YouTube Is Saving Dying Languages

When no one speaks your language anymore, a massive online video website becomes a handy time capsule — but at what cost?

Image: Jason Leung/Unsplash

When a language dies, a culture ends. A unique way of thinking, understanding and seeing the world disappears. The death of a language can occur by a natural process, but it can also — and that’s often the case — be extinguished by the cultural imposition of a foreign language, the prohibition of its use and teaching, or criminalization and negligence.

According to the United Nations, of the 7,000 languages spoken today, 40% of indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing. The reasons are manifold, but the great culprit is the nation-state that for centuries has sought to unify and standardize entire populations, often diverse, with the aim of creating a single identity under its umbrella.

There are many initiatives to revitalize languages in danger of extinction or even to give new life to previously extinct languages, as in the case of Cornish in England or Livonian in Latvia, which, with about 20 new speakers, still sees new works of literature produced today. They can given a boost by social media — including YouTube.

Nicki Benson studies Indigenous Language Revitalization at the University of Victoria, and is a research assistant for the NEȾOLṈEW̱ (“one mind, one people” in SENĆOŦEN or Saanich language, from Canada) Indigenous Language Research Partnership. “Social media can increase the visibility of a language which can help show the value of the language and give speakers and learners a sense of pride,” she says.

But social media has its limits. “It’s important to be realistic about the role of social media tools in language revitalization: as a potentially powerful support but not a magic solution,” she explains.

YouTube is part of a global effort taking place to prevent the expected extinction of half the languages in use worldwide today by the end of the 21st century. Mobile apps such as Duolingo (that aside from major languages also teach Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Hawaiian and Navajo), Tusaalanga (teaching Inuktitut) and even FirstVoices Keyboards (that allows users to type their own languages in their own alphabets on iOS and Android) sit alongside YouTube channels dedicated to preserving and teaching minority languages.

“One of the opportunities offered by tools such as YouTube is that they can help fight the stigmatization of the languages and communities that speak to them,” explains Albert Ventayol-Boada from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of GLiDi (Group of Linguists for Diversity, linked to the University of Barcelona).

The use of minority languages in technological contexts “can help combat linguistic prejudices and increase the prestige of the language,” he says, showing that all languages “have room in the digital world today”.

That’s a sentiment Oralia Villegas García, a Mazahua-speaker from the community of San Pablo Tlalchichilpa, Mexico, agrees with. After directing courses and giving language workshops, she decided to use YouTube to promote her Mazahua language, spoken by just 140,000 people worldwide (as of 2010). Her channel, “Maorvi, Aprendamos Mazahua” [Maorvi, Let’s learn Mazahua] is aimed at “Mazahuas who for different circumstances stopped speaking their languages to have access to some of the richness of this beautiful language.”

She became a digital activist and decided to become a YouTube creator so that “the use of the language be productive in different spheres of social life and mainly within the Mazahua communities so that they continue to inherit the knowledge and worldview of Mazahua in their own language,” she says.

Others, like musician Manuel de Jesús Pérez, from the Chiapas region, in Mexico, choose YouTube (as well as Facebook) to promote Tsotsil music because they’re the most widely used social media worldwide. While he doesn’t have a channel of his own, his songs are featured all over YouTube and Facebook, including one teaching kids how to speak the Tsotsil language.

“What motivates me is that people from all over the world can know the different languages that exist apart from Spanish or English which are the ‘dominant’ languages and know a little about their culture, customs, traditions and clothing,” he says.

Pérez considers social media a powerful tool to promote minority languages within academia and the western world, but worries that neglects the people who need it most.

“There are still many populations where the internet still does not reach, only telephony, television and radio,” he says.

That’s something such tech evangelists can often overlook. “It’s essential that the process of recording and sharing is led by the language community, and happen in ways that are congruent with their values and their goals for the language,” says Benson. “ If the community is comfortable with sharing recordings on Youtube, then this could be a helpful way to provide access to authentic language for learners no matter where they are located around the world.”

Some are concerned about leaving the future fate of languages in the hands of a private corporation. As well as his academic work, Ventayol-Boada is also involved with the development of online teaching materials for the Mixteca community in southern California, who immigrated from southern Mexico.

“YouTube, as part of the Google corporation and therefore a private company, has its own economic and political agenda, and may not share the values or objectives behind the preservation of the linguistic heritage,” he says. Depending on a company is dangerous because it can make technological decisions that directly affect their conservation — something child-focused creators would recognize well.

There are several different initiatives to preserve languages. None have the reach nor the same capabilities of YouTube, “but all share the [objective of] maintaining and updating original files,” he explains. “Technology changes at a great speed and it is important to make sure that the formats remain valid and readable with the new tools that are developed day by day.”

Ventayol-Boada says it’s especially important that younger people have access to material in their own language online because they’ll be the ones responsible for perpetuating a language.

There are plenty of initiatives from recording for posterity to active teaching languages to kids — as well as educating the rest of us. They’re littered across YouTube, if you search hard enough. One worth subscribing to? Culture Tree, a YouTube channel created by Gbemisola Isimi, a Nigerian mother living in London, to teach her three-year-old daughter the Yoruba language — and adults who could be a driving force against forced extinction and forgetfulness.


Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store