Smartphone keyboards designed for traditional languages at cutting edge of their survival

October 25th, 2019 by An international software firm developing smartphone keyboards specifically designed to write in traditional languages is helping people protect their language. The project, called Keyman, allows people to type in one of more than 600 different languages, most of which are majority languages. A majority language is one spoken by large groups of people such as English, Spanish, or Mandarin. Keyman has been developed by not-for-profit company SIL International, and lead software developer Marc Durdin said it was created in 1993 originally for the Lao language. "We had people in other parts of South-East Asia discover the program and ask to adapt it to other languages, then we made it more accessible," he said. "But as we started to expand out into other languages, we made it more language agnostic so that it would provide the resources to allow you to adapt it to a language, but not actually have any language knowledge. Mr. Durdin said Keyman relied on "language champions" to put their language forward to be digitised. "There's a tool called Keyman Developer that you can use to create a keyboard layout," he said. "Because that tool doesn't care about the language, it means we've had 500 to 600 people contribute keyboard layouts for different languages." Read more: ABC News

Reclaiming a culture: How Indiana University is helping an indigenous community restore its endangered language

October 12th, 2019 by More than 2,000 hours of audio and video field recordings of vocabulary, interviews and storytelling from indigenous people reside in the collection of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University. Now, some of these recordings are being put to use to help one indigenous community reclaim its endangered language and culture. The institute recently received funding to continue work with the Assiniboine people of the Northern Great Plains of North America to strengthen their language, Nakoda, by creating instructional materials, dictionaries and storybooks for use in reservation schools and households. Many of these materials pull from stories recorded by IU faculty in the 1970s and 1980s. Founded in 1985 by IU anthropology professors Raymond DeMallie and Douglas Parks, the American Indian Studies Research Institute has a long history of interdisciplinary research projects that attempt to fully understand and describe the language, culture or history of the native people of the Americas. In 2007, the institute launched a partnership with the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to create the first comprehensive Lakota language curriculum for K-12 schools. The success of these materials, coupled with decades of relationship-building and contact with the university, inspired leaders in the Assiniboine community to approach the institute about working together to create similar instructional materials for Nakoda. They hope that using the narratives told by tribe elders as the basis for the instructional materials will allow learners to not only reclaim the language but to more fully understand the Assiniboine worldview. Read more: Indiana University

Indigenous Languages Are in Danger of Going Extinct Around the World

October 5th, 2019 by Seven thousand indigenous languages are spoken around the world today, and four in 10 of them are in danger of going extinct, a recent United Nations study warned. After its release in August, U.N. experts called for a series of steps, including new laws and international commitments, to reverse what they described as the “historic destruction” of indigenous languages. Researchers like the linguist Frank Seifart of Berlin’s Leibniz Center for General Linguistics, whose work includes a study of Carabayo, a language of indigenous people in the Colombian Amazon, have found that older speakers of a range of indigenous languages are refraining from passing the language on to their children. “When I say that one generation chooses to not pass on another language, the choice is of course never entirely free, but a response to all sorts of more or less explicit pressures, and in some cases outright violence and suppression,” Seifart said in an interview. While that violence ranges from community to community, it often coincides with development and infrastructure projects and an increased focus on cultivating a singular national identity, according to Seifart’s research. Take the spike in deforestation in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro, which has raised international alarm as fires have spread across the Amazon. The deforestation in Brazil, to open up the rainforest for mining and agriculture, reflects an almost-routine process in which policymakers give precedence to industries rather than uphold environmental protections in the Amazon that are also supposed to safeguard indigenous rights. Indigenous people in Brazil have been routinely threatened, forced off of their lands or killed, leading to displacement and population declines that impede efforts to preserve their endangered languages. “There are quite a number of cases of large infrastructure projects like dams or deforestation, which leads to more or less forced relocation of indigenous communities,” Seifart said. “Often, relocation to urban centers⁠—when the cultural context and cultural and traditional lifestyle is disrupted⁠—is a very important factor when people give up their language.” Read more: World Politics Review

Indigenous language puzzle receives missing piece after freak find buried in old book

September 17th, 2019 by Caroline Hughes, who researches the Ngunnawal language of the Canberra region, made the find during a workshop last week. The words, buried in a book held in Adelaide, were drawn to her attention by a relative she met while tracing her family history. "She mentioned to me in an email last week that she'd found some words in the Adelaide museum," Ms Hughes said. "We were able to make that connection and access that information here in Canberra at the National Library." Today, iconic South Australian sites such as Lake Eyre and the Eyre Peninsula bear Edward Eyre's name. But in the 1830s the explorer also spent time in what is now the Canberra region, where he recorded the local language. "When anthropologists in the 1800s were speaking to our people, they took down words and interpreted what Ngunnawal people were saying," Ms Hughes said. The list, with potentially dozens of previously lost words, will be analysed and compared with existing lexicons. Read more: ABC News

Revitalizing Indigenous Languages Is Critical

September 2nd, 2019 by Being fluent in a world language is a desirable skill in modern day society. However, some languages are suffering and in danger of extinction — namely those of the indigenous peoples. “There are between 6,000 and 7,000 world languages in the world today,” Brian Keane, rapporteur of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said in his keynote speech last week, revealing that half of them are expected to go extinct by 2100. As a result, more than 50% of the worlds indigenous peoples are in danger of losing their language. “You can’t preserve or protect or revitalize indigenous languages in a vacuum- they’re related to all of the other rights of indigenous peoples, principally the right to self-determination,” Keane told IPS, adding that the Permanent Forum tries to highlight all of these rights, citing several branches to assist indigenous rights. Asked what role the Forum will play, he said: “Our role is trying to move countries forward when implementing rights and outlining declarations.” Keane said, stressing that only when indigenous peoples are able to practice self-determination, and be able to live on their ancestral territories, “can we truly protect the languages”. The annual commemoration of World Indigenous Peoples Day took place August 9 and was organized by the Indigenous Peoples and Development Branch of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The event featured two panels, guest speakers, and performances. Today, there are about 370 million indigenous peoples worldwide, making up about 5% of the population. However, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has predicted that, by the end of this century, between 50-90% of indigenous languages will perish. Read more: IPS News Agency

Indigenous Women Are Publishing the First Maya Works in Over 400 Years

August 21st, 2019 by I’D STUMBLED UPON TALLER LEÑATEROS—the “Woodlanders Workshop”—completely by chance. I was walking aimlessly through the pastel-hued streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, trying to get a feel for what my guidebook had described as southern Mexico’s “most beautiful colonial city.” One particular street was quiet, dusty, and less colorful than the rest. But there was something about it—perhaps the faint sound of a Mexican ballad escaping from a rusted window, or maybe the beat-up aquamarine VW Beetle at the end of the road—that invited me to turn down it. I hadn’t been walking long before I spotted an unusual sign outside a sad-looking, graffitied colonial house: a black-and-white etching of an ancient Maya riding a bicycle, wearing an enormous feathered headdress that fluttered in the wind behind him. Next to it, a handwritten note pleaded “Save our workshop!” Intrigued, I pushed open the unlocked wooden gate and stepped inside. The walls of the courtyard, though peeling and rotten with damp, popped with floor-to-ceiling splashes of orange, green, and yellow block prints. The dusty adobe brick floor was covered with discarded books, posters, cardboard, and plastic, leaving barely enough room to stand. Rising proudly from the sea of paper that sprawled across the courtyard, a handmade tree cobbled together from sun-bleached driftwood held three thick, heavy books on its leafless branches. Careful not to trample the paper debris that now covered my feet, I leaned forward to get a closer look. As I did, I heard a low, shy voice behind me. “Ah,” said a woman standing there, wearing a thick wool skirt and a hand-stitched, fuschia-pink blouse. “You’re here to see the books? Come with me.” As she led me from the paper-strewn courtyard into a small gift shop filled with handmade books, posters, and notebooks, I learned where I was. Taller Leñateros is Mexico’s first and only Tzotzil Maya book- and papermaking collective. Founded in 1975 by the Mexican-American poet Ambar Past, the workshop is dedicated to documenting and disseminating the endangered Tzotzil language, culture, and oral history. And it does so environmentally, using only recycled materials (leñateros alludes to those who get their firewood from deadwood, rather than felled trees). Read more: Atlas Obscura

In 21st century, threats ‘from all sides’ for Latin America’s original languages

July 29th, 2019 by At school in Tecate in the 1950s, a city sitting on Mexico’s border with the United States, Josefina Meza was welcomed by a chorus of children’s chants in a language she did not understand. “Pinches indios, pinches indios,” her peers called out. At first, Meza thought they wanted to be her friends. But her brother clarified: Using Spanish, which she had yet to learn, they were humiliating her, chanting a slur for indigenous Mexicans that rang as strong as the “n” word in English. The silver-haired, 72-year-old remembers quizzing her brother in her native Kumiai, now one of the dozens of rapidly disappearing indigenous languages in Latin America. “I asked him what that word, ‘indio,’ meant,” the indigenous activist said of how she had not known the term used by some Mexicans to refer to her people, similar to the English “Indian.” “But when I started to speak more Spanish and talk with them, I understood the mockery,” Meza said. These experiences were among the reasons the Kumiai people and other indigenous groups the length of Latin America started teaching their native languages to their children less - to avoid discrimination. Decades later, the racism evident in “pinche indio” remains widespread in the region, combining with globalization and technology to threaten with extinction some 170 languages, including the 381-speaker Kumiai, which remains at risk despite efforts by governments and civil society organizations since the mid-20th century. Though language extinction is a “natural process” due to the constant transformation of cultures, it comes with a price, said Frédéric Vacheron, representative of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in Mexico. “It is not only words that disappear, it is a perspective, a wealth of cultural practices, a worldview,” Vacheron said. UNESCO named 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, committing to working with governments and native peoples to rescue endangered and threatened tongues among the 600-some surviving indigenous tongues in the region. Preserving indigenous languages has become a race against the clock. It may be too late. Read more: Reuters

Ancestral languages are essential to Indigenous identities in Canada

May 31st, 2019 by Recent protests against the federal government’s approach to Indigenous language legislation is the latest manifestation of concern regarding the maintenance and flourishing of Indigenous languages and culture. Although these latest protests are centred around jurisdiction and funding, the fundamental issue for Indigenous peoples is support for an essential part of their identity. My work in the area of Indigenous education and languages leads me to believe what is core to the concern for language support is the meanings and narratives that are reflected in language. The breadth of issues and potential initiatives reflected in the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) cover many areas that are germane to the well-being of Indigenous peoples. The general aim of reconciliation that has emerged from the activities of the TRC is the development of a new relationship amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. Such a new relationship must acknowledge harms of the past and their impact into present. It is now clear that the reconciliatory journey must recognize, affirm and follow up on prescriptions for change that aim to rectify many wrongs affecting many areas of the Indigenous peoples’ experience. One of those areas that is of particular interest to educators at numerous levels is that of language and culture. Read more:

2019 is UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. And we need it to be

January 31st, 2019 by Today, 28th of January 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) will begin. And there are good reasons to spread awareness about the state of the world’s indigenous languages. As linguists, we are all too familiar with the depressing statistics surrounding indigenous languages. As is summarized on websites like Ethnologue, around 4,000 of the approximately 7,000 languages of the world are spoken by a mere two percent of the world’s population. The eight most spoken languages globally (a little over 0.01 percent of all languages) are spoken by no less than 40 percent of the people inhabiting our planet. It is estimated that half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of this century, but so far no action has been taken against this on a global scale. How and why do languages disappear? Many people do not particularly care about the fact that languages become extinct, because, the thinking goes, they did not stand the test of time, and so people switch to a more practical language. In that regard, the extinction of languages is largely comparable to the extinction of animal species. Some people are saddened by the fact that animals die out, but others might say that this is just natural selection. This is however not always true: Although countless animal species have indeed become extinct as a result of natural selection, the rate at which they are currently dying out is unprecedented compared to the time before homo sapiens got a foothold in the animal kingdom. With languages, this is actually not entirely different. Sometimes people say that the extinction of languages is the result of natural selection, but this is not true. It is in fact humans who cause language extinction. Read more:

How an Edmonton-based designer is using fashion to revitalize Indigenous languages

January 5th, 2019 by EDMONTON—When Brandi Morin’s kohkum (Cree for grandmother) passed away, her aunties were cleaning her house and found pieces of paper scattered throughout that had short stories and memories on them in their mother’s handwriting. They found the elongated, cursive writings on scrap bits, papers, and even flyers. They compiled all her writings in a mini book, made photocopies, and gave them to all the children and grandchildren, including Morin. Inspired by her kohkum, Morin, an Edmonton-based designer, decided to use her handwritten stories in her designs. This inspired a casual-wear line of shirts and leggings that aims to revitalize endangered Indigenous languages. Being Métis, Morin decided to call her line Mixed Blood Apparel. She is just one of many Indigenous designers from Alberta who are taking the fashion world by storm, one culturally appropriate piece at a time. The Indigenous fashion industry has seen a growth in the past couple years, with the country’s very first Indigenous fashion show called Otahpiaaki taking place in Calgary in 2016, followed by Vancouver in 2017, and Toronto this past summer. In Alberta, the fashion industry has become a movement, advocating for awareness of Indigenous culture, traditions and issues. Most Indigenous designers are using their labels and designs for advocacy, not just fashion. Morin’s line of shirts and leggings include solid colours with words, phrases, and sometimes even entire sentences, written in Cree. “My vision for Mixed Blood Apparel was to create empowering contemporary fashion designs that celebrate Indigenous culture and help revitalize endangered Indigenous languages, and also to incorporate and uplift the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” she said. “I really recognize that Indigenous languages are endangered. I wanted to find a way to make a difference in that area.” Read more:

These Radio Stations are Reviving Indigenous Languages

November 21st, 2018 by In the struggle to preserve Indigenous languages, community radio stations have emerged as a key tool to help mother tongues that were crushed under the weight of colonialism flourish once again. What was once forbidden and punished by the Canadian government — the speaking of one’s own language — can be heard with a turn of the dial. Many radio stations in Indigenous communities feature a sprinkling of language lessons, but two in particular are making it their programming mandate to heavily push out language content. The Nuxalk Radio station, in British Columbia’s beautiful Bella Coola valley, has become a model of sorts, delivering language programming that aims to uplift and empower the Nuxalkmc, that count 893 members living in Bella Coola. The station was launched amid the Idle No More movement, when a group of people came together to figure out how Nuxalk could participate in the resistance, and their plan homed in on saving their language. They had only 11 elder speakers left at that time, and four years later, there are four fluent first-language speakers. The radio station dedicates almost half of its airtime to language learning. The hosts are taught by a fluent speaker on how to speak Nuxalk, and then share what they’ve learned on-air. Programming includes basic word and definition, and there’s a daily lesson with the alphabet. “Nuxalk language is really challenging to pronounce,” says Banchi Hanuse, the station’s manager. “There’s a lot of glottal throat sounds so learning the alphabet is almost like step one.” They use First Voices, a web-based Indigenous language tool administered by the First Peoples Cultural Council, which assists in the documentation and education of Indigenous languages, and hosts 47 languages in B.C. All the hosts play audio or look up a word from First Voices, says Hanuse. Nuxalk Radio also airs archival language recordings, such as elders speaking with anthropologists, linguists, and ethnobotanists many years ago. The hard work has begun to pay off in the community. Hanuse says that because of residential schools that removed children from Indigenous communities and forbade them from speaking their languages, there’s almost a subconscious shame in speaking one’s mother tongue. Hearing it on the radio has made the Nuxalk people more comfortable in speaking the language to each other. “You do hear it a lot more, basically things like hello, thank you, good morning, you can hear people embracing it and introducing themselves in Nuxalk,” says Hanuse. “It’s a major psychological shift that’s happening in the community, as part of who we are again, proud of the language.” In addition, they’ve passed along their knowledge of operating a language-focused radio station to other nations, helping the neighbouring Tsilhqot’in and Heiltsuk nations to get their radio stations started. Read more:

What is killing Mexico’s rich indigenous languages?

November 2nd, 2018 by “I speak the sounds of the people of the rain” – If you ask the Mixteco people about their first language, the reply is just one example of Mexico’s rich linguistic diversity. Yet linguists, artists and human rights defenders are warning that Mexico is becoming increasingly monotone – and that discrimination, as well as repressive assimilation policies by the state, are partly responsible for their death. Maya, Mazahua, Zapotec: Mexico’s 68 native languages are under attack. Earlier this week, a letter written to incoming President AMLO by linguists that warns that Mexico’s linguistic heritage, “one of the richest and most diverse in the world”, is increasingly being replaced by Spanish. However, this is not just a case of a new generation switching to a ‘lingua franca’ for practical reasons. Instead, many accuse discrimination of society but also the state as responsible. “I was still beaten in the hand for speaking my language at school”, claims Mexican linguist Yásnaya Aguilar. As a member of the National Institute of Indigenous Languages, she accuses the state of severe cases of systematic discrimination and violence against children speaking an indigenous language. “In 2006 a girl was reported to have been hung upside down as punishment for speaking Nahuatl in class; in 2005 an Otomi girl could not be registered with her name in her own language because the civil registry did not allow it; and in 2015 high school students were punished with going to wash the bathrooms if they spoke chantino in school”, Yásnaya Aguilar reported at an anti-discrimination workshop held earlier this year. While these are very drastic cases, there is a general sense of public discrimination against speaking an indigenous language. Read more: Aztec Reports