Eleven of the world's languages have at least one hundred million native speakers. The biggest are Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi. Next come Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, French, and German. The United Nations says these eleven languages are the mother tongues of half the world's population.
But the world has close to seven thousand languages. Linguists predict that as many as half of these may be at risk of disappearing by the end of this century. That would mean another language dies every two weeks.
Members of the Siletz Indian tribe in the northwestern state of Oregon take pride in their language. Their language, they say, "is as old as time itself." But today, very few people can speak it fluently.
Mr. Harrison and a researcher in Oregon have mapped areas of endangered languages. One is the Pacific Northwest in the United States. Others include the upper Amazon basin, Siberia, and northern Australia.
In Canada's Far North, the Inuit people are struggling to preserve their native language, Inuktitut. Part of the effort involves Microsoft. The company is translating terms in its Windows operating system and Office software into Inuktitut. Gavin Nesbitt is the project leader.
He says the programming group had to invent new words to include all the terms in some Windows and Word document menus. But he says the effort is worth it.
"So many people will spend their entire day sitting in front of a computer. If you're sitting in front of your computer in English all day, that just reinforces English. If you're now using Inuktitut, it is reinforcing that this is your language."
Microsoft has also worked with language activists in New Zealand, Spain, and Wales to translate its software into Maori, Basque, Catalan, and Welsh.
In Oregon, Siletz language teacher Bud Lane says technology alone cannot save endangered languages.
"Nothing takes the place of speakers speaking to other speakers and to people who are learning. But this bridges a gap that was just sorely needed in our community and in our tribe."
He points to one sign of progress: Young members of the tribe are now texting each other in Siletz.