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Endangered Languages in the Pacific Provide Unique Opportunity for American Public Diplomacy

Aug 31, 2012


According to UNESCO, “half of the 6,000 plus spoken languages today will disappear by the end of the century” if the world fails to take action to preserve endangered languages.

The situation in the Pacific is particularly troubling. According to the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, well over a hundred native languages are listed as vulnerable or endangered in Pacific ACP (African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States) countries. If one considers the larger Pacific Islands Forum region, the number soars to several hundred, with 108 vulnerable and endangered languages in Australia alone.

While the protection of endangered languages was not one of the issues of “urgency and focus” outlined at the conclusion of last year’s meeting in New Zealand, the PIF has very publicly recognized the importance of promoting and protecting the region’s cultural identity. Traditional leaders in the Pacific also recognize the loss of their native languages as an existential threat for their local communities.

The problem is that regional and national partners lack the resources to confront this major risk for the region. If Pacific ACP countries hope to prevent the extinction of dozens of their native languages, their best option may be to engage extra-regional partners to support their objectives.

At this moment in history, no country is in a better position to assist than the United States.

Under Hillary Clinton, the Department of State has embraced technology and public-private partnerships as major assets in advancing American diplomatic and development objectives.

American companies have also developed “shovel ready” solutions that could be put to immediate effect to preserve and nurture endangered languages in the Pacific. They simply require requisite funding to put these solutions in the hands of local communities.

The question then is whether the United States delegation will seize upon this unique opportunity to score an easy soft power win at this year’s Pacific Islands Forum.

Rosetta Stone’ Endangered Languages Program

In 2004, Rosetta Stone (NYSE: RST) founded the Endangered Languages Program (ELP). In conjunction with community partners, the ELP team has “translated, adapted, and customized (Rosetta Stone’s proprietary) language learning software to make it culturally and linguistically relevant.” So far, ELP has launched custom solutions for six endangered languages - all associated with Native American tribes in Canada and the United States.

According to Marion Bittinger, ELP manager at Rosetta Stone, these projects demonstrate that customized language software can serve as an important tool for teaching endangered languages. This is especially true for children, who “do not have a high-level – if any level – of familiarity with their own language” and readily adapt to software-based learning environments.

She points out that the software also helps to generate interest in learning endangered languages: “Encoding a language in technology gives it prestige, particularly among younger generations who are literate in the medium. Suddenly, the language of the grandparents can be relevant in the modern world.” This is of critical importance in communities where the perception of young people is that their native language is no longer useful in their daily life.

So, what does a custom solution from Rosetta Stone cost?

Marion estimates no more than “six figures.” For this reason, she says that her team still “gets lots of inquiries (from local communities) even though the Endangered Languages Program is currently dormant.” This includes “lots of interest in Hawaiian, Chamorro, and other Pacific Islander languages.”

Unfortunately, few local communities are in the position to self-finance such initiatives - even though Rosetta Stone is willing to provide its development services at or below cost. This has forced the project team to effectively disband until new funding sources can be identified. However, Marion says that the team could be quickly reconstituted if new funding became available.

Google’s Endangered Languages Project Website

Rosetta Stone is not the only American tech company working to preserve endangered languages. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) recently partnered with the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Eastern Michigan University, and others to launch a new website called The Endangered Languages Project.

The consortium’s website is designed to provide a global interactive repository for sharing information on endangered languages as well as samples in the form of text, audio and video files. It currently features roughly 3,100 endangered languages, including 590 of Austronesian, Trans-New Guinea and Pacific Isolate origin.

Google’s project is unique not only in its scope of endangered languages documented but also in its aim to connect language experts with native speakers from local communities. To achieve this goal, the site enables native speakers to upload their own samples directly into the repository and provides forums where native speakers can provide input on best practices.

According to Jason Rissman, Google’s project manager for the project, the website promises to have important secondary effects on local communities beyond language preservation: “The Endangered Languages Project helps communities engage more with technology. Technology goes hand-in-hand with cultural preservation. It is very empowering.”

While he acknowledges that it might be hard to draw direct correlation between command of endangered languages and economic benefits, he is quick to point out that tech-centric endangered language projects provide technology skills and social networking opportunities to members of the community. In the long run, these benefits may help to improve local education systems, employment prospects, and overall community health.

From Rissman’s perspective, the project does not need more funding for website development. Aside from optimizing the website for low bandwidth environments, Rissman thinks the website already provides a valuable mechanism for local communities to paly an active role in the preservation of their languages.

Instead, what the project needs is for partners downstream to create awareness for the site in local communities. Once that is done, they then need someone to provide many of those communities with very basic technology support (computer with internet connection and a digital camera or audio recorder) so that they can access the website and document their language.

If I was a public diplomacy officer at the U.S. embassy in Suva, I think that I would jump at that opportunity!


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I agree that non-governmental

I agree that non-governmental entities can help, from an academic point of view, document soon-to-be extinct languages. But this is not the responsibility of any government agency, particularly the State Department. Public diplomacy is not used to save languishing linguistic culture. It is used to create a connect between peoples who otherwise would have misunderstood each other if public diplomacy had not intervened. Languages have been dying out since the dawn of civilization. And if I were a public diplomacy officer in Suva, I would first develop a study that assesses the local community's attitude toward their culture/language/rituals before I begin dictating what that particular community should worry about saving or letting go. White bourgeois attitudes toward "endangered" languages, i.e. cultures, should be carefully monitored as to their intention for "saving" these cultures. Who are we (the U.S. State Department, Rosetta, et al.) to tell others why their cultures need to be saved? I believe our efforts and funding could be better used for other initiatives.

It seems to me that the two

It seems to me that the two languages in greatest demand are Hawaiian and Chamorro. If this is the case, then the Department of Interior (who is responsible for Hawaiian and U.S. territorial affairs) could work with local communities in Hawaii and Guam to implement these programs. From my perspective, both are integral parts of America's identity and should be protected and it is a shame more hasn't been done to do just that in the 50+ years since Hawaii became a state. If the U.S. government would take firm action to protect its own Pacific culture, then the State Department would be in a much better position to strengthen U.S. relations with the Pacific Islands.

I still do not see the

I still do not see the correlation between saving "culture" and public diplomacy. Let me attempt to clarify: I personally lament the disappearance of "endangered" cultures. But why is it the government's job to make sure the Hawaiian language, for example, does not suffer extinction? This is not a public diplomacy mandate and, even if State or Interior did sponsor some sort of cultural "rescue", how would this logically influence or strengthen U.S. relations with other Pacific nations? That being said, I would think there are NGOs out there better primed to deal with problems of cultural extinction. So, yes, save all the cultures that we are able. However, the government's too blunt an instrument and too busy trying to manage itself, much less assert itself in the management of the complicated realities of its own indigenous cultures.

Very interesting piece! The

Very interesting piece! The other I could see as having an interest in such PD would be Taiwan. Would you see this as a PD opp for New Zealand or Australia as well? Perhaps even more so because of the proximity and contact.

Andrew: According to the

Andrew: According to the State Department's Public Diplomacy Mission Statement, one of the two key objectives of public diplomacy officers is to "expand and strengthen the relationship between the people and government of the United States and citizens of the rest of the world." This is outlined as a "Strategic Imperative for 21st Century Public Diplomacy" in the Department's public diplomacy roadmap. To achieve this objective, the Department has outlined a number of tactics, including "encouraging collaboration and skill-building in science, technology, and innovation."

In this context, I do not share your concern that the State Department should not help to facilitate public-private partnerships between local communities and US-based universities, nonprofits, and companies who are working to protect endangered languages with American technology and innovation. Nor, do I think it would be outside of a public diplomacy officer's responsibilities to connect local communities with American project's that show they how to document their language using publicly available solutions.

That said, I do agree with your point that the State Department should not be in the business of asking public diplomacy officers to document languages themselves. This is indeed the role of civil society.

It is for this reason that I think the Endangered Languages Project consortium provides a unique partnership opportunity for State to advance American public diplomacy in the Pacific. The project (which attributes some of its funding to the National Science Foundation) is specifically designed to shift the burden of documentation onto native speakers in the local community (who are in the best position to document the languages anyway) not foreigners. Plus, it is already at a level of maturity where the State Department does not need to fund the development of new technology solutions for document. Instead, it would simply require a few days of a public diplomacy officer's time in the local community and perhaps a few small technology grants (which would cost no more than a few $100s in most cases).

Separately, I also agree with your point that the United States should not be in the business of telling countries what endangered languages to save. That said, many local communities in the Pacific have already said that they want to have their languages protected but they lack the capacity to do so. And, regional bodies have identified the protection of endangered languages as an important agenda item for the Pacific Islands community. So, from my perspective, this is about responding to the needs already expressed by the people in the region, especially with respect to the most prominent languages.

Pui: It is interesting to

Pui: It is interesting to note that Marion explicitly called out Hawaiian and Chamorro in my interview. You are correct in saying that these communities mostly reside within the United States, which is legally protected from being the target of U.S. public diplomacy activities. For this reason, support for these communities would need to come from another federal/state organization (i.e. DOI; Education; NSF; etc.) or civil society. At present, there simply is not funding within local communities to move such a project forward.

That said, the RS program (or one like it) could be applied internationally in partnership with the State Department as a development tool. (Some believe that technology-based endangered language learning programs would help to strengthen communities, improve education, increase innovation, and promote economic development in the region.) However, Andrew is right to question whether such programs are worth the cost. Ultimately, a careful analysis of such a program would need to be conducted to make that determination. I am just trying to provoke its consideration in the article.

My initial reaction: State funding of a RS-like solution would not be appropriate for the vast majority of the endangered languages in the region. However, I think that if the native language training was bundled with English language training (which Rosetta Stone also provides), the ROI would increase (as it would advance another U.S. public diplomacy objective - promoting English language usage - in concert with the others already discussed.)

Andrew: From the perspective of American public diplomacy, I believe that investing in America's Pacific culture would strengthen the ability for public diplomacy officers to promote America's intersts in the Pacific Islands. Right now, it is difficult for American diplomats to promote our shared cultural identity or even recognize the importance of our neighbors' cultures when the Hawaiian language, one of the most recognized Pacific languages, is itself critically endangered. Our cultural history in Hawaii and the Pacific territories is rich and could be even stronger if more funding was made available to promote cultural activities i nthe U.S. If that were to occur, then our public diplomacy officers in the region would be in a far better position to advance American interests as part of the larger U.S. pivot to Asia-Pacific.


Paul: Thank you for the kind

Paul: Thank you for the kind remark! With respect to other countries, the overall impact would be lower because they would not be leveraging their own companies (assuming they use the two examples provided). However, this does not mean that the other countries could not partner with their own companies to provide technology-based solutions to protect endangered languages in the Pacific. Nor does it mean that they would not benefit from partnering with the two U.S. companies named in the article. (Google for one already has a strong local presence in many Asian and Pacific markets and other governments could partner with their local office to increase the return on investment for their program.) A final alternative is that they could partner with the U.S. Government and advance the program as a multinational public diplomacy / development / cultural preservation initiative.

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