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Wikitongues: Saving Our Global Heritage, One Language at a Time
Posted On April 30, 2019
To demonstrate the vital role of indigenous languages, the United Nations (UN) declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL), a celebration that is “dedicated to raising awareness of a topic of global interest and mobilizing different players for coordinated action around the world. … Hosted by UNESCO in collaboration with the Permanent Forum, the IYIL 2019 will strive to preserve, support and promote indigenous languages at the national, regional and international levels.”

Globalization has many advantages, but there is also a cost. Loss of culture—language, customs, and traditional practices—has been shown to be expanding rapidly in this era of instant communication and the internet, which connects the world, albeit through a very narrow cultural and linguistic path.

Organizations have been established to monitor, support, and assist in the preservation of endangered languages. SIL International, which began operation in 1934, is dedicated to making “concerted efforts to survey languages, evaluate their vitality, facilitate language development, and where possible, support members of the speech community in their desire to document and maintain their language and culture.” The Language Conservancy (TLC) is “dedicated to rescuing the world’s endangered languages, restoring them to vital use, and safeguarding them for future generations.”

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is an important tool that’s “intended to raise awareness about language endangerment and the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity among policy-makers, speaker communities and the general public, and to be a tool to monitor the status of endangered languages and the trends in linguistic diversity at the global level.” However, the most recent edition, from 2010, belies the rapidity of change taking place in the world.

According to Ethnologue, there are 7,111 languages spoken today in the world. “This is a fragile time,” Ethnologue reports. “Roughly a third of languages are now endangered, often with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. Meanwhile, just 23 languages account for more than half the world’s population.” At the same time, the dispersion of languages is very uneven, with Papua New Guinea alone having 840 different languages currently in use.

As the UN notes, “‘Language death’ [is] a ‘symptom’ of [the] struggle to save indigenous identity.” The Endangered Languages Project, a “worldwide collaboration to strengthen endangered languages,” uses an interactive map to show the location of these languages and classify their status.

And it isn’t just indigenous languages that are at risk. According to an article in Quartz, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that “from 2001 to 2017, the number of Americans speaking Italian at home dropped from almost 900,000 to just over 550,000, an incredible 38% reduction in just 16 years. Among languages with at least 100,000 US speakers in 2001, no language saw a larger decrease, in either absolute or percentage terms—though Hungarian was close by percentage.”

A recent article by an M.L.I.S. student at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee argues that “schools of Library Science (as well as Museum Studies and related disciplines) can contribute to language preservation and advance their own financial interests by presenting themselves as key collaborators in language preservation to governments and NGOs.” A few libraries have taken the lead in local efforts to preserve and archive native languages. The University of Minnesota’s Ojibwe People’s Dictionary is a model of collaboration among native peoples, internet technology, libraries, and dedicated researchers. The Administration for Native Americans has developed a comprehensive guidebook on setting up repositories and archives of language materials.

“Languages play a crucial role in our daily lives,” the UN asserts. “They are not only our first medium for communication, education and social integration, but are also at the heart of each person’s unique identity, cultural history and memory. The ongoing loss of indigenous languages is particularly devastating, as the complex knowledges and cultures they foster are increasingly being recognized as strategic resources for good governance, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and sustainable development. More importantly, such losses have huge negative impacts [on] indigenous peoples’ most basic human rights.”

A New Twist on the Wikimedia Platform

Wikitongues, a nonprofit organization formed in 2012 and based in Brooklyn, is the brainchild of New York-based designers Freddie Andrade and Daniel Bogre Udell. Their goal is simple: to record all the world’s 7,000-plus languages “to create the most inclusive cultural archive ever made and to raise awareness about the importance of linguistic diversity.” Thus far, volunteers across the globe have recorded almost 1,000 video oral histories in more than 400 languages.

Wikitongues explains its necessity: “At the turn of the twenty-first century, as many as half of all languages were in danger of disappearing, a canary in the coal mine of humanity. Whether in Canada, where Native children were sent to boarding schools and punished for speaking their mother tongues, or the United Kingdom, where schoolchildren were flogged for speaking Welsh, cultures around the world were stolen. … But the tide is turning. Thanks to a groundswell of activism, national governments are rolling back policies of forced assimilation.”

In addition, “the Internet has equipped people with the possibility of sustaining their mother tongues. The ability to create and share media makes it possible to promote your language without external support. Social media is a powerful tool for using your language on a daily basis. …”

Volunteers record videos of native speakers, add captioning and some cataloging types of information, and send them to the Wikitongues home base. The videos are then uploaded to YouTube using a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license. If volunteers prefer to have their videos featured on Wikipedia, they can release them under the more open Attribution-ShareAlike license. The organization uses Kickstarter and its own website to solicit financial support.

Udell notes that language loss is never by accident. “It’s because, over the 1800s and 1900s, roughly every country in the world relentlessly worked to forcefully assimilate minorities’ cultures. I think no one would suggest that we need to be religiously or culturally or ethnically homogeneous. So, why would we be linguistically homogeneous? It’s a question about what kind of a world we want to live in: a colorful one or a gray one?”

A language is defined as “extinct” when the last person who spoke it as a primary language dies. The University of California–Berkeley is working on a project that restores and preserves existing audio of indigenous California languages. Institutions and linguistic groups such as Wikitongues are working to prevent extinction as well. But there is still much to be done.

Wikitongues may not be able to change the impact of globalization; however, as linguist Michael Krauss notes in the 2018 Oxford Handbook of Endangered Languages, “Twenty-five years ago it seemed we had completely forgotten the lesson of Babel, and even linguists seemed altogether oblivious to the threat of unprecedented mass language extinction. … Theorizing can wait; documentation and activism can’t. …”

Wikitongues is saving whatever can be preserved before many more languages are lost, and it is working from the bottom up, with a growing global community joining in this vital effort.

Preserving Global Culture

More than 1,000 volunteers from every continent are capturing native speakers and their languages, stories, and songs. As Udell explains, “There is no way an outsider organization can save someone’s language for them. We’ve had over 1,500 contributors and videos from 70 different countries. We have people from India who record dozens of languages, which is beyond their own. We have another volunteer from Scotland who is one of the last speakers of a variety of Scottish dialects. He’s in the process of reclaiming them, revitalizing, (and) building a dictionary for them.”

And according to its About page, the Wikitongues founders have a great deal of optimism: “We’re living amid a renaissance of linguistic and cultural diversity. From the revival of minority languages in Europe to the resurrection of indigenous American cuisine, people around the world are pushing back against centuries of forced assimilation and reclaiming their cultural sovereignty. … Saving a language takes a lifetime, and we’re here to ensure that all people have access to their cultural sovereignty.”

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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