Keeping Languages Alive

Mother Language Poster
The theme of this year's International Mother Language Day is "Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities," and Metavoicer is a technology that presents learning opportunities.

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Metavoicer Celebrates International Mother Language Day

Today is International Mother Language Day. What’s that, you may well ask, and what does it have to do with a text-to-speech (TTS) app like Metavoicer? More than you might think is the surprising answer.

A mother language is the language we learn first and used in our homes. For this reason, it’s also known as a native tongue, first language, or home language. For many people, this will be the same as the language surrounding them at school, at work, and in the media. If you grew up speaking English in the USA or Australia, the question of a “mother tongue” may never have occurred to you. But for someone whose first language is Navajo or Warlpiri, English has to be learned later in life. 

But why do mother languages matter? They are part of our social and cultural identity. A popular (though controversial) theory suggests that the way we think is conditioned by the language we speak. Whether that is true or not, language is central to who we are.

The United Nations says that: “…languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in strengthening co-operation and attaining quality education for all, in building inclusive knowledge societies and preserving cultural heritage, and in mobilizing political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development.”

Many languages are endangered. Just as species go extinct when their environment disappears, mother tongues can be wiped out by societal change or cultural invasion. Between 1950 and 2010, around 230 languages died out, and linguists estimate that up to 90 percent of the world’s languages could be extinct by 2100.

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Sometimes this is the result of deliberate policy. Colonial governments often stamped out native languages, forcing local people to speak the language of the occupying power at school. “Language suppression” still goes on today: the use of Kurdish is restricted in Syria, for example. The Indian government has been criticized for imposing Hindi on southern states where other languages are spoken.

Mostly though, languages die not by murder but through neglect. The cultural dominance of a handful of tongues—English, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, and a few others—means that young people turn away from languages that can only be used with a handful of others and towards languages associated with pop music, movies, and success in education and business. It’s estimated that 0.2 percent of languages are spoken by half the world. In comparison, 96 percent of languages are spoken by only 4 percent of people.

Sometimes languages can be brought back from the brink. Welsh, for example, was long suppressed by the English, but in recent years has enjoyed a renaissance. Rock groups singing in Welsh had international success. Two attractive young people holding a conversation in Welsh on the TV show Big Brother provoked much comment. Nearly a third of the people of Wales now say they speak their national language, with 15 percent using Welsh daily.

Linguistic diversity is part of the richness of human heritage. Languages carry information too, which can be lost if the language dies. For example, the discovery that the Malagasy language spoken on the African island of Madagascar is Austronesian, related to Malay and Hawaiian, tells us much about the global movement of people in ancient times.

Metavoicer supports and celebrates linguistic diversity. The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day is “Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities,” and Metavoicer is a technology that presents learning opportunities. The popular TTS app can read text in over 60 languages and dialects, which include not only the big hitters like English and Chinese but also minority languages such as Sundanese, spoken in western Java, and Catalan, the language of Barcelona and its surrounding region. And yes, it speaks Welsh too.

So join us in celebrating International Mother Language Day by keeping alive the wondrous variety of that uniquely human phenomenon: speech.

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