UNESCO has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages and we need to go beyond transcribing and translating, to using technology to rescue, revive, and connect a digital-first generation with their cultural heritage.
By Alberto Granados, vice president of Sales, Marketing and Operations, Microsoft Asia Pacific.
Some of the world’s longest standing languages run the risk of being wiped out. With younger generations embracing new technologies and cultures, mounting pressure is on technology to be the silver bullet that holds “old and new” together.
As a Spaniard and someone who also speaks French, Asia Pacific has been an incredible learning experience for me with the multiple languages, dialects and intonations.
Take for example, Cristina Calderón, the last living Yaghan person alive, and the single living speaker of the Yagán language. I strongly believe that preserving indigenous languages and heritage will have enormous benefits for the new world, and I can’t be the only one to think this. So, why are we seeing these once thriving indigenous languages die out?
The digitalization of languages has had a major, negative impact on indigenous languages. Despite there being approximately 6,000 languages in use today, 45 percent of internet-based content is in English and Chinese, with Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese making up the top five. What does this mean for those who speak minority languages or languages outside of these five? If they want to connect with the wider world, they will have to adopt new languages. And it appears this is happening at the expense of their own culture.
If we’re to build a diverse and inclusive world, we need to find a better way to make the digital world accessible to everyone without jeopardizing the rich heritage that exists today.
Technology as a preserver
Technology is a powerful tool, which if set on the right path can deliver unprecedented benefits.
The geeks among us might remember that Bing added the Klingon language to its language translator just days before Star Trek Into Darkness hit movie cinemas everywhere. For the first time ever, everyone could conceivably order a plate of gagh when dining out. It’s amazing to think that at the click of a button, a new (pop)cultural following and language was born.
Of course, the answer to saving the world’s indigenous languages is going to be more complex than simply transcribing them into code, sites and apps. There are shining examples of people using technology to revitalize how we engage with indigenous cultures, and preserve languages, history and context.
For example, the Korean language uses more than 11,000 alphabetic glyphs, and has morphed over time to include Chinese characters. This is where Dr. Wayne de Fremery comes in. A Korean studies scholar and associate professor at Sogang University, he’s harnessing the power of Azure and machine learning to bring historical Korean texts back to life; a huge challenge given that historical Korean literature, much like the writings of sixteenth century poetry, is written in a style difficult to grasp. For Korean youth, reading Korean historical literature is one thing, understanding it is another.
de Fremery hopes that his efforts will not only create a massive archive of Korean texts for further study, but also contribute to breaking down the cultural and language barriers that have driven a wedge between historical literature and modern young Koreans.
And these efforts need not be the responsibility of academics alone.
I am truly inspired that a New Zealand youth worker, Michael Dargaville, took both his love for te reo Māori, which is his first language, and his passion for technology, to produce a special te reo Māori translation of a Minecraft tutorial for Kiwi children as part of the recent 2018 Hour of Code. Thanks to Michael, Maori children now have another avenue to bridge the digital divide, while still staying connected to their roots.
2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages
2019 has been declared the International Year of Indigenous Languages by UNESCO and it’s important to celebrate the diversity and inclusion that thrives in a world where such languages continue to exist.
While advances in technology have led to great strides in preserving indigenous languages and cultures, there is still much that needs to be done. We need to go beyond transcribing text and translating words. There needs to be a greater understanding of how technology can be used to revive indigenous languages and connect a digital-first generation with their cultural heritage.
The more we preserve our world’s cultural inheritance and linguistic diversity, the brighter the future will be.