Endangered Languages for the Masses
Inupiaq is an Eskimo-Aleut language cluster spoken by under 2,000 people in Alaska. Like many other endangered languages, now only elderly Inupiaq are fluent speakers. Rosetta Stone to the rescue! Wait…Rosetta Stone to the rescue? According to this article in the Anchorage Daily News, the famous (or infamous) “teach yourself a language” software company, friend of both backpackers and business travelers, plans, with the assistance of the few Inupiaq speakers, to unveil a new program that will simultaneously archive audio-visual information on the language and format it for language instruction purposes. And it’s not just Inupiaq; Rosetta Stone has already developed software for other Native American languages like Mohawk and Navajo and threatened languages elsewhere like Irish Gaelic. But as promising as this may sound for an endangered language’s future, it raises serious questions. First, should language activities turn their efforts and energies towards preservation within the context of corporate pedagogical software? Can we trust that a company Rosetta Stone will in fact want to or be able to capture the essence of a language in its entirety, including its place within larger socio-cultural history and contexts? Also, when threatened communities turn their attention to a company like Rosetta Stone, what does this say about the efforts and effectiveness of traditional language documentation efforts, for example those sponsored by and affiliated with the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Programme in the United Kingdom, the “Documenting Endangered Languages” initiatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, or the Living Tongues Institute?