By Marcelina Horrillo Husillos, Journalist and Correspondent at The World Financial Review
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” Nelson Mandela
According to UNESCO, the UN’s education, science, and culture agency, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, with one dying every two weeks. If this trend continues, up to 90 percent of the world’s languages could be lost before 2100, with indigenous varieties—those native to a country or region—most vulnerable.
The social, economic, and environmental impacts of language loss among some of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people could be catastrophic. The loss of indigenous languages signifies the loss of traditional knowledge and cultural diversity, undermining the identity and culture of the community and putting the individual’s survival a risk.
The positive impact of digital empowerment on indigenous languages is undeniable and lies at the heart of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, with national action plans and collaborations between tech companies and Indigenous communities in place.
The UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Promotion and Use of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace supports initiatives in breaking down language barriers and ensuring that all cultures, including indigenous peoples, have equal expression and access to cyberspace in their native languages. As more countries develop their strategies for the Global Action Plan for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, harnessing the power of language technologies becomes pivotal in creating a future where all people can communicate in their mother tongues.
Crisis of the Indigenous Languages
The world’s indigenous languages are facing a crisis due to colonization and globalization. Each language loss heavily impacts the health of Indigenous individuals and communities by severing ties to ancestry and traditional knowledge. Of the more than 6,000 Indigenous languages recognized globally, nearly half of them are at risk of disappearing, with about 1,500 facing immediate extinction, according to a 2021 study from UNESCO.
For instance, some regions of the world, such as South America and Australia, are expected to lose all of their indigenous linguistic diversity because the indigenous languages are threatened. Even other regions where languages are relatively safe, such as the Pacific, South-East Asia, and Europe, still show a dramatic decrease of about 25%. Without sustained support for language preservation and revitalization, many languages will be harmed, and our shared cultural window into linguistic history and cognition will become seriously fragmented.
The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is celebrated globally on August 9th, marking the date of the inaugural session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982.
Additionally, the United Nations declared 2022-2032 the Decade of Indigenous Languages. Around the world, grassroots organizations including the Ngukurr Language Centre, Noongar Boodjar Language Centre, and the Canadian Heiltsuk Cultural Education Center are working towards language maintenance and revitalization.
International Mother Language Day, which was first observed by UNESCO in 2000, is also a worldwide annual observance held on February 21st to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, following a resolution adopted at the 30th General Conference in November 1999.
Digital Empowerment for Indigenous Languages
“We are very seized with the reality that many of these indigenous languages are increasingly endangered, and I think online platforms have a really big responsibility to help give people voice” Kevin Chan, Global Policy Director at META-Facebook.
Digital empowerment is fundamental to the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, and with action plans put in place between institutions, tech companies, and Indigenous communities, significant advancement is being made. By embracing linguistic diversity and using technology as a tool for language preservation, the way for a future where indigenous languages thrive can be paved, which will enrich our global cultural heritage.
For these initiatives to thrive and expand, it is essential to provide bilingual software for developers.Some of the noteworthy projects are:
- The Welsh Government’s Bilingual Technology Toolkit for Good User Experience is a toolkit which aims to create better user experiences for bilingual users, facilitate indigenous language communication online, and share best practices among stakeholders.
- The Grambank database reveals a dazzling variety of languages around the world, a testament to the human capacity for change, variation, and ingenuity. Using an ecological measure of diversity, it assessed what kind of loss we could expect if languages that are currently under threat were to disappear.
- English-Apache online dictionary works to preserve endangered Indigenous languages in the United States. The women are working with Rapid Word Collection (RWC) software, which uses an algorithm to search Apache text and audio databases for so-called forgotten words.
- Rapid Word Collection (RWC) was developed by The Language Conservancy (TLC), an NGO dedicated to protecting around 50 Indigenous languages around the world, in order to churn out such dictionaries at super-speed.
- National Research Council’s Canadian Indigenous Languages Technology Project launched in 2017 with the goal of achieving technological parity. The project’s funding lapsed in 2020 but some of its component initiatives are still in progress.
- FirstVoices, developed by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, is another example of digital technology being used to maintain Indigenous languages.
Many Indigenous languages have been left endangered by generations of oppressive, colonial policy which led to risk of these languages disappearing. To combat that, researchers are trying to create apps, software, and artificial intelligence to help revitalize Indigenous languages.
Technologies are being introduced like text-to-speech and read-along software, which draw on elements of artificial intelligence to help people practise speaking tribes’ languages.
There is no doubt that technology is key in helping to preserve and revitalize indigenous languages, but at the same time,maintaining ownership of the data and of their technology should be key for indigenous communities. The goal of these tech indigenous language projects should be to act as a “recipe” that lets Indigenous communities build their own text-to-speech models.
It is also important to mention that those interested in using technology for language be familiar with the risks, as outlined in a guide made by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, a BC language, arts, and culture group.