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?
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…