Text Messages May Save Dying Languages

Can a language stay relevant if it isn't used to send text messages on a cell phone?

Language advocates worry that the answer is no, and they are pushing to make more written languages available on cell phones.

Texting is the cheapest and most popular mode of cell-phone communication in most of the world, and last year text messages topped voice calls even in the U.S.

The world's three billion cell phones far surpass the Internet as a universal communications medium, and they are vital to business development in less-developed economies.

But companies that develop predictive text say they have created cell-phone software for fewer than 80 of the world's 6,912 languages cataloged by SIL International, a Dallas organization that works to preserve languages.

One key to using the languages is the availability of a technology called predictive text, which reduces the number of key taps necessary to create a word when using a limited keypad. Market research shows that text-messaging soars after predictive text becomes available.

"The idea of having your cultural identity represented in this technology is increasingly important," says Laura Welcher, director of the Rosetta Project of San Francisco's Long Now Foundation.

Welcher, who says linguists fear half the world's languages will disappear in the near future, thinks at least 200 languages have enough speakers to justify development of cell-phone text systems.

"Technology empowers the poorest people," she adds.

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