000-odd languages. These native tongues function as so much more than a means of communication; they encode community histories, traditions, ways of thinking, environmental knowledge. And unfortunately, many Indigenous languages are at risk of disappearing.
In an effort to both preserve and raise awareness about these languages, Google Earth has launched an interactive platform on its Voyager feature that lets users listen to audio recordings by more than 50 Indigenous language speakers from across the globe. Titled Celebrating Indigenous Languages, the project spotlights diverse communities and profiles pioneering activists who are fighting to preserve their ancestral languages.
By clicking on a placemark, users are introduced to an Indigenous language and the person speaking it. Each speaker is recorded giving a greeting and responding to two questions—like “What is your favorite proverb in your language?” and “Can you share a traditional song in your language?” Karina Lester from Australia, for instance, sings a ditty in Yankunytjatjara—“a fun song that could be sung during morning break while cups of tea are being prepared.” Oranee Janyapotngam from Thailand shares a saying in S'gaw Karen: “If we drink water, we have to take care of the water. If we use land, we have to take care of the land. And if we eat flock, we have to take care of the cliff. If we eat fish, we have to take care of the pond.”
Short blurbs reveal unique features of the languages (the Northern Sámi language, for instance, spoken in northernmost Finland, Sweden, and Norway, boasts several hundred words for snow or reindeer herding), the diverse threats they have faced and actions that are being taken to save them. Members of the Semaq Beri Indigenous community in peninsular Malaysia are using cell phones to record and share stories in their Semaq Beri language. Ken Paupanekis, a teacher in Manitoba, Canada, has developed a curriculum for Cree, which is taught at the university level. John Inia of Rotuma Island, a dependency of Fiji, hopes to revise the European-devised writing system for the Fäeag Rotuma language.
“There’s no real written link between our words and our lives,” he says, “so we need to create a living dictionary.”
The new Google Earth project coincides with a United Nations initiative that has declared 2019 the “Year of Indigenous Languages,” which similarly seeks to bring attention to the world’s disappearing tongues. Of the 2,680 international languages that are considered at risk, most are Indigenous, according to the U.N. Assimilation, political persecution and globalization are among the causes of dwindling language diversity—a phenomenon that is occurring at an alarming rate. It has, in fact, been estimated that a spoken language disappears every two weeks.
Among the Indigenous languages featured in the Google Earth project are 19 that Unesco has categorized as either "vulnerable," "definitely endangered" or "severely endangered." Four are considered critically endangered.
“We hope this collection will raise awareness of these languages,” Raleigh Seamster, program manager of Google Earth outreach, says in a statement, “and create an opportunity for our users to appreciate the contribution that these languages and their speakers make to global diversity.”