How Language Learning Apps Prevent Language Extinction

By Jonty Yamisha
March 25, 2020

There are over 6000 languages spoken around the world now. Within the next century, 90% of these will disappear. This is a dire statistic, but it begs the question: can modern technology and language learning apps prevent language extinction?

Every language represents culture–a group of people sharing the same space, history, traditions, and beliefs. When languages go extinct, it’s not just words and vocabulary that go missing: it’s the memory of the people that spoke it.

Due to our increasingly globalized world, lingua franca is more important than ever before. But as we spend time, money, and effort into saving various species, we lack a widespread preservation movement for languages.

Today, a third of all languages have fewer than 1000 speakers worldwide. The statistics show that preservation efforts should be a high priority. Fortunately, due to modern technology and the ability to record and connect people, there is still hope for highly threatened languages.

Why Languages Go Extinct

A language is classified as extinct when the last living native speaker dies. Languages like Latin or Ancient Greek are dead, but not extinct. That is due to two reasons: there is a multitude of written material left behind, and their death was a gradual process. Ancient Greek turned into Modern Greek, and Latin turned into various Romance languages, such as Italian, French, or Spanish.

Most extinct languages lack written records. Only about half of today’s languages have a writing system. That leaves around 3,000 languages in danger of oblivion. Without writing, there is no chance of language revival.

Some languages disappear gradually, as bilingual speakers prefer a more widely used language over their native tongue. Some languages die abruptly when the last living speaker dies. The only way to keep a language alive is to teach children. However, that is often not a choice.

There are various reasons why languages become endangered or extinct. In some cases, languages disappeared with the people due to genocide. Most often, it’s due to a community being pressured to integrate into a dominant group.

A woman operates her smartphone.

Minority languages have a history of being targeted as well. Whether it’s the ‘Russification’ in Russia, or the efforts to erase Hawaiian, history is riddled with language suppression. Otherwise known as linguistic genocide, the underlying cause is racism and xenophobia.

A multitude of languages have fallen victim to such political efforts, and this phenomenon is still present today. Countries such as Australia, China, Canada, and the United States still target minority languages instead of preserving them.

Stopping Language Extinction

As important as language preservation is, there are limitations to how that can effectively happen. Linguistic Darwinism is the natural erosion of languages and societies. The only way to protect these cultures is by expanding the number of people who learn about it.

However, without a personal relation or history to a language, most people are redundant to study a dying minority tongue. People opt for and have more motivation toward the study languages they have a personal investment in.

There are multiple organizations that recognize the importance and urgency of language preservation. Movements such as WikiTongues, who records some of the last living speakers of rare languages hope their efforts will one day mean the possible revival.

Thanks to the internet, people divided by space have the opportunity to connect and practice their endangered native language. And their knowledge can be passed on to their descendants and the rest of the world.

Preservation Through Language Learning Apps

Language learning apps are modern technology’s answer to globalized communication–a wonderful tool that fits in our pocket, that can give us lessons on the go. Every language learner shares the same desire to fluently speak their target language, and language learning apps can help these dreams come true.

Language preservation looks to these technologies to not only protect but also teach. While having a language written down and conserved for the memory of the people who once spoke it is important, language learning apps can take it further. By teaching endangered languages, these apps give an opportunity to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect to their ancestor’s native tongues.

Duolingo received a public thanks from the president of Ireland for increasing the number of Gaelic speakers from 100,000 to over 3 million. Memrise, through its unique interface, allows people to submit their own language learning plans, which gives minority speakers a platform to spread their knowledge.

Though rare, language revival is possible with immense political will and thorough written record. Hebrew wasn’t spoken between the fourth century BC and the 1800s. Oklahoma’s Miami tribe revived its language after 40 years in 2001.

 Language learning apps give hope to these efforts. By having platforms that spread the love for language learning, they not just contribute to the preservation, they also aid in the prevention of extinction. Speakers of an endangered minority or indigenous languages have the chance to have their voices heard, and an increasing number of apps recognize the cultural importance of this cause.

Jonty Yamisha of OptiLingo

Bio: Entrepreneur and Linguist, Jonty Yamisha created OptiLingo after his efforts to protect his native language, Circassian, from extinction. Using scientifically proven strategies such as Spaced Repetition and Guided Immersion, OptilLingo has helped thousands finally achieve fluency.