How Films And TV Are Saving Endangered Languages

Can a surge of movies and TV shows protect endangered languages on the brink of extinction?
Hawaiian children dancing for endangered languages

A language dies every 14 days. In just two weeks (on average), another language will vanish from the earth. At this rate, roughly half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of the century. This statistic is worth repeating because it’s shocking, and it is an enormous source of anxiety for the communities who speak endangered languages. What can be done to prevent this? Quite a bit, actually.

Groups like Wikitongues and the Endangered Language Alliance have been working hard to preserve endangered languages for years. They’ve documented stories and dialogues in at-risk communities, along with hosting classes and cultural events. This important work deserves our attention, but there is also a rising movement focused on using movies and TV shows to save endangered languages. It’s a different approach to tackling the same problem, and it’s starting to gain traction.

The films and television shows are being produced with the goal of either raising awareness about the issue at hand or preserving a specific language by exposing more people to it. There is some overlap between these two goals — obviously, films that get press attention for preserving a language are also raising awareness — but one of them is the priority.

Raising Awareness With Educational Media

One of the problems working against endangered languages is a lack of awareness by the general public about what’s happening and why it’s a problem. People can’t contribute their time or money to a cause if they don’t know the cause exists. That’s where films and TV shows come in.

A recent project with this goal in mind was Last Whispers: Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes and a Falling Tree, an immersive film by Lena Herzog (married to Werner) that features an array of endangered and extinct languages in the form of speech, whispers and songs set to a backdrop of black-and-white nature and space imagery. The project’s purpose is to get viewers to reflect on the fading voices of endangered language speakers and to feel their loss.

Other media projects in recent years have been less experimental and more straightforward in their awareness campaigns. The Linguists was a 2008 documentary about two scientists working in the field to document languages on the verge of extinction. The film follows them from Siberia to India to Bolivia as they work to save endangered languages around the world.

Another contribution is the three-part docuseries On The Road With Bob Holman: A Poet’s Journey Into Global Cultures and Languages. It’s hosted by Bob Holman, the founder of the Bowery Poetry Club in New York and one of the founders of the Endangered Language Alliance. In the same (though less scientific) vein as The Linguists, Holman travels around the world meeting speakers of endangered languages, exchanging songs and poems along the way. 

All of these examples hope to highlight the beauty and wonder of these languages, while also stressing the precariousness of their current standing in the world.

Preserving Endangered Languages

After awareness comes action. In addition to the work being done by Wikitongues, the ELA and the scientists featured in The Linguists, a few film and TV projects are attempting to take action in their own way by passing on endangered languages to the next generation.

One example of preservation through film is the effort to dub the animated Disney movie Moana in Hawaiian, which is classified by UNESCO as a critically endangered language. The University of Hawaii’s Academy for Creative Media undertook this dubbing project and provided free copies of the film to every accredited school (from pre-K to college) in the state. Giving young Hawaiians exposure to the language could go a long way toward revitalizing it.

Groups of translators have been working on other dubbing projects as well. One team used the crowdsourcing film translation site Viki to dub a number of films in Udmurt (eastern Russia), Cherokee (southeastern United States), Maori (New Zealand) and other endangered languages. 

Rather than dubbing an existing film in an endangered language, many recent projects are being created in that language from the start. SGaawaay K’uuna (“The Edge of the Knife”), which premiered in 2019, is a film entirely in Haida, an indigenous language of British Columbia that only about 20 people can speak fluently. The goal of the film is to help preserve the Haida language, and members of the indigenous community were employed to work on the project.

Recent television series have also attempted to bring endangered languages and dialects into the mainstream spotlight. A high-profile example is HBO’s series My Brilliant Friend, based on the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. Though the books were written in standard Italian, the show was actually filmed in the Neapolitan dialect by local actors. Neapolitan is classified as “vulnerable” by the ELA, so this show is another instance of foreign-language media being used as a form of preservation.

Can these films and television shows make a real impact in the race against the clock to save these dying languages? It’s too soon to say definitively, but with increased awareness and a rise in collective action, hope for language resurgence is not yet off the table.

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