International Mother Language Day: How Digital Tools Can Empower Marginalized Voices

previous blog post explored the importance of linguistically diverse and culturally relevant online material.  February 21 is UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day and the theme of this year’s celebration is “Inclusion in and through education:  Language counts.”  With the date soon approaching, I spoke with people from four different organizations that utilize the Internet, social media, and other digital tools to promote linguistically diverse content— Kevin Scannell of Indigenous Tweets, Frederico Andrade and Daniel Bogre Udell of Wikitongues, Anna Luisa Daigneault of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, and Margaret Florey and Katerina Forrester of the Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity (RNLD).

Three main themes were repeated throughout the individual discussions:  how digital tools and the Internet can both connect and empower marginalized voices, the importance of local participation, and how access, especially in developing societies, remains a major issue in working towards a more linguistically inclusive Internet.

On Connecting and Empowering

KS:  “Being able to use your language on social media is a way of re-connecting geographically, creating a virtual community or a critical mass of speakers all in one place… I’m a speaker of a language separated by great geographic distance from the home base and in a sense the computer and the Internet is the only day-to-day input I have in the language, so that’s a huge, huge advantage.”

DBU:  “One thing that the Internet does remarkably is it blurs the line between the public and the private sphere.  So a lot of endangered language communities are in that state because their language has been persecuted in the public sphere, either by a religious authority or a secular authority, such as the state, and they only feel comfortable speaking the language in private.  But because the Internet is public but people also treat it like a private space folks who speak marginalized languages are very comfortable using it [language] online…. These digital spaces are created around languages that don’t have secure physical spaces.”

ALD:  “We can’t think of endangered language communities as static.  They’re very fluid.  People are coming and going.  The Internet becomes a very important tool in connecting people… There are secondary benefits, too.  These digital skills are important in other aspects of life.  People can also use information technology to empower themselves economically.”

MF:  “There’s a difference between preserving a language and revitalizing a language.  Preservation involves recording and video.  Revitalizing can’t just rely on digital tools, but is more of a toolkit of methods and technology of which digital tools are involved…. Social media is so important to RNLD because it allows users to share information and help each other and answer each other’s questions.  It’s ground-up and not just our organization telling people what to do.”

On Local Participation

DBU on Wikitongues’ volunteers:  “What’s important to note, though, is they’re not going around the world in the sense that they’re already scattered around the world… So volunteers are folks who have either found us on Facebook or YouTube or read our blog and think it’s a cool project and want to participate.  We’re represented right now in about fourteen countries and they record languages in those countries and whenever they travel.  But it’s been to an extent unplanned, so we’re not sending people anywhere.  It’s people who are already there, and I think that’s another aspect of the project that makes it sensitive insofar that, for the most part, people living in these countries are from those countries so this isn’t a small group of people from one country going and documenting the world.”

ALD:  “We only work in communities where we’re asked to come.  We don’t want to impose ourselves on anyone… especially when there’s a legacy of colonialism.  We don’t want to further that.”

On Access

KS:  “The great majority of languages in the world are primarily aural languages… and between eighty and ninety percent of those are never written by the language community themselves… So a big obstacle is just a fact that a lot of interaction online nowadays, at least in the state of social media, is through the written word and that’s a big obstacle for expanding the reach of social media.  The fact that it’s a written medium is really the biggest issue to me… and there are huge differences in terms of connectivity.  Even when there is a connection, the speed of that connection and the cost are issues”

DBU:  “We’re getting close to a moment when maybe half the world will have Internet but that still means half the world doesn’t and has no access to this content.  Then there are instances, which we’ve learned in Vanuatu, for instance, where they have Internet in Vanuatu throughout the islands but it’s not as culturally relevant.  People don’t spend their time on the Internet as much in Vanuatu as they might in the Philippines, which is a country where culturally people use the Internet a lot.  So we need to figure out analog or at least non-digital ways of reaching people, as well.  But that’s something we’re still grappling with.”

ALD:  “We take a long-term view.  There are definitely low levels of digital literacy in some of the communities we work in, but we know that eventually in 10 to 15 years from now there’ll be more digital literacy so this work needs to be done now.  Even if there isn’t access to Internet or computers in some places, that is slowly changing.  We don’t focus on creating Internet access because local merchants and leaders are pushing for that, even if it’s slow in some places.”

Follow #motherlanguage on Twitter for International Mother Language Day on February 21, and visit to see how digital activists are acting as ambassadors for their languages.

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