Many languages disappear every year. In a race against time, language researchers are using digital technology to preserve those tongues from extinction.
Ong uyan madongo?
You probably don’t know how to answer that question — unless you happen to be one of the roughly 430 people in the world who speak a language called Matukar Panau. Then you would know it means, “How are you?”
Matukar Panau is one of the world’s rarest languages. It is spoken in just two small coastal villages in Papua New Guinea. This tropical island nation lies in the southwest Pacific Ocean.
Until five years ago, David Harrison, a language expert at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania didn’t know much about Matukar Panau either. No one had ever recorded or even studied its words and rules. With so few speakers, the language risked vanishing without a blip. It was endangered.
An animal is endangered when its population becomes so rare that it faces a serious risk of going extinct. An endangered language has so few speakers that its words soon may never be spoken or heard again. Harrison didn’t want that to happen to Matukar Panau. So in 2009, he set out for Papua New Guinea. His goal: use modern technology to help the remaining speakers preserve their native tongue.