The internet is changing the way we preserve endangered languages

Around the world, activists and local governments are using new tools to keep old cultures alive.

The internet is changing the way we preserve endangered languages

Around the world, activists and local governments are using new tools to keep old cultures alive.

The oldest continually occupied community in North America is a place in the deserts of New Mexico called Sky City, the original of the four villages that make up Acoma Pueblo. Tours of the Pueblo begin at the Mission Church. Its frame was built using logs carried by the Acoma people from a mountain 35 miles away, an arduous undertaking forced on the Pueblo by the Spanish in the 17th century as a Franciscan Friar attempted to displace the local beliefs. Today, the painted pink interior represents the blending of the Acoma religion's red with Christianity's white.

Exiting the church, tours pass the small cemetery and veer down a street leading away from the mesa’s edge, emerging a few turns later upon a group of adobe homes adorned with oversized, bone-white ladders. The ladders serve two functions: practically, as way to enter kivas, the traditional religious spaces that had to be disguised by building them among the houses during a time of Spanish control, and symbolically, as their pointed tops stretch into the sky to pierce the clouds and send down rain. The village is dominated by the rich browns, reds, and yellows of clay and rock; the homes we pass have been inherited by the youngest daughters in each family — Acoma Pueblo is a matriarchal society.

With the exception of tribal elders, most members of Sky City have moved to the nearby village of Acomita, leaving the historic pueblo as a gathering spot for festivals and ceremonies. For the past few decades, community leaders have became concerned that younger generations are losing touch with their past, from neglecting to learn traditional skills like pottery to not learning their native language. In an attempt to address these issues, the Tribal Council of Acoma Pueblo established a Historic Preservation Office as well as the Acoma Language Retention Program. Classes were started on the reservation, and an agreement was made with local public schools to offer lessons in Keres, the Acoma language, specifically for Acoma students.

Despite these efforts, only around 100 speakers of Keres remain among the roughly 4,800 residents of Sky City and the nearby pueblos. In 2016, Acoma Pueblo reached out to the Language Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of indigenous languages, and started the Acoma Keres Language Recovery Project. Together, they have undertaken an ambitious mission: to turn Keres into written form for the first time. More than 10,500 words have been documented so far.

Across the world, language revitalization movements like the one in Acoma are attempting to reverse language loss. While levels of institutional support and overall strategies differ, the goal is the same. Language is more than a way to communicate basic information, it expresses culture and identity: it’s used to explain the surrounding world, to sing songs, to worship, and to pass on stories. Languages are a link that bond people in a community to each another and to their shared past.

There are single words that bring entire scenes to mind, and translations will never quite do those justice — for example, the Hawaiian word “Akihi” roughly means, “the forgetfulness felt immediately after being given directions.” Because of this, cultures that lose languages can become isolated, left without a way to fully express themselves.

Common preservation strategies include forming immersion-based programs such as nursery schools and language camps, normalizing language in the local media, and bringing it into the everyday on street signs and on the radio. Successful efforts usually start with community-based activism and grow alongside government support or recognition. While global language extinction at such a wide scale and speed may seem like an inevitable tide, that hasn’t stopped people from fighting against it — and notable grassroots battles are being won.

Language revitalization “starts day one, in the family home,” Melvin Juanico, Operations Manager at Sky City Cultural Center, told me over the phone. He outlines the most recent accomplishment, the completion of a dictionary of key words and phrases that is now available online. There is also an app that includes recordings so that students can listen to pronunciations.

However, Juanico is adamant that this is not a complete solution. “You have to be able to speak [Keres] one-on-one with the elders and just talk to each other, to understand what the words mean and why. Especially when it comes not so much to everyday language, but to our daily prayers that we speak to the Creator in our Native tongue,” he said. This spiritual connection is crucial to understanding why language matters so much to communities like Acoma.

Younger generations in Acoma have been eager to learn Keres, according to Juanico, asking how to say certain words and incorporating greetings into their everyday conversation. “It’s nice, they hear the elders speak it, and it gives them that encouragement,” he told me. “Even just a couple of words here and there [...] [it’s about] having that mentality to say, ‘This is who I am, this is part of my tradition, my heritage, and I need to speak the language.’” He believes that around 75 percent of Acoma people speak some Keres, and considers that sufficient. It’s the interest and desire to identify with it that matters most.

Acoma is far from unique when it comes to the decline of minority or marginalized languages. Of the 192 known endangered languages in America alone, UNESCO considers 75 of them critically endangered and 54 already extinct. In India, 197 languages are endangered. Omotik is one of 13 threatened languages in Kenya, and only an estimated 2,000 speakers remain of Ashkun in Afghanistan. Globally, it’s conservatively projected that half of the world’s languages will die in the next century; some researchers predict the figure could be as high as 90 percent.

When languages go extinct, it’s often because some combination of political repression, forced migration, nationalism (expressing itself in the promotion of a dominant language), and cultural stigma contribute to a decline in institutional support for minority languages. The languages disappear from schools, are discouraged in workplaces, and fall out of the media. Parents stop teaching their native languages to their children when they no longer see the value in it.

Many of these languages die undocumented, and the stories and histories that were passed down orally for generations vanish at the same time. Entire ways of viewing and explaining the world fade away, and we lose local knowledge of traditional medicines and science. Linguistics examines language as a tool for better understanding the human mind, and with less diversity in language, their conclusions become less accurate, and far less rich.

Perhaps most importantly, communities whose languages are dying are in that situation because at some point and in some way they were told, “You do not belong.” Fighting this is a way to hold claim to a unique cultural identity and to have it recognized.

While rare, it’s not unheard of for languages to return from the brink. Take Cornish, a Celtic language similar to Breton and Welsh, which came back centuries after complete extinction. The language, originally spoken around Cornwall, England, was considered dead when its last recorded speaker died in 1777. But now hundreds are fluent in Cornish, and the British government recognizes it as a legitimate minority language. Its revival began in the 1920s, and since Cornwall faced the unusual challenge of re-creating a language based purely on written sources, multiple dialects arose. A community-driven movement, Cornwall has since decided on one official version and introduced it to schools; the city is even contemplating mimicking what Wales did with Welsh in making the language mandatory in schools and a prerequisite for government jobs.

The story of the Māori language, spoken by the indigenous Polynesian people of the same name in New Zealand, is one of a minority culture reversing the decline of their tongue after centuries of stigma and supression. Colonized by the British in the late 1800s, English rapidly became the dominant language in New Zealand; most of the Māori land was seized, and English became compulsory in schools, with children punished for speaking their indigenous language. By 2013 only 3.7 percent of their population spoke the te reo Māori language.

A grassroots movement started in the ‘70s as part of a broader fight for rights and recognition by indigenous New Zealanders. Language immersion classes called “language nests” were established, and in 1987 the Māori Language Act gave the minority language official status.

Now, it seems that a te reo revival is possible and that the language is even being embraced outside of the Māori community. With a government goal of increasing the percentage of Māoris who can speak their native language to 20 percent by 2040, free classes are offered by schools like the Auckland Institute of Technology, they tend to be packed with hundreds of students and elicit lengthy waiting lists. Simple phrases such as “nag mihi” (thanks) have become colloquial, and te reo Māori has also entered popular culture. A popular New Zealand thrash metal band, Alien Weaponry, wrote an album in te reo Māori, and in 2014, director Toa Fraser’s action movie The Dead Lands was the first film made entirely in te rao.

The Brooklyn-based Wikitongues is one organization working towards global-language revival with a modern and grassroots view of the current situation. Daniel Udell started the nonprofit in 2013 after learning Catalan in Barcelona and simultaneously becoming involved in language activism in the European Union. Back in the U.S., he established a platform on YouTube, asking for volunteers to upload oral histories from around the world. Since then Wikitongues has documented more than 400 languages and recorded more than 1,000 oral histories.

“We sit as a front door to a wider process,” Udell said over the phone. The first step to saving a language, he says, is documentation, for learning, teaching, and promoting. Wikitongues started with oral histories because it’s a “democratic way” to get people involved. Activists don’t need specific tools or specialized knowledge, just a phone and the ability to tell a story or sing a song in their native tongue. It’s an accessible way to start.


Translating a neologism into a Native language often means appropriating the concept

In Lakota, delicatessen becomes “place where they snack quickly.”
In Umatilla, smartphone becomes “the black cloud that is always following.”
In Navajo, cell phone means “metal that you talk into.”
Read More

The organization’s focus is now on figuring out how to be most useful to other grassroots movements. Wikitongues is one of the nonprofits involved in the UN’s promotion of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. “What we can do is put frameworks and systems in place so anyone who comes to us... knows where to go next,” Udell said. The desire is already there, there simply need to be the proper tools, something a new advisory board of linguists will help to create.

The internet has been a game-changer for language revival; Udell said recent rise in Cornish speakers owes much to online knowledge dissemination. He also stressed the importance of media creation for language revitalization. When young people see books written in their local language and hear modern songs performed by bands like Alien Weaponry, the language comes across as modern and vibrant, and not just something to be learned in order to appease older generations.

And social attitudes towards rarer languages are changing as ex-colonial nations are beginning to embrace a multicultural heritage. Indigenous populations still face hardships, abuse, and institutional racism but slowly, aspects of native culture like language are being destigmatized. Crucially, those taking on language activism are often community-based activists; Wikitongues is fueled entirely by volunteer time and effort, standing as proof of the passion that can be found around the world for protecting language.

At the same time, governments globally are beginning to acknowledge the importance of and need for protection for minority languages. Mexico passed the General Law of Linguistic Rights for the Indigenous Peoples in 2003, officially recognizing many minority languages such as Náhuatl and Mixteco. The same year, Ireland passed an act ensuring that public services were available in Gaelic, which is still spoken by four percent of the population. In New South Wales, Australia, the parliament formally recognized indigenous languages in 2017.

A language dies every two weeks. That’s the statistic you’ll find in most articles about language endangerment, and while there is some argument by linguists over whether the number was even true when it was calculated in the 1990s, people working in the field like Daniel Udell are steadfast in their belief that this is certainly no longer the case. He’s convinced, he said, that “there is a lot of reason to be hopeful about the future of language diversity.”

When Mabie Eggstrom died in September 2003 at 95, the world lost the last speaker of Klamath, the language spoken by the Native American Klamath tribe of Oregon. But this might not be where the language’s story ends. Since then, a part-time language teacher named Randee Sheppard has started lessons in Klamath at local schools; she also teaches at an annual culture camp. Like many endangered or entirely extinct languages, grassroots revival efforts like Sheppard’s are rising to the challenge and making revitalization more possible than ever.