Want to Tweet in Mayan? This Group Can Help

Rising Voices is set to offer digital media classes to teach speakers of indigenous languages to create multimedia archives of their native dialects.

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Muharrem Oner / Getty Images

Correction Appended: Dec. 10, 2012

Twitter already has dozens of language options for its users, from Finnish to Farsi to Hebrew. But if the Living Tongues Institute has its way, the social networking site could soon adopt some rather uncommon lexicons. The Living Tongues Institute and the Enduring Voices Project have partnered with Rising Voices, an outreach initiative from international blogging community Global Voices, to offer digital media classes to help speakers of indigenous languages create multimedia archives of their native dialects.

The training sessions, called “Enduring Voices: Digital Media Workshop for Speakers of Endangered Languages in Latin America,” will be hosted at Chile’s Santiago Library over five days in January. According to the Rising Voices website, the classes will instruct 12 endangered-language speakers on how to document their vernacular “through the use of computers, cameras, audio recorders and other technologies.” (The classes themselves will be conducted in Spanish.)

The workshop’s “indigenous participants” will come from the native communities of Paraguay, Chile, the Peruvian Amazon, Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia and Guatemala.

(MORE: East Timor: A Former Colony Mulls the Politics of Teaching Portuguese)

Thanks to the effects of globalization, languages are fragile and increasingly vulnerable to extinction, Rising Voices writes on its website, but “digital technologies can help document and preserve [the] knowledge found in these languages.” The loss of indigenous languages, it writes, constitutes “a drastic change in humanity’s intellectual history.”

Earlier this year, National Geographic and the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages gathered an “Enduring Voices Project” team to catalog the globe’s vanishing languages through talking dictionaries, which offer audio recordings of the dying tongues.

“Language extinction is not an inevitability, although it is a very strong trend that is going on right now,” K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College who worked on the talking dictionaries, told LiveScience in February.

Harrison warned that the loss of indigenous languages also means the loss of a “vast knowledge base, knowledge of plants, animals, how to live sustainably, that is contained uniquely in those languages.”

(MORE: Did Climate Change Kill the Mayans?)

According to the Living Tongues Institute, South America’s many native dialects are facing “high” and “severe” threat levels, while the languages of Mesoamerican regions are somewhat less vulnerable. The Enduring Voices team estimates that a language dies out every 14 days, and more than half of humanity’s 7,000 spoken languages will disappear by the year 2100, as local communities forsake their native lexicon in the face of the growing popularity of languages like English, Spanish or Mandarin.

The Living Tongues workshops are looking to combat this by preserving such dialects as mam, a Mayan language from Guatemala. The classes, however, aren’t scheduled to begin until after Dec. 21—the predicted date of the apocalypse, if a well-publicized myth about the Mayan calendar holds true. In that case, there’s no hope for any of our languages after all.

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A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the relative roles of the Living Tongues Institute and Rising Voices in hosting the workshops.