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No Voice Left Behind: Capturing Audio to Safeguard Endangered Languages

With thousands of languages poised to die out by the end of this century, researchers from the LIVING TONGUES institute are racing to document the most endangered languages around the world.
March, 04 2024 |
A group of Indian women laughing.

In a vibrant Indian village, full of people conversing as they go about their daily lives, it’s not immediately apparent that the local language is under threat of extinction.

But Dr. Luke Horo, a senior phonetics researcher for the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, is keenly aware that many languages in the world’s largest country face precipitous decline or could vanish entirely in the coming decades.

So he and his colleagues are documenting the Munda language family found in eastern India, Nepal and Bangladesh while trying to raise awareness of the precarious situation these Austroasiatic languages are in. Perhaps most importantly, the linguists are also giving local native speakers the tools to bolster their cultural heritage themselves.

“We are creating an archive of high-fidelity recordings that can be used by the community to preserve their language and transfer it to the subsequent generations,” Dr. Horo explains.

Living Tongues estimates almost half of the world’s 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing by the year 2100. Some of these endangered language communities have dwindling populations of fluent speakers while others face assimilation into dominant national idioms.

Started by Dr. Gregory D. S. Anderson in 2005, the non-profit organization Living Tongues today has teams around the world working to safeguard the most endangered languages. The group, which is largely financed by donations and grants, takes a two-pronged approach to its mission, combining academic linguistic research and community activism.

Dr. Anderson clearly embodies this dual-track ethos, easily switching between explaining complex linguistic concepts and discussing the deep impact of socio-economic factors on many vulnerable language communities.

An Unfair Choice

“One of the things that is common across all endangered communities is they feel like they are given an unfair choice: They can either abandon their identity and achieve socially and economically or maintain it and be held back,” Dr. Anderson says.

Though official acknowledgement and support is important, he says people unfortunately cannot rely on their respective governments alone to protect endangered languages.

Based in the Pacific Northwest, tucked away behind Christmas tree farms and located at the end of a driveway lined with towering firs, the affable linguist first assures visitors that his protective pit bull is out for a walk before describing how crucial grassroots efforts are to the Living Tongues mission.

“There will never be enough money in these countries to do everything adequately and there will also never be enough outside linguists trained to do this kind of work,” Dr. Anderson explains. “So the only viable, scalable solution was bring knowledge of language documentation to the communities themselves and provide them free tools to control these things.”

Creating Living Dictionaries

One key tool is the Living Dictionaries online platform Dr. Anderson and his colleagues have labored to create and improve over several years. It is a free, mobile-friendly multimedia dictionary-builder for currently over 400 under-represented languages like the Native American ’lipay Aa tongue still spoken near San Diego, California and Santali, spoken in the Indian village where Dr. Horo is working.

The platform now comprises some 209,000 dictionary entries, with 59,000 of those added just in 2023. It’s the hundreds of so-called “citizen linguists,” active and engaged language community members, contributing to the platform’s rapid growth and helping to record its high-quality spoken examples of dictionary entries.

“Audio is extremely important to us, and we love Shure products,” says Dr. Anderson, singling out the importance of the headset microphones Living Tongues uses for phonetics work. “They are extremely reliable, and we’ve never had any problems with them.”

Testing MoveMic

But on the group’s recent outing in India, the researchers were also able to test out the new MoveMic clip-on microphone from Shure. The compact yet powerful wireless system allows Living Tongues researchers to capture audio straight to their smartphones.


“When we talk about linguistic analysis, we really need to record a good, representative sample in high quality. The MoveMic lavalier microphones are perfect for our needs,” says Dr. Horo, “They’re compact and discreet and easy to use, meaning that people are able to vocalize naturally without distraction.”

His colleagues agree the combination of having a small clip-on microphone able to easily capture professional-quality audio makes the new wireless system ideal for researchers in the field.

“I think MoveMic is very good for spontaneous, conversational and narrative recordings,” says Dr. Anderson, before detailing how his team recently used it in India to explore the complexities of Santali, a Munda language. 

“We’re trying to map structures onto sound patterns. There’s sometimes a mismatch between what the grammar generates and what the sound system tells us can be a word.”

Supporting Multilingualism

Shure is supporting Living Tongues' mission with both audio equipment including MoveMic and a financial donation. Private donations can be made here. When asked what else people can do to help safeguard endangered languages, Dr. Anderson pauses before answering that supporting multilingualism is an important part of broader cultural acceptance for marginalized tongues.

“Speaking multiple languages used to be the norm,” he says, pointing out that allowing people to be proud of their own linguistic heritage has been shown to create direct benefits to society.

And just how much we lose when a language disappears becomes clear when listening to a young woman in India talk about her culture: “It would be amazing for people to be able to study in Santali,” she says, “because that is our mother tongue.”

Find out more about Living Tongues here.

Find out more about MoveMic here.

Marc Young
With a background in journalism, Marc is an editor for Shure covering anything and everything that has to do with sound. He tries to compensate for his mediocre guitar-playing skills with his writing. He is based in Portland, Oregon.