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Twitter, Talking Dictionaries and Indigenous Languages in a Globalized World

December 03, 2012 | By Alan Pierce

Every two weeks, one of the world’s 7,000+ languages goes extinct, and in less than 100 years more than half of the world’s languages will disappear. With the loss of these modes of communication, centuries of unique knowledge, experience, culture and livelihood are lost with them.

Sadly, much of the beauty and significance of indigenous languages (and thus their cultural heritage) is increasingly overlooked by a larger world population that is deaf to but a few dominant languages.

A diverse and expansive movement is afoot attempting to curb this alarming trend by exploring ways of preserving indigenous languages. From Twitter, to talking dictionaries and the other media projects noted below, the indigenous voice is being heard. But what exactly is it about the swiftly globalizing world that makes this preservation movement necessary in the first place?

Process of Elimination by Assimilation

For numerous minority groups across the globe, including many indigenous communities, the language of their culture remains audible only in the wise voices of their aging elders.

This is partly due to the increasingly connected (technologically and commercially) world, which spreads the few dominant languages at the expense of the many minority languages. As a result, many ancestral languages fall swiftly into disuse.

Speaking a dominant shared language like English, Spanish or Chinese does offer the possibility for cross-cultural communication and inclusion in world affairs. However, younger generations of indigenous communities who are drawn to adapt and interact with the globalized world, sometimes accommodate this transition by leaving behind the language of their heritage to learn these more commonly spoken languages.

Thus, the lure of the dominant language also increases the possibility that the next generation will grow up learning and speaking the languages of the globalized world more than the language of their elders.

A tenuous balance exists between embracing novelty and preserving heritage, and finding this balance is essential for the future of indigenous languages on a globalized planet.

Threat and Opportunity for Languages in a Globalized World

It should be made clear that learning commonly shared languages is also immensely valuable, especially for those indigenous communities fighting to preserve their land and way of life. Learning a shared language can help empower indigenous peoples to better defend themselves, enabling them to have their voice clearly heard by outside communities.

In that sense, although common languages can contribute to the rising disappearance of ancient languages, they also act as valuable bridges between indigenous cultures and the modern community.

Indigenous individuals can choose to learn more common languages and function as ambassadors to external communities so that their language and their culture can continue to thrive. This is the middle ground essential for navigating the balance between living in a globalized world and maintaining cultural roots.

It is clear that these ambassadors play an essential role. Other role players include those within the indigenous community who never learn an outside language, and even the very globalizing technology that is changing the landscape of language, communication and culture. There are many paths to preservation.

Ensuring a Future of Language Diversity

Researchers, preservationists and indigenous communities across the globe are exploring fascinating and exciting avenues through which indigenous languages can continue to thrive.

Here are just a few specific examples of other ways in which individuals and organizations are helping to preserve indigenous culture and language worldwide:

  • Enduring Voices – A project to document the world’s endangered languages and prevent their extinction. This includes their Talking Dictionaries, which offer a “glimpse into the rich diversity of culture and experience that humans have created in every part of the globe.”
  • Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages – Part of their language preservation activism involves recruiting indigenous youth who don’t speak their traditional language and teaching them to use digital technology to record their elders, and to help them learn the language themselves.
  • Indigenous Tweets – A university professor created a program to track indigenous languages being used on Twitter. People using modern technology in this way help keep these languages alive as they make connections with others who speak the language.
  • Quechua on the Radio – A group of women in Bolivia put together a radio show delivered in their traditional Quechua language, helping engage their indigenous community on topics like politics and women's rights in a way that was most culturally relevant to them.
  • Endangered Languages Project - A comprehensive online resource for doing your own exploring of endangered languages across the globe, and for promoting the protection of global linguistic diversity.

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