There are almost 7,000 human languages spoken around the world, but by the end of the century almost half could be extinct, existing only as preserved specimens in obscure databases.
The survival, and even revival, of these endangered languages could well depend on these same databases, but only if they become a lot less obscure and a lot more accessible.
Enter virtual reality.
Imagine a virtual reality catalogue where looking up a language is the first step to immersing yourself in the sensory world of that language. You could experience street scenes, see and hear people speak, call up songs, listen to stories, learn the words for different things.
We aren’t quite there yet, but some Australian linguists are showing the way. They have created a virtual reality fly-through of the South Pacific Islands including Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, home to an astonishing 130 and 900 languages respectively.
As you fly over Vanuatu’s 80 islands, courtesy of a virtual reality headset, shards of light beam up from each language locality, guiding you where to go. As you approach each one, the hubbub of voices subside and is replaced by people speaking the specific local language, with information provided on how many people are still speaking it. For some it is thousands, for others there are less than a 100 speakers. Looking out across Vanuatu, the islands appear as a forest of light beams reminding you of what we are in danger of losing.
“This could become the way people search and engage with language catalogues in the future,” says linguist Dr Nick Thieberger.
“At some point in the future rather than just watching a video file or listening to an audio file, you may be able to enter into the virtual world of that language.”
The VR display is the brainchild of Dr Thieberger, an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Languages and Linguistics, and Dr Rachel Hendery, Senior lecturer in Digital Humanities at Western Sydney University. Developed through the ARC’s Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, the VR was made by new media artist and creative developer Andrew Burrell, and uses audio and other information stored in the Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC).
Read more: University of Melbourne