Nov 28, 2023 - World

Tech is helping preserve endangered Indigenous tongues

Illustration of a floppy disk with the label in the shape of a speech bubble.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Indigenous language speakers and experts across the Americas are increasingly using apps and other tech to preserve their endangered tongues.

Why it matters: UNESCO says "optimistic" estimates show 40% to 50% of the more than 6,000 Indigenous languages spoken worldwide could disappear by the end of the century as those who speak them die and newer generations are forced to assimilate into dominant languages.

  • "It's known that losing a language means also losing knowledge, cultural know-how, worldviews, ideas about the environment, all of which have merit," says Roberto Zariquiey, a linguistics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP).
  • Indigenous peoples have become more vocal in demanding better resources to avoid that loss, and technology is helping that along, he tells Axios Latino.

Details: Zariquiey and fellow linguist Mariana Poblete led the push to establish a field research station in the Peruvian Amazon where researchers — including university students who speak some of the 20 local Indigenous languages — are recording audio and video of native speakers in the area who volunteer or advise.

  • The team, composed of researchers from the PUCP, the Max Planck Institute in Austria and the University of Zurich, is working with a system previously used in psycholinguistic studies that uses high-tech cameras to examine the role of vision in language.
  • The system helps users track a person's eye movement as they speak, giving researchers more insight into how words and sentences work in various languages. For example, the way a person moves their head might indicate who they see as the subject in a sentence.
  • "A lot of what we currently know about human cognition is largely based on a few languages … but we can't just assume speakers of, say, Shipibo process things just like those who speak Spanish or English do," Zariquiey says.
  • With these types of analyses, "we can build on our understanding of humans in a less homogenous way," he says.
  • The team has also released two apps that teach the Iskanawa language, using flashcards and a pronunciation guide.

In Mexico, a group of undergrads banded together to launch a language learning app that also aims to preserve Indigenous languages.

  • Miyotl, available for free, started out in 2021 as a bilingual dictionary of the Maya, Mixe and Hñahñu languages.
  • It now includes 15 of the 68 Indigenous languages currently spoken across Mexico and comes with annotated texts for reading comprehension, to learn grammatical construction and to teach about the myths and legends of each culture's language.
  • Miyotl has about 100,000 downloads so far, and the team of 100 people is slowly growing.

What they're saying: "We saw a great opportunity in harnessing technology to preserve languages, keeping it educational, accessible and not for profit," the app's co-creator Emilio Álvarez Herrera tells Axios Latino.

  • Álvarez adds they're trying to recruit more pro-bono programmers and designers so Miyotl can eventually be a tool similar to Duolingo, the popular language learning app, also including tests and multiple choice practice questions.
  • "It's a long-term project, and we're in for the long haul."

Zoom out: U.S.-based nonprofit The Language Conservancy works with Native American linguists and has also developed a computer program for "rapid word collection."

  • Its algorithm scans text and audio records of languages like Apache, Lakota or Cree to create online dictionaries and even children's coloring books.

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