The mid-to-late 20th century was difficult time for linguists: globalization meant languages were going extinct ever more rapidly, there was little interest in reviving or preserving those languages, and the process of catching a few parts of these decaying tongues was very difficult.
In the past few decades, though, as intellectuals recognized the social importance of language, the field's fortunes have turned somewhat: although globalization continues to encourage standardization of languages, some are being revived (for example: Manx, Hawaiian, and, contrary to the photo above, Cornish), and more universities and foundations are interested in supporting research. Now, perhaps most importantly from an academic perspective, the tools for recording these dying languages have now gone digital.
The New York Times reports on Dr. Tucker Childs's work in Sierra Leone, where he is using a digital recorder and language-recognition software to record the Kim language. Rather than having to lug back boxes of casettes and then record and decipher the language's structure manually, Dr. Childs is able to both record more words and analyze languages far more thoroughly. And the research, archived at the University of London, will be more accessible to amateur linguists and other professors doing similar work.
While most of these languages will not be saved, as the article puts it, "the aim is not just to salvage, but to revive." The ideal outcome? The comeback that Hebrew has experienced: since the 19th century, it has shifted from liturgical use to being spoken by millions of people.