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

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