One of the world's dying languages goes extinct every 10 to 14 days. In the fight to save them from disappearing, speakers, scholars and IT specialists are collaborating to explore how digital technology can be used to revitalise a language.
Languages become vulnerable to extinction over time as their speakers gradually shift to using a language with greater political and economic power. More often than not, the shift occurs because of colonial and expansionist agendas that see indigenous peoples, cultures, and land ceded to empire builders.
Remarkably, some academics are unperturbed by what could be called “linguistic Darwinism”, or survival of the fittest language. They might argue: Isn't it easier if we all speak the same language?
I am not going to elaborate on how each language encodes a unique worldview: how the vocabulary of a language reveals the values of the people who speak it, how empirical knowledge is contained within linguistic features, and how art, self-expression, history, culture, economics and identity are inextricably linked with language. Instead I am going to proceed under the assumption that, like me, you believe that the loss of a language is tragic and that the world’s indigenous peoples have had far too much taken away from them.
Technology can connect language teachers and content with learners across space and time. Technology can document endangered languages with voice recordings. It can produce and distribute curriculum and resources easily and quickly. It can facilitate independent learning through gaming, cloud-based downloads and apps. It can connect teachers and learners for one-way or tandem language learning.
Forward thinkers are harnessing the unprecedented power of technology to bring languages back from the brink of extinction, and in rare cases, to resurrect an extinct language.
Here is a brief overview of some of the ways that digital technology is being used in these efforts:
- The Norwegian North Sàmi language has been programmed into downloadable dictionaries.
- Gaelic bloggers are sharing tips on the use of the Irish language.
- Students of Manx, the indigenous language of Isle of Man, are using smartphone and tablet apps to improve their proficiency.
- A CD-ROM self-study course has been developed in Navajo, which is spoken in the southwestern United States.
- Learners of Cherokee, spoken in the South Central US, can communicate within a virtual world.
- The Ojibwe of Manitoba, Canada, are using an iPhone app to revitalise their language, as are the Winnebago in the Midwest US.
- Databases are being developed for oral languages in Kenya.
- Ancient stories are being recorded in the indigenous languages of Mali.
- An online language learning company is offering a course in the whistle language of Spain's Canary Islands.
Central and South America
- Ground-breaking language documentation of the Kĩsêdjê language is being done in Brazil.
- A talking dictionary of the Pipil language of El Salvador has been developed.
- Recordings of personal narratives of the Aché people in Paraguay are being made.
- Digital storytelling software now includes some of the minority languages of China.
- Lessons in the Tajik language of Uzbekistan are now available on YouTube.
- A total of 780 previously undocumented languages in India have now been mapped and archived online.
- Asynchronous online lessons are available in Inuktitut, one of the languages of the Arctic.
- Online storytelling in Chaldean, spoken in Iraq, can help speakers achieve fluency.
- Indigenous sign language from Central Australia can now be learned via online videos.
- Digital storytelling in Pacific Island languages.
* Allyson Eamer a scholar in sociolinguistics at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. For more updates on technologies in use for indigenous language education, take a look at Allyson Eamer's curated website.