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How VR can help to save endangered languages

Published: 15 June 2022 at 11:45

A still from Kusunda. A man sits next to a fire.

Film shows how new technology can revive old traditions and preserve heritage

A new cutting-edge filmmaking technique that could help to save some of the world’s endangered languages, such as Cornish, will go on show to the public at the British Academy in London on 17-18 June.

According to the United Nations, a language dies out every two weeks and almost half of all languages in the world are classified as endangered.

Thanks to an academic-artistic collaboration between the StoryLab research institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and Berlin-based NowHere Media, and made possible through a BA/Leverhulme grant, with funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), this new virtual reality technology can be experienced as part of the British Academy’s Summer Showcase.

Kusunda is an immersive, interactive film that encourages viewers to learn key words of the Kusunda language, which has now all but died out in Nepal. In the film, Gayatri Parameswaran and Felix Gaedtke, co-directors and co-founders of NowHere Media, have documented the nomadic way of life of the Kusunda people and recorded their language in the form of interviews with its last remaining speakers. 

Kusunda is filmed using virtual reality technology known as volumetric video. The film places the viewer at the heart of a Kusunda community and requires them to speak Kusunda words or phrases to move further in the narrative. This voice-based interaction helps the viewer to learn the language at the same time as hearing traditional stories and discovering other aspects of the culture.  

Academics from the StoryLab research institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) are evaluating how this approach compares to traditional 2D films as a way of documenting and maintaining aspects of cultural heritage, particularly how the immersive and interactive elements can work to revitalise indigenous languages on the brink of extinction. 

Those involved hope that with further funding, similar interactive films could be produced for languages that are still spoken but classified as endangered, such as Cornish. 

Fabrizio Galeazzi, a cultural heritage specialist at StoryLab at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

“The Kusunda film serves as an important piece of cultural history. Although members of this community now almost entirely speak Nepalese, and we appreciate this language might never return to common use, the lessons we can learn are incredibly valuable.

“This film shows how it is possible to use new technology, bringing together immersive 3D visualisation, animation and voice-based interactions, to maintain interest in and potentially even revive languages that are in danger. In particular, it highlights how older speakers can educate younger generations about a language in a highly engaging way. 

“This style of immersive 3D storytelling could be used to promote other endangered languages that are still more widely spoken, such as Cornish, and could be hosted in museums, libraries and visitor centres to provide interactive experiences to raise awareness of a region’s culture. This technology could also be adapted to help with more formal language learning within schools and colleges.”


Kusunda will go on show as part of the fifth annual Summer Showcase run by the British Academy, the national body for humanities and social sciences. The event is open to the public on Friday, 17 June and Saturday, 18 June, and takes place at the British Academy at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace in London.