Indigenous Languages

Indigenous languages worldwide are suffering from the long-term effects of colonialism, assimilation, and population decimation. About 50% of the world’s languages are facing extinction because of these threats and more, and Indigenous communities are, by far, the biggest victims. National Geographic’s “Enduring Voices” project showcases the state of language extinction worldwide in this map, which serves to underscore how huge of an issue this is.

While I have been peripherally aware that this was an issue for a long time, this summer I had the opportunity to go to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, Canada. They opened a new permanent exhibit called Our Living Languages. It focuses on First Nations populations in BC, their languages, and has an interactive map that shows you the population of each Nation, and an estimate of how many members can still speak their language. Very few of those estimates exceeded 5%. It also showed that British Columbia is home to over 203 First Nations communities and well over a dozen distinct languages – almost 60% of the Indigenous languages in Canada. The compounded cultural loss is unimaginable.

Language is a personal identifier, so much so that some, such as French, have had governmental bodies put in place to regulate additions to the language, in fear that it will be homogenized. The loss of Indigenous languages worldwide should be treated just as seriously.

After starting this blog, I wondered about open access software for First Nations languages that would help members of those communities maintain that cultural connection. There are several journals and studies that are available in parts of the world, such as the Language Conservation & Documentation Journal from Hawaii, and the Pangloss Collection based out of Noumea in New Caledonia. The Pangloss Collection is interesting as it is an archive of language examples from around the world which have been made accessible by the public. It focuses on Oceanic dialects, and only Acadian [French-dialect] and Inuktitut have been catalogued from Canada.

Which brings me to the “Living Tongues” project, started in Chile and Peru around 2010. This is the basis of the “Enduring Voices” project discussed earlier, and the project has been focusing on language conservation through technology for several years. Their “Adopt-A-Language” section allows you to donate a specific language group you would like to support. They have also had success with projects such as Chamacoco Talking Dictionary, an online resource that allows you to search for words in either English or Spanish and hear them spoken by a native speaker for that region.

Another project that doesn’t necessarily focus on language, but certainly could impact that goal is Indigitization, a University of British Columbia initiative that supplies First Nations communities with a toolkit for the digitization and preservation of audio recordings. While it doesn’t feature language preservation as an outright goal, it might be a great fringe benefit.

However, I could not find language-specific toolkits, which is a project that I would love to see come into play in Canada, as well as elsewhere around the world, as soon as possible. I think that toolkits offer a degree of control and empowerment that having a project like “Living Tongues” come into a community and do the documentation doesn’t allow. Moreover, when a community can take resources and use them themselves instead of relying on a third party, there is less risk of feeling obligated to make those materials available openly when they may not want to. Furthermore, with the “Living Tongues” program, I could not find any documentation that says whether those materials were archived with the organization or with the communities, where as a toolkit would leave no doubt as to the ownership of those materials.