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Tuesday, May 25, 2021

By James Griffiths, CNN Business

The internet threatened to speed up the death of endangered languages. Could it save them instead?

Noah Higgs hated learning Irish in school. He hated the way it was taught, overly formal and disconnected from ordinary people's lives. Most of all he hated the effect the lessons had on his fellow students' willingness to speak the language. 

But the Dublin native never lost his love for Irish, nor his opinion that more people should be learning the language. 
Today, almost 40% of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide are endangered, according to the United Nations. More are going extinct every year
It was once widely feared that the internet revolution would speed up this decline. If developers and smartphone manufacturers aren't willing to invest in supporting minority languages, that would cut off people who speak them from an important way to communicate and trap those languages in the past. 
Higgs, 23, though, is one of a small cohort of educators and activists reinventing how minority languages are taught and preserved online by using cutting-edge technology.
When he was 17, Higgs "had this kind of crazy teenage idea." He had begun using Duolingo, a mobile language-learning app, to study French, and wondered if the creators had considered adding support for Irish. 
At the time in early 2013, there were five languages on Duolingo, the smallest of which, Italian, has an estimated 67.9 million speakers worldwide. By comparison, at its height in the 18th century, there were an estimated four million Irish speakers. Today the figure is closer to 1.2 million.
"I didn't get a reply," Higgs said.
But his email wasn't ignored. Inside Duolingo's open-plan, Silicon Valley-style headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, change was afoot. Within five years, the language startup would build a library of over 30 languages, including some of the most imperiled on the planet.

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