Our planet is home to over 7,000 human languages currently spoken and signed. Yet this unique linguistic diversity—the defining characteristic of our species—is under extreme stress, as are the communities that speak these increasingly endangered languages.
The pressures facing endangered languages are as severe as those recorded by conservation biologists for plants and animals, and in many cases more acute. But linguistic endangerment is by no means a natural or inevitable process. Some of the complex, interrelated processes that result in language loss include presumptuous beliefs about the inevitability and inherent value of monolingualism and networks of global trade languages that are increasingly technologized. Currently, over two thirds of the world’s population speak one of 12 languages as their mother tongue. Such homogenization leaves in its wake a linguistic landscape that is increasingly endangered and fragmented.
The harmful legacy of colonization and the enduring impact of disenfranchising policies relating to indigenous and minority languages are at the heart of language attrition from New Zealand to Hawai’i, and from Canada to Nepal. While some indigenous mother tongues and narrative traditions have received recognition from the United Nations, many more have not and continue to be oppressed in the nation-states in which they are spoken.
In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages to help promote and protect indigenous languages. This celebration of indigenous linguistic vitality and resilience is welcome and timely, but is it enough? Language revitalization is a political act that is rarely just about language and should best be understood as representing broader community goals of self-determination. Successful support structures for language revitalization efforts are ones that acknowledge the context that brought about a language’s de-vitalization in the first place. Meaningful support must therefore affirm the wider goals of the community and not simply focus on the language in a de-contextualized way.
Successful support structures for language revitalization efforts are ones that acknowledge the context that brought about a language’s de-vitalization in the first place.
Indigenous and other historically marginalized speech communities are leveraging new digital tools and technologies in inspiring ways to reclaim their languages and move historically oral traditions into online spaces. Counter to arguments that suggest that TV would kill radio and that the Internet would kill TV, we’re currently in the midst of a radio renaissance. Podcasting and community-based radio are powerful platforms for indigenous communities living both within, and far away from, their traditional homelands. They often have rich archives of tape recordings of elders speaking their languages. The National Māori Radio Network is a group of radio stations in New Zealand that serve the country’s indigenous Māori population. Under their funding agreement from Te Māngai Pāho, the Māori Broadcast Funding Agency, most of these stations must produce programs in the Māori language, and must promote Māori culture actively.
Similarly, Nuxalk Radio is a non-commercial community radio station broadcasting on 91.1 FM from the Nuxalk village of Q’umk’uts, in Western Canada, and worldwide online. Granted a license to operate by the hereditary leadership of the Nuxalk nation in 2014, Nuxalk Radio is explicitly committed to “promoting Nuxalk language use, increase the fluency of semi-fluent Nuxalk language speakers, inspire new Nuxalk language learners, raise the prestige of the Nuxalk language and reaffirm the fact that the Nuxalk language is relevant.” By contributing to physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional well-being of the community, Nuxalk Radio asserts Nuxalk Nationhood.
As indigenous community members know all too well, and as linguists and technologists are quickly learning, Apps and online dictionaries won’t in and of themselves bring a language back. However, such tools can support learners and teachers who will. Some digital tools serve primarily as prestige tools—platforms without reference functionality that have been developed to engage younger people and combat damaging stereotypes of indigenous languages being antiquated or incompatible with modern technology. Other technologies, such as language-specific approximate search and optical character recognition, increase accessibility for language learners and teachers. Further still, cutting-edge technologies like automatic transcription and speech synthesis have shown promise for teachers, curriculum developers, and researchers, helping them to create more resources in less time with fewer people. The most powerful technologies are ones that are mindful of the goals of language revitalizationists and amplify the accessibility and impact of their work.