The Race to Save Indigenous Languages, Using Automatic Speech Recognition

Michael Running Wolf still has that old TI-89 graphing calculator he used in high school that helped propel his interest in technology. 

“Back then, my teachers saw I was really interested in it,” says Running Wolf, clinical instructor of computer science at Northeastern University. “Actually a couple of them printed out hundreds of pages of instructions for me on how to code” the device so that it could play games. 

What Running Wolf, who grew up in a remote Cheyenne village in Birney, Montana, didn’t realize at the time, poring over the stack of printouts at home by the light of kerosene lamps, was that he was actually teaching himself basic programming.

“I thought I was just learning how to put computer games on my calculator,” Running Wolf says with a laugh. 

But it hadn’t been his first encounter with technology. Growing up in the windy plains near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, Running Wolf says that although his family—which is part Cheyenne, part Lakota—didn’t have daily access to running water or electricity, sometimes, when the winds died down, the power would flicker on, and he’d plug in his Atari console and play games with his sisters. 

These early experiences would spur forward a lifelong interest in computers, artificial intelligence, and software engineering that Running Wolf is now harnessing to help reawaken endangered indigenous languages in North and South America, some of which are so critically at risk of extinction that their tallies of living native speakers have dwindled into the single digits. 

Running Wolf’s goal is to develop methods for documenting and maintaining these early languages through automatic speech recognition software, helping to keep them “alive” and well-documented. It would be a process, he says, that tribal and indigenous communities could use to supplement their own language reclamation efforts, which have intensified in recent years amid the threats facing languages

“The grandiose plan, the far-off dream, is we can create technology to not only preserve, but reclaim languages,” says Running Wolf, who teaches computer science at Northeastern’s Vancouver campus. “Preservation isn’t what we want. That’s like taking something and embalming it and putting it in a museum. Languages are living things.”

The better thing to say is that they’ve “gone to sleep,” Running Wolf says. 

Read more: Northeastern University

Cherokee fight to save language from extinction

In classrooms throughout North Carolina and Oklahoma, students are learning about the periodic table of elements or the origins of the Civil War. However, in some classrooms, the lessons are a bit more personal — Cherokee students are learning the history and language of their people.

Cherokee speakers have made great efforts to keep their language alive. But often the schools, programs and tribes involved in that work haven’t shared resources or strategies to achieve their goal. That changed over the summer when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma signed a memorandum of agreement to protect and preserve the tribes’ shared language, history and culture. The signing took place July 24 at Kituwah Mound near the modern-day Western North Carolina town of Cherokee, the center of the historical Kituwah village that is known as the place of origin for the Cherokee people.

EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed says the preservation plan that will result from the agreement is meant to address the siloing that can occur among the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. (The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee, also based in Oklahoma, plans to sign the memorandum at a later date). Each group has its own Cherokee language programs, curriculum and teaching tools. Cherokee Central Schools, a K-12 education system operated by the EBCI since 1990, also has its own language curriculum and developed a language app.

“We’re stronger together than we are separate,” Sneed says. “Let’s pool all of our resources, share resources and open source what we have.”

One component of the plan is a commitment between Western Carolina University and Northeastern State University in Oklahoma to “support Cherokee language revitalization efforts guided by the Cherokee tribes,” says Sara Snyder Hopkins, who directs the Cherokee Language Program at WCU.

“It commits us to share language and cultural pedagogical materials between university and tribal programs,” Hopkins explains. Resources could include instructional videos, children’s books and information about cultural sites.

Read more: Mountain Xpress

Ayinwinisa event brings fashion and language together to celebrate Indigenous culture

Cree fashionista and artist Cheyenne Rain LeGrande’s first fashion show will be a celebration of Indigenous languages displayed through fashion. 

LeGrande is the driving force behind the Ayiwinisa Fashion Show this weekend at Beaver Hills House Park. 

As curatorial assistant for Latitude 53 art gallery, this isn’t her first event, but it is LeGrande’s first fashion show. 

“I think Indigenous fashion is just incredible and so powerful and beautiful,” LeGrande said. “And to have these languages be visible in that form kind of created this idea.”

he show is made up of four Indigenous designers.

Heather Crowshoe Couture will be celebrating Indigenous high fashion with Blackfoot designs, Evan Ducharme will be showing his most elegant Métis garments. There will also be bold trench coats with a Cree flair from Mobilize and Luxx Ready to Wear’s Cree printed garments.

Each designer is showcasing their Indigenous language in their designs. 

Read more: CBC

Extinction of indigenous languages leads to loss of exclusive knowledge about medicinal plants

“Every time a language disappears, a speaking voice also disappears, a way to make sense of reality disappears, a way to interact with nature disappears, a way to describe and name animals and plants disappears,” says Jordi Bascompte, researcher in the Department of Evolutional Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich. 

The project Ethnologue concluded that 42% of the world’s more than 7,000 existing languages are endangered. Of the 1,000 indigenous languages spoken in Brazil prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, only about 160 are still alive, according to language research non-profit SIL International

In a recent study, Bascompte and biodiversity specialist Rodrigo Cámara-Leret warn that the extinction of indigenous languages equates to a loss of traditional knowledge about medicinal plants, which could reduce chances for the discovery of future medicines. 

Many of today’s mass-market medications are derived from medicinal plants. They range from acetylsalicylic acid—commonly known as aspirin, whose active ingredient is extracted from white willow (Salix alba L.)—to morphine, which is extracted from poppies (Papaver somniferum).

As indigenous groups traditionally rely on the spoken word for intergenerational knowledge transfer, the disappearance of these languages will take with it a universe of information. 

Double the challenge

The study’s scientists analyzed 3,597 vegetal species with 12,495 medicinal uses and linked this data with 236 indigenous languages from three biologically and culturally diverse regions—the northwestern Amazon, New Guinea and North America. From this, they concluded that in these regions, 75% of the medicinal uses for medicinal plants are known in only one language. 

“We found that those languages with unique knowledge are the ones at a higher risk of extinction,” says Bascompte. “There is a sort of a double-problem in terms of how knowledge will disappear.” 

The Americas stood out in the study as a hotspot for indigenous knowledge in which most of the medicinal knowledge is linked to endangered languages, and the northwestern Amazon particularly proved to be a prime example of the double-problem mentioned by Bascompte. The study evaluated 645 plant species and their medicinal uses according to oral tradition in 37 languages and found that 91% of this knowledge exists in a single language only. Therefore if a language is extinguished, as could happen with many in the Amazon in coming years, the medicinal knowledge therein will also die. 

Read more: Global Landscapes Forum 

Quechua language endures in Peru despite centuries of discrimination

Leila Ccaico walked slowly to the front of her class in a rural village in the Andes. Reluctantly, she faced her classmates, obeyed her teacher’s orders and started to sing softly in Quechua.

This is the first year that the sixth-grader has been taking reading and writing lessons in the Indigenous language she learned from her parents, one that has survived despite centuries of laws and discrimination that discouraged its use.

Halting efforts to revive and promote the language hit the spotlight last month when Peru’s newly appointed prime minister surprised the nation by delivering a speech in Quechua to Congress for the first time in Peru’s history.

Translation into Spanish was unavailable, angering politicians who couldn’t understand the speech — a fact that illustrated Quechua’s status as a second-class language in the South American country.

But the incident also raised hopes among Quechua speakers that Peru’s new government, led by a rural schoolteacher from an Indigenous region, will give their language more visibility and increase funding for bilingual education in villages where children are often reluctant to speak the ancient tongue.

“I feel strange speaking Quechua; it’s embarrassing” said 11-year-old Ccaico, whose name is pronounced something like “Hai-Ko” in English.

Talking in Spanish, she said that children who speak Quechua at her school get bullied and added that parents in her village don’t want children to learn the tongue because they think it will not help children when they move to the cities for work.

Ccaico, whose parents are alpaca herders, said she stopped speaking Quechua fluently at the age of 6. She said she she was visiting a city and started to speak in Quechua, but her older sister told her to stop because passersby would make fun of them.

It’s a situation commonly faced by Quechua speakers in South America, even though the language is used by an estimated 10 million people in the region — largely in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, all of which have made it an official language in recent decades.

Five hundred years ago, Quechua was the lingua franca of the Inca Empire, which stretched from what is now southern Colombia to central Chile.

But the language’s status began to decline following the Spanish conquest of Peru. Though Spanish authorities initially tolerated Quechua, they banned it following an Indigenous rebellion in 1781.

In 1975, a nationalist military government turned Quechua into an official language in Peru, along with Spanish. But legal recognition did not stop discrimination against Quechua speakers, who come mostly from poor and rural areas.

During the conflict between Peru’s government and the Shining Path guerrilla group in the 1980s and 1990s, some Indigenous people were tortured by the military and accused of being rebel collaborators merely for speaking Quechua, a truth commission found.

Thousands of Quechua-speaking women were enrolled in forced sterilization campaigns in Peru during the 1990-2000 government of Alberto Fujimori and were denied medical attention in their native language.

“We have suffered for 500 years. We walked slowly through hills and snowy peaks to arrive here in Congress, and have our voice heard” Prime Minister Guido Bellido said during his Quechua language speech on Aug 26.

Read more: NWA Online

Te reo Māori and Welsh: Two indigenous languages, two stories of revival

Welsh is a dead language.

This is what I’ve been hearing my entire life.

I’ve always been aware of the comparison between my language and te reo Māori. Both, I knew, shared the precarious position of being endangered languages.

I was surprised, then, to read this article looking to Wales with admiration for its handling of the language.

Growing up, I would never have confessed to enjoying Welsh language music, television or books. I made a point of not being seen with the patriotic Welsh kids, and spoke to friends in English despite knowing we both spoke Welsh at home.

Wales became the first English territory way back in the 13th century, before being officially incorporated into the kingdom by Henry VIII in the 16th century. While the Celtic name for our land, Cymru, refers to “friends” or “fellow countrymen”, Wales derives from an Anglo Saxon word meaning “foreigners” or “outsiders”.

I learned how Welsh was literally beaten out of school children by none other than Welsh teachers, led to believe by a government commissioned report — known today as the Treachery of the Blue Books — that “the evil of the Welsh language” posed “a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people”.

Any child caught speaking Welsh was humiliated by the wearing of a heavy wooden plaque around the neck, reading WN or “Welsh not”. The child left wearing the plaque at the end of the day was physically and psychologically punished.

It was a real shock, then, to find this video of Jemaine Clement breaking down as he said his kuia would be punished for speaking te reo. Just like us, generations were robbed of the language of their ancestors.

Read more: The Spinoff

Can Indigenous Language Comics Save a Mother Tongue?

Tlaloc is a tempestuous deity: provider and withholder. The god of rain, he looms large in the belief system of the Ñäñho people*, who reside in the seasonally parched plateau region of Central Mexico. In the heavens above, Tlaloc lives within a paradise of lush vegetation and endless water in clay pots. If only he’d share.

In recent years, a comic book, Ar Metlaloke(The Tlaloques Hunter), has reimagined Tlaloc’s domain with a twist. The comic weaves in a traditional story from the Mexican state of Querétaro about the spontaneous rainfalls of the mountain Pinal del Zamorano. In the creative adaptation, Tlaloc’s haven includes the Tlaloques, goblin-like helpers who are prone to pranks. They playfully break containers—crack!—and rain pours down unexpectedly onto the arid landscape around Zamorano.

The book is the first of its kind written in Hñäñho, the language of the Ñäñho people, as well as in Spanish and English. It represents a larger, ongoing effort to preserve the people’s culture, which is under threat as speakers decline and cultural bonds erode from centuries of colonial policies.

The language—sometimes called Otomi, from the Spanish name for the community—is imperiled. Today it is one of several regional dialects of a mother tongue with fewer than 300,000 speakers, a figure that’s been dropping for decades.

Limited written Hñäñho has been a challenge for preservation. When linguist Ewald Hekking began researching it 40 years ago, he recalls, “I’d heard there was a local language called Otomi, but I couldn’t find any books.”

Hekking, of the department of anthropology at the Autonomous University of Querétaro, has been working to address that absence ever since. The Dutch-born researcher helped translate the comic, and more recently, he co-authored an anthology of Ñäñho oral traditions and beliefs.

The hope is that telling Ñäñho cultural stories in a contemporary format can help preserve them, and the language, for generations to come.

Hñäñho is one of 68 ancestral tongues still spoken in Mexico, and the seventh largest by number of speakers. But many of these languages are endangered.

Read more: Sapiens

Indigenous languages are a bedrock of Alaska Native culture, but they are disappearing fast

Indigenous languages are a bedrock of culture among Alaska Natives, but apart from a handful of exceptions they are endangered. 

There are 21 Indigenous languages officially recognized by the State of Alaska, but every year there are fewer proficient speakers of these as elders are lost and the power of Western culture exerts powerful influences among young people.

“The land we call Alaska is home to around two dozen Native languages, spoken in and near Alaska for many thousands of years. Each Alaska Native language is a treasure beyond value, holding cultural knowledge of a unique people, a unique history, and a unique way of viewing life,” the Alaska Native Language Preservation and Advisory Council wrote in its 2020 report. 

However, “every Indigenous language in Alaska faces threats from colonial English-only practices, and nearly all of them are critically endangered,” the Council said in its latest report. 

The Council compiles a report to the governor and state Legislature every two years on the state of Indigenous languages. The language Council was formed by the state Legislature in 2012.

There are only rough approximations of the numbers of fluent speakers and their age ranges for each Alaska Native language, but surveys provide some indication. 

According to the Council’s 2020 report, one language — the Doogh Qunag of Holikackuk — now has no living proficient speakers. In the Dena’ina language of Southcentral Alaska, there are only five proficient speakers. In the Dihthaad Xt’een Ian Aandeeg language of Tanacross, in eastern Interior Alaska, there are only 10.

In the Ahtna language of the Copper River region, known as Koht’aene Kenaege, there are 15. Of the Tlingit language of Southeast Alaska, Lingit Yoo X’atangi, there are 60 proficient speakers.

The list goes on and on.

Read more: Anchorage Press

‘Mind blowing’: Grizzly bear DNA maps onto Indigenous language families

The bears and Indigenous humans of coastal British Columbia have more in common than meets the eye. The two have lived side by side for millennia in this densely forested region on the west coast of Canada. But it’s the DNA that really stands out: A new analysis has found that the grizzlies here form three distinct genetic groups, and these groups align closely with the region’s three Indigenous language families.

It’s a “mind-blowing” finding that shows how cultural and biological diversity in the region are intertwined, says Jesse Popp, an Indigenous environmental scientist at the University of Guelph who was not involved with the work.

The research began purely as a genetics study. Grizzlies had recently begun to colonize islands along the coast of British Columbia, and scientists and Indigenous wildlife managers wanted to know why they were making this unprecedented move. Luckily, in 2011, the region’s five First Nations set up a collaborative “bear working group” to answer exactly that sort of question. Lauren Henson, a conservation scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, partnered with working group members from the Nuxalk, Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Gitga’at, and Wuikinuxv Nations to figure out which mainland grizzlies were most genetically similar to the island ones.

Henson used bear hair samples that researchers involved with the working group had collected over the course of 11 years. To get the samples, the team went to remote areas of British Columbia—some of them only accessible via helicopter—and piled up leaves and sticks, covering them with a concoction of dogfish oil or a fish-based slurry. It “smells really, really terrible to us, but is intriguing to bears,” Henson says.

The researchers then surrounded this tempting pile with a square of barbed wire, which harmlessly snagged tufts of fur—and the DNA it contains—when bears came to check out the smell. In all, the group collected samples from 147 bears over about 23,500 square kilometers—an area roughly the size of Vermont.

Henson and her colleagues then used microsatellite DNA markers—regions of the genome that change frequently compared with other sections—to determine how related the bears were to each other. The scientists found three distinct genetic groups of bears living in the study area, they report this month in Ecology and Society.

But they could not find any obvious physical barriers keeping them apart. The boundaries between genetic groupings didn’t correspond to the location of waterways or especially rugged or snow-covered landscapes. It’s possible, Henson says, that the bears remain genetically distinct not because they can’t travel, but because the region is so resource-rich that they haven’t needed to do so to meet their needs.

One thing did correlate with the bears’ distribution, however: Indigenous language families. “We were looking at language maps and noticed the striking visual similarity,” Henson says. When the researchers analyzed the genetic interrelatedness of bears both within and outside the area’s three language families, they found that grizzly bears living within a language family’s boundaries were much more genetically similar to one another than to bears living outside them.

Read more: AAAS

American linguist develops braille alphabet for traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people

Harris Mowbray has never been to Prince Rupert, B.C., but he has left his touch there.

Mowbray, an amateur linguist and software programmer based in California, in collaboration with Prince Rupert resident and Gitga’at Nation member Brendan Eshom, has created a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax, the traditional dialect of the Ts’msyen people of the north coast.

According to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, which works to preserve B.C. Indigenous languages, Sm’algyax is in serious decline and most speakers are over 70 years old. 

Eshom, in an effort to revitalize the language, has operated the Sm’algyax Word of the Day website and mobile app since 2019.

It was through Eshom’s website and app that Mowbray learned about the language in early 2021 and offered his services. 

Mowbray has previously created braille alphabets for the Chamorro and Carolinian languages of the Mariana Islands, the Kashubian and Silesian languages of Poland, and others and was looking for his next project.

“I think it’s really important that blind people, or people who are near-sighted or have some visual issues should be able to participate in languages as much as everyone else,” said Mowbray.

“The development of a braille alphabet for Sm’algyax increases the number of people who can experience the knowledge and heritage of B.C.’s North Coast — literally first-hand,” Eshom said in a statement.

“People with visual challenges who are fluent in braille will be able to learn the language as readily as those who have access to printed reference materials. I applaud Harris for his expertise and initiative, which have enabled an exciting cross-cultural collaboration.”

Read more: CBC/Radio-Canada

The Global Extinction of Languages Is Threatening a Vital Type of Human Knowledge

As human languages are driven to extinction around the world, a verbal encyclopedia of medical knowledge is on the brink of being forgotten.

Among 12,495 medicinal uses for plants in indigenous communities, new research has found over 75 percent of those plants are each tied to just one local language. If these unique words trickle out of use, so too may the knowledge they contain.

“Each indigenous language is therefore a unique reservoir of medicinal knowledge,” researchers write, “a Rosetta stone for unraveling and conserving nature’s contributions to people.” 

Language extinction is a tragic phenomenon that’s been occurring worldwide, as languages spoken by precious few people are replaced by larger ones. Roughly one language ceases to be spoken every four months, and 3,054 languages are currently endangered around the world.

New research on indigenous languages in North America, Papua New Guinea, and the northwest Amazon reveals just how much crucial information could be lost as this occurs. 

In fact, our collective knowledge of medicinal plants appears more threatened by the loss of indigenous voices than it is from environmental destruction.

Of all 3,597 medicinal plant species analyzed in the study, researchers found less than 5 percent are on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Some of these plants have not undergone a proper conservation assessment, so further research is needed to figure out how they are actually faring. That said, current data and machine learning suggest very few species we are keeping a close eye on are at risk of dying out.

Instead, it is the knowledge surrounding these plants, passed from generation to generation for hundreds if not thousands of years, that is at risk of vanishing. The vast majority of plant species in the study were found to have medical properties described in just one indigenous language, many of which are themselves endangered.

Read more: Science Alert

Healing words: Taiwan’s tribes fight to save their disappearing languages

In a modest conference room near the edge of Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake, Panu Kapamumu holds up an unwieldy A3 booklet. The home-printed document contains every known word of Thao, the language of his Indigenous tribe. Kapamumu runs his finger down the list, reading out a selection of Thao words, meanings and translations. He reads slowly and purposefully, a man in his sixties but still just a student of his mother tongue.

Pastay piakolingkin piakaimahan. Ito Thao Panu Kapamumu,” he says. It translates in English to: “Everyone is safe and doing well. I am of the Thao people, Panu Kapamumu.”

Normally, Kapamumu speaks in a mix of the two languages he knows better than his own – Chinese and English.

“We believe in our ancestors’ spirits, so we treasure our own language and see it as more important than our own lives … We have a right to survive,” he says.

Indigenous tribes of Taiwan are in a race against time to save their languages before they are lost forever. An estimated 35% of the 400,000 Indigenous people in Taiwan speak their native tongue fluently, but in some communities it’s far less.

Taiwan’s government formally recognises 16 tribes who inhabited the island for millennia before the arrival of Han people. The Thao, whose traditional lands surround Sun Moon Lake, are the smallest, with fewer than 800 members. Thao is in the Austronesian family of languages, which are spoken throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and much of the Pacific.It is among four of the 16 languages on Taiwan considered by Unesco to be critically endangered.

Under the authoritarian and assimilationist rule of Japan and then the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) regime, native languages were criminalised. The Thao’s losses extended to land, lives and culture.

“With the Japanese, you can’t speak your language. The KMT, you can’t speak your language, there was punishment in schools. So our language stopped 75 years ago,” he says.

A loss of language is a loss of traditional and cultural practices, says Dremedreman a lja Tjuveleljem, a consultant and professional teacher of her language, Paiwan.

“Traditional knowledge was always transmitted by native tongue,” Tjuveleljem says. The loss is more pronounced among urban communities, where people were moved by force, natural disaster, or economics, she says.

Kapamumu, chairman of the Thao cultural development association, estimates their efforts have recorded about 90% of the Thao language. There are now five dedicated teachers of the language in Taiwan, but it is an informal community effort, with minimal resources – a scenario playing out across the island.

Read more: The Guardian