screencap from the Lule-Sami website samedigge.no
screencap from the Lule-Sami website samedigge.no

How Social Media Is Helping to Save Endangered Languages

screencap from the Lule-Sami website samedigge.no
screencap from the Lule-Sami website samedigge.no

The far-northern European group of indigenous Sami languages is dying. Some, like Ter Sami from the eastern Kola Peninsula, only have two remaining speakers in the world. Sami youth are not learning their language, and if they know it, aren’t engaging with others in it. Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sami Parliament in Norway, wanted to find a modern way to solve this problem—so in 2013, she took to social media in an effort to revitalize the languages.

Using the Sami, Norwegian, and English-language hashtags #sámásmuinna, #saemesthmnnjien, #sámástamujna, #snakksamisktemæ, and #speaksamitome, Keskitalo encouraged Sami speakers to post a single word or phrase, paired with a photo and sometimes voice recording, on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

“We wanted to motivate young people to see social media as an arena for Sami language, and to show them that even if you only can write one word in your own language, you can still make a difference,” she says. “Language is a strong identity symbol, and it contains the Sami collective memory. It is important that the language is being transferred to the younger generations, and that they feel connected to it. We could lose our connection to our culture and our past without it.”

The campaign prospered for three years, bolstered by events, competitions, physical products, music and video programming, and blogs, before ending this year—but the hashtags and word packages still make an appearance online. In fact, the project had such a positive response that it sparked a similar social media campaign for the fast-dying Gwich’in language in Canada and Alaska: #SpeakGwichinToMe.

Social media has evolved to be so much more than just an outlet for personal chatter. According to the United Nations, more than 6,000 languages exist across the world—and half of them face extinction by the end of the century. But thanks to the incredible reach of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, speakers of endangered languages may be able to reverse this trend.

Ayapaneco, a language from Ayapa, Mexico, faces a similar fate to Ter Sami—only two living native speakers are left. In 2014, Vodafone collaborated with Professor James Fox from Stanford University to help preserve the language and reintroduce it to young children. They rehabbed an Ayapaneco language school in Mexico (where the two native speakers teach) and launched a website, Viva Ayapaneco, a social media-fueled language "adoption" service. Users either search for a word or receive a random word to adopt, listen to a recording of the pronunciation, and then record a video of themselves saying the word. Each video is stored on the website with easy links to share via Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

Facebook groups have a hand in language preservation as well. One of the five remaining speakers of Thao participates in a group called the Omniglot Fan Club—a 20,335-member page dedicated to language learning and linguistics-based culture on which users, including that Thao speaker, can share information about fading languages.

“Members of the group who speak endangered languages post information about them, which might encourage others to take an interest in those languages, and maybe learn them,” says Simon Ager, the group’s administrator. “Efforts to revive and revitalize languages are discussed and some members will find ways to support them, and even be inspired to set up similar projects in other communities.”

The Omniglot group and a similar group called Polyglots have taken it a step further, too. Members do a twice-yearly Lingua Franca Challenge, aiming to learn one language over the course of six months. Groups exist for minority languages, Uralic languages, European languages, and more.

“This kind of group gives people with a common interest in languages a place to talk and meet one another, if only virtually, to help each other and to learn from one another,” Ager says.

Keskitalo believes social media has become an essential tool in the preservation of endangered languages.

“We have lost so many arenas to speak [endangered languages],” she says, “that we need to conquer new ones.”

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Big Questions
What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Live Smarter
The Easy Way to Reduce Robocalls on Your Smartphone
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We can shoot a Tesla into orbit, but we still can’t stop telemarketing scam artists from calling us. The Federal Trade Commission fields an average of 375,000 complaint calls every month about these nuisance solicitations, which often disguise their identities using spoof numbers and are hoping to trick you into revealing your financial information. They’re annoying, illicit, and insulting, but they can be reduced.

According to Verge writer Chris Welch, robocalls sent to iPhone or Android smartphones can be thwarted a number of different ways. Many major cell carriers offer apps that block numbers suspected of being fraudulent. AT&T calls theirs Call Protect, for example, and alerts you when an incoming call seems dubious. You can then choose to ignore it or put it on a permanent block list. T-Mobile has Scam Block, which keeps tabs on known scam numbers and prevents them from getting through.

These services range from being free to leaving a minor ($2.99) surcharge on your monthly bill. For more aggressive blocking, third-party apps like Nomorobo and RoboKiller maintain huge databases of scam numbers and use them to compare incoming calls—once a robocall is detected, it’s cut off.

If you’re still not satisfied with one of these options, you may want to consider a hardware upgrade: Recent models from Samsung like the Galaxy S and Note use a Smart Call feature to curtail unwanted calls.

People who get calls on conventional landline phones shouldn’t give up hope, either. Broadband services like Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) have a version of Nomorobo that will block calls from confirmed scam numbers.

[h/t the Verge]

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