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Indigenous Languages in the Internet Age

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

How For-Profit and Non-Profits Alike Help the Americas' Languages Go Digital

When it comes to global language diversity, the internet giveth and the internet taketh away. The internet’s endless utility provides innumerable ways to spread indigenous language knowledge. Yet, the internet’s current lack of language diversity reinforces the global trend that favors powerful languages such as English, Mandarin, and Spanish. 

English alone is the language of over 55% of the internet, with only twelve other languages constituting more than 1%. This leaves little space for the indigenous languages of the Americas.

This Thanksgiving season, consider how the internet could bolster rather than enervate the Americas’ indigenous languages. There are several non-profit and for-profit organizations that are using the internet to ensure that indigenous American languages strive rather than falter. These organizations achieve one or more goals—documentation, promoting language learning, and solidifying a language’s place on the internet. 

Documentation is often a necessary step in language preservation, as there exists many uncommonly-spoken languages with little record that therefore scant material with which to create language learning curricula. Two internet-based organizations aiding documentation of Native American languages include Wikitongues and FirstVoices

Wikitongues, a non-profit organization, collects volunteer-contributed video recordings from around the world. Each video records a native speaker of an endangered language. Volunteers have collected videos of rare languages from around the world, including indigenous languages of the Americas like Crow, Tlingit, Totonac

Videos are uploaded via their website, and many of these videos are available on their YouTube channel. Speakers are encouraged to speak about personal topics from the past, present, and future, in order to elicit various speech registers and tenses. WikiTongues’ founder, Daniel Udell, is working with the Library of Congress to set up an archival system for these videos. For him, preserving these languages is a moral imperative. 

“When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature, and oral traditions…” Udell said. ”Would Cervantes have written the same stories had he been forced to write in a language other than Spanish?”

The First People’s Cultural Council in British Columbia administers the web-based FirstVoices, a free online archive for speakers of indigenous languages of the US and Canada. The website allows an indigenous community to store dictionary, pronunciation, and visual data relevant to their community’s language. It is the choice of each community to make this data public or password-protected. 

Should a community choose, FirstVoices can create a language learning app for Android or iOS using the community’s submitted language and cultural data. Over 50 Native American and Native Canadian languages are publicly available on FirstVoice’s website, including Cree, Navajo, Mohawk, Mikmaw, and Tagish. In this manner, FirstVoices combines community-led language documentation to preserve record of these languages, while bolstering their speaker bases via the option of language learning apps. 

There are several tech-based organizations that further learning of indigenous American languages. 7000 Languages is a Boston-based non-profit that creates free language software for indigenous communities to use to teach their language. Executive Director, Alexa Little, views such technology as necessary to combat the decline of many of the world’s languages. 

“Imagine if you were an artist and 40% of paintings were actively on fire” said Little, in a characterization of the state of world languages. 

7000 Languages’ technology allows a user to input vocabulary information, and create matching activities, multiple choice exercises, and even use videos from native speakers for conversation practice. The effectiveness of this free service often spreads through word-of-mouth among language leaders. 

The organization’s model is to support community-led teaching efforts. Little maintains that efforts are most successful when language leaders approach the organization, not vice versa. Demand is so high that communities often wait over a year to begin the consultations involved in using the free service. 7000 Languages technology is used for several dialects of Ojibwe, Cree, and Dakota. The organization leaves it up to the communities to decide the often-tenuous question of whether a particular speech form is a dialect or separate language. 

Map from Wikipedia

Duolingo, the language learning app with over 300 million downloads worldwide, has also stepped into the Native American language space. Since 2018, Duolingo has offered its famous bite-sized language lessons in Hawaiian and Navajo, the former of which is a complete course and the latter of which is in Beta. Hawaiian, has, as of the writing of this post, 567,000 downloads, over 500 times the current native speaker base. 

Navajo has over 315,000 downloads, more than its number of native speakers. According to Clayton Long, a bilingual education director of San Juan High School on the Navajo reservation, “student here are thirsty and hungry to learn the Navajo language.” 

Long has worked closely with Duolingo developers to release the Navajo curriculum on the app on Indigenous People’s Day (October 8th) in 2018. According to a Duolingo press release, “launching a [Navajo] course is part of a larger initiative at Duolingo to add courses for languages that are considered at-risk and endangered.” 

As critical as internet-based learning initiatives are, the flourishing of indigenous American languages depend greatly on whether they can be used in new media. In particular, indigenous languages have begun making inroads on social media platforms.

Anna Luisa Daigenault of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages asserts that “having a Web presence for [endangered] languages is super important for their survival. Social media are just another connection point for people who want to stay connected to their language.” 

Facebook is now available in indigenous languages such as Aymara, Cherokee, K’iche’, and Quechua. At this time, Twitter does not support any indigenous languages of the Americas. While Facebook’s current offerings represent progress for the usage of these languages, more languages of the Americas must reach social media platforms.

Margarit Noodin, assistant professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, stresses that social media is “how kids communicate now. It’s little moments here and there. And that adds up…If we don't use the language creatively into the future then what we're doing is documenting a language that's dying.”

There are many, from non-profit organizations to corporate giants like Facebook, who are using the internet to preserve America’s indigenous languages through documentation, promoting language learning, and pushing these languages into 21st century media. As we near 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, take time to appreciate those that are passionate about indigenous American languages in the internet age. 

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