The Fight To Save Indigenous Languages in the Digital Age

By: Caitriona Maria | Wealth of Geeks

Copyright 2023 Wealth of Geeks

Research by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shows that a staggering 76.9 percent of online content is monopolized by the top ten most spoken languages.

There is a significant lack of diversity in internet content—specifically, language diversity. As we grapple with the threat to linguistic diversity, experts are zeroing in on the preservation of the most susceptible languages.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. Yet, the last 30 years have been marked by an unsettling quieting of many tongues as more languages face the threat of extinction. UNESCO predicts that by the year 2100, half the world’s languages might very well vanish. Indigenous languages, often the most richly diverse, face the highest risk of extinction, with their presence on the internet being notably scarce.

Indigenous Languages Are Unique

The term “indigenous language” refers to any language native to a country or region. These languages tend to be oral and drive identity and culture. Contrary to popular belief, indigenous languages are far more complex than their big global counterparts. English, Spanish, and Chinese have considerably more predictable patterns. Indigenous languages, on the other hand, rely on specialized and idiosyncratic knowledge.

According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, native peoples account for less than 6 percent of the global population. Yet this relatively small portion speaks more than 4,000 of the world’s languages. These languages serve a dual purpose. Beyond communication, indigenous populations are able to pass down extensive systems of knowledge developed over thousands of years.

Juan Pablo Guiterrez, an indigenous activist from the Yukpa Community of Colombia, emphasized this point during a recent UNESCO panel. The activist called for a “holistic approach” to preserving endangered languages online. Only through the combined efforts of both the public and private sectors, as well as indigenous communities themselves, can the alarming trends of linguistic homogeneity be reversed.

Financial Hurdles and Resource Shortages

Various obstacles have hindered indigenous peoples’ digital presence. Internet access is 21 percent lower in tribal areas than their neighboring, non-tribal counterparts. Further study shows an interesting contradiction. Whether using fixed or mobile broadband networks, download speeds in tribal areas were approximately 75 percent slower than in non-tribal areas.

Despite these limited and low-quality networks, the cheapest price for basic internet services in tribal regions was 11 percent higher. Indigenous populations are paying more for significantly slower internet.

The United States Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development identified seven “fundamental barriers ” to broadband deployment in American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) territories. These barriers include missing infrastructure and a weak connection to economic development. Without internet access, the gap between AI/AN populations and the digital world continues to widen.

Research from the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University found that 33 percent of tribal reservation residents rely on their smartphones for internet access. The institute has launched the Affordable Connectivity Program to help offset this inequality. Qualified households can apply to receive a monthly discount on broadband access from their internet provider. Programs like this are limited to those who can afford the discounted rate while the rest of the population remains without access, demanding better solutions.

The Private Sector Pitches In

Tech giant Meta, formerly Facebook, leads the charge on preserving linguistic diversity on the web. Last year, Meta announced its No Language Left Behind (NLLB) project, which seeks to provide direct translations between 200 languages. Among these are “low-resource” languages like Asturian (Spain), Luganda (Uganda), and Urdu (South Asia).

Beyond its NLLB project, Meta has also steadily incorporated more languages across its platforms. Namely, Facebook users will find increasing language options available. Just last year, Inuktitut joined the ranks of Facebook’s official languages. This is a good sign, as Inuktitut is one of Canada’s principal Inuit languages. Like other indigenous languages, Inuktitut words are “longer and more complex” than their English or French counterparts.

Though this change is only available in the desktop setting, it is a step in the right direction. The Lenovo Foundation and Motorola are following in Meta’s footsteps. Together with UNESCO, both companies are researching the impact and potential of digitizing at-risk languages.

Governments Must Contribute

Without government involvement, the scope of preservation efforts is severely limited. Native language conservation efforts, both digitally and beyond, have come to the forefront in recent years. The United States federal government launched several investment projects to aid preservation.

In June last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Affairs Office provided $7 million in “Living Language” grants to 45 tribes and tribal organizations. The grants will allow tribes to “document and revitalize” at-risk languages.

Digitally, the federal government is investing no less than $3 billion to improve internet access and adoption on tribal lands. Without access to technology, the efforts of companies like Meta and Lenova fall flat. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration—a subset of the U.S. Department of Commerce—launched its investment program with this in mind. The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) will promote digitizing tribal language educational materials and has already seen some progress.

“…The TBCP is not just about connecting Native communities to the internet,” Alan Davidson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, said during the 2023 Internet Governance Forum Workshop. “An important part of this program allows tribes to fund remote educational activities. For many, this has included work to preserve indigenous languages. This is a crucial use of technology.”

Looking Ahead

Currently, languages are vanishing at a rate of one every two weeks. The loss of these languages comes with the loss of knowledge, traditions, and culture. Spot treating the issue is not enough to combat the rate of decline.

In response to these challenges, the United Nations, along with Indigenous Peoples Organizations and other U.N. indigenous mechanisms, have declared 2022 to 2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. During this decade, the U.N. aims to join tech companies and governments together in the efforts to preserve and promote indigenous languages across the globe.

The United Nations General Assembly requested UNESCO lead the effort. The organization stands as a guardian, actively working to weave indigenous languages into the digital fabric. Over the next 10 years, UNESCO will coordinate global action plans and place multilingualism at the heart of indigenous peoples’ development.

This article was produced by TPR Teaching and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.