Skip to main content
Move the World.
A Language Goes Extinct Every Two Weeks. Here’s a Plan to Save Them.

What started as one man's crusade to archive the world's languages is now a global effort to save and even revive them. Volunteers worldwide are documenting the world's rarest languages in a project called Wikitongues.

When Daniel Udell spent a year living in Spain at the age of sixteen, he learned Spanish and Catalan, his first two foreign languages. Learning Catalan, a historically persecuted language, was a wakeup call for Udell.

Listen to Lemerig, a language where only two known speakers remain:

Lemerig was a language spoken on Vanua Lava, an island with a population of under three thousand citizens.

"When you're raised in a majority (of) overrepresented languages like English or Spanish, I think the vital role the language plays in people's identities can be lost," he says.

Now Udell speaks eight different languages, and he isn't stopping there. He says that learning a new language felt like "learning about the world in a way that I hadn't been taught." He wanted to make linguistic diversity available to more people. So, he collects languages like some people collect baseball cards — the rarest being the most valuable. He founded Wikitongues as a way to share these languages with the world.

“When you’re raised in a majority (of) overrepresented languages like English or Spanish, I think the vital role the language plays in people’s identities can be lost.”

Daniel Udell , founder of Wikitongues

Documenting Languages on the Brink of Extinction

Udell launched the endeavor in 2014 by crowdsourcing videos of people speaking their native tongue. He gets help from over a thousand volunteers (and counting) from around the world. They make a video of people speaking their native language — introducing themselves, providing an oral history, or just talking about their culture — then they upload it to the online database, which is archived on servers provided by Dropbox. The archive is available on the web as a free language encyclopedia. Soon they will also be available at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Listen to Indigenous Bornean:

Borneo is an island located in maritime Southeast Asia. While Bahasa Malaysia is the official language, all the indigenous tribes in Borneo have their own language.

So far, Wikitongues has collected 500 languages — even documenting some languages for the first time in history, which Udell says present the most significant challenge. Undocumented languages, which are often spoken in rural communities that linguists haven’t visited, could mean that it isn’t recognized, doesn’t have an International Standards Organization (ISO) code, isn’t taught in schools, or is not supported by the community’s own government.

Daniel Udell collects languages like some people collect baseball cards — the rarest being the most valuable.

He was impressed when he first received a recording of an undocumented language. It was spoken by an Indigenous Bornean from Borneo, a large island that lies between Southeast Asia and Australia. He has since archived recordings of eleven such languages. There is no definitive count of the world's languages. The most extensive catalog is Ethnologue, published by SIL International (formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics). As of 2009, they list 6,909 distinct languages. Udell eventually hopes to store all the remaining languages in the world.

Giving Communities the Agency to Save Their Own Language

David Shorter is a professor at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Culture who is not involved with Wikitongues. He studies the relationship between identity and language. He says that when a word is lost , the skill or tradition associated with that word sometimes dies with it. Shorter recalls a native culture where the traditional practice of identifying plants and herbs for medicine was lost as the language evolved and the plants were no longer called by ancestral names.

Wikitongues has collected 500 languages — even documenting some languages for the first time in history.

"When you have a change like that through generations, you're not just losing a word, you're also losing a little piece of culture and history," he says.

Udell says that "there are about 3,000 so-called 'endangered' languages and only a couple hundred documented efforts to revitalize them." It is estimated that a language is lost every two weeks. At that rate, half the world's languages will be extinct by the end of the century.

But Shorter says that language preservation should be at the initiative of the native speaker. He says that how a language is documented and stored should be determined by native speakers and wonders how Wikitongues engages the speakers beyond just recording their language on video. To help native speakers choose their own path, Shorter created Wiki for Indigenous Languages as a set of a la carte tools to document languages.

When a word is lost, the skill or tradition associated with that word sometimes dies with it.

It is estimated that a language is lost every two weeks. At that rate, half the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of the century.

At nearly 7,000, documenting all of the world's languages is a tall order. Udell has amassed almost 900 videos in 500 different languages so far, but, according to him, that isn't enough. He says that documenting a language isn't saving it. He wants to give communities the agency to save languages on the brink of extinction. When people ask, "How do I save my language?" Udell wants Wikitongues to be able to provide the resources — something he says is abstract and complicated at this point.

Wikitongues continues to grow, with two paid staff members (Udell and a director of community) and a burgeoning group of volunteers. Udell still moonlights as a freelance web developer to sustain himself, but he isn't slowing down. He feels the urgency of what is at stake.

"When you open things up on the grassroots level, everybody wants to be represented on a global scale. They want their language to be supported, so people show up," he says.

Subscribe

More About

Stand Together
Sometimes It Really Does Take a Village
Sometimes It Really Does Take a Village
Stand Together
Sometimes It Really Does Take a Village
Building a new, community-based foster care system
By Brandon Stewart

Building a new, community-based foster care system

#fixingjustice - Harm Reduction
A Day in the Life of a 'Violence Interruptor'
A Day in the Life of a 'Violence Interruptor'
#fixingjustice - Harm Reduction
A Day in the Life of a 'Violence Interruptor'
Freethink followed Andre T. Mitchell, the founder of Man Up!, and his violence interrupter team for a day in Brooklyn…
By Michelle Frankfurter

Freethink followed Andre T. Mitchell, the founder of Man Up!, and his violence interrupter team for a day in Brooklyn as they responded to a recent shooting in a nearby neighborhood.

#fixingjustice - Re-entry
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
#fixingjustice - Re-entry
Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Break the Cycle of Violence?
CBT is a promising way to reduce violence, so why has it been so hard to scale?
By Dan Bier

CBT is a promising way to reduce violence, so why has it been so hard to scale?

#fixingjustice - Policing
Community Policing is Back in Vogue. But Does it Work?
Community Policing is Back in Vogue. But Does it Work?
#fixingjustice - Policing
Community Policing is Back in Vogue. But Does it Work?
As police departments look for ways to rebuild trust with their communities, an increasing number are turning to new community…
By Natalia Megas

As police departments look for ways to rebuild trust with their communities, an increasing number are turning to new community policing programs. But are they effective? As with most things, it depends on what you measure.

Catalysts
Introducing Catalysts
Introducing Catalysts
Watch Now
Catalysts
Introducing Catalysts
It’s time to change how we make change. Join us as we meet inspiring social entrepreneurs who are exploring bold new solutions to big social problems.
Watch Now

How can we make progress on a problem as huge and seemingly intractable as poverty? How can we not? There is no silver bullet to eradicating poverty, but all across the country, a diverse array of social entrepreneurs are doing their part to take on this monumental challenge, building amazing organizations that are having a real impact in their communities. Catalysts, a Freethink original series presented by Stand Together, will…

Dispatches
Mental Training Can Heal Traumatic Brain Injuries (and Reduce Depression)
Mental Training Can Heal Traumatic Brain Injuries (and Reduce Depression)
Dispatches
Mental Training Can Heal Traumatic Brain Injuries (and Reduce Depression)
Millions of people are dealing with traumatic head injuries; brain scans show that cognitive training could actually repair damaged neural…
By Dan Bier

Millions of people are dealing with traumatic head injuries; brain scans show that cognitive training could actually repair damaged neural connections.

Relentless
The Tattooed, Skater Principal Making Education Fun Again
The Tattooed, Skater Principal Making Education Fun Again
Watch Now
Relentless
The Tattooed, Skater Principal Making Education Fun Again
The Tattooed, Skater Principal Making Education Fun Again
Watch Now

To hear Hamish Brewer speak is to be inspired. About education. About life. About the possibilities of it all. And for disadvantaged youths that come from poverty and broken homes, the New Zealander with an infectious energy works hard to encourage them to excel, not only in school, but in life. About Hamish Brewer With a shaved head, tattoos, and one of those loud, larger-than-life personalities, Hamish Brewer is hard…

Culture
This Week in Ideas: Reasons to Feel Good About Humanity
This Week in Ideas: Reasons to Feel Good About Humanity
Culture
This Week in Ideas: Reasons to Feel Good About Humanity
A paralyzed woman runs a half marathon in an exoskeleton, Sri Lanka defeats malaria, incomes are rising. Here's some good…
By Mike Riggs

A paralyzed woman runs a half marathon in an exoskeleton, Sri Lanka defeats malaria, incomes are rising. Here's some good news since most of what we hear is just the bad.