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Saving Endangered Languages with Korean Soap Operas

Caspian blue/Wikimedia

Researchers predict that over half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of the century. Viki, a clever website, uses technology to protect linguistic diversity.

Viki is a website that crowdsources the translation of licensed films and television shows, using the translations to create subtitles. Viki’s goal is to make films and shows more widely accessible through the formation of translation communities.

This September, Viki partnered with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages to start the Endangered Languages Initiative. Now, Viki features projects in Udmurt, Cherokee, Maori, and other endangered languages.

The Rosetta Project predicts that, if the current language disappearance rate is not stalled, half of the world’s languages will be extinct in the next century. Viki’s project is one of several recent initiatives aimed at protecting linguistic diversity.

Viki CEO Razmig Hovaghimian told The Atlantic that the new project aims to help not just media content, but also “language,…nuance, [and] culture," cross borders.

Does it Work?

The Atlantic points out interesting facts about who is watching what on Viki: the Korean drama You Who Came From the Stars is most watched in Hebrew and Arabic, and Japanese shows are most watched in Lithuanian. This indicates that the site is indeed facilitating cross-cultural media exchange.

However, rather than exporting endangered languages outwards, Viki’s initiatives may be integrating endangered language communities into global pop culture. Israeli or Lithuanian viewers may even be picking up Japanese and Korean phrases.

Viki’s goal of bringing exposure to endangered languages through digital media may be hard to achieve. Translating a show is hard work, and finding volunteers to take up such a task is challenging. On top of that, some endangered languages are located in communities without reliable Internet access, and others do not have a written form.

However, when Viki does successfully translate a work, the material is immediately available on the Web, making these endangered languages both internationally accessible and internationally relevant.

Keeping Languages Alive Through Updates

To stay linguistically relevant, some speakers of endangered languages are creating specific technological and industrial terms. For example, a group of translators for the language Udmurt, spoken near the Russian Urals, invented words for ‘PR,’ ‘retail,’ and ‘crowdsourcing’, according to The Atlantic. This was done with the aim of keeping Udmurt abreast of the world’s rapidly developing industries. Their success shows that innovation is key to keeping endangered languages alive.

In a joint press release published in National Geographic, Viki and Living Tounges report that less than five per cent of the world’s languages are online. For the remaining ninety-five per cent, the Internet can be used as a tool for revitalisation.

Indeed, the Huffington Post recently reported on a new online documentation method for language use – Twitter. Viki’s translation project is also a virtual documentation of endangered languages. The project not only propels endangered languages into global consciousness, but also helps facilitate linguistic research.

The Importance of Pride

Yet, an online presence is not enough. Dr. K. David Harrison, the director of research for the Living Tongues Institute, tells National Geographic that, though “technology alone does not doom or save languages,” having linguistic pride and a “willingness to creatively expand [a language’s] use through technologies,” can help the preservation process.

Without a doubt, working to make films and shows available to Viki’s 33 million users in your native tongue would be something of which to be proud. And, such pride is easily shared with other speakers of your language.

Fired up about learning rare languages? The preservation of linguistic diversity starts at home, with you. Take pride in your background by improving your language skills, or have a look through our language courses to brush up on a language that you may have been neglecting: Contact Us to get started. And then, why not take a shot at translating a movie?