From threatened to thriving: Using technology to preserve Arctic Indigenous languages

How an online platform could revitalize Arctic languages threatened with extinction.

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In parts of the Arctic, such as Alaska, steps such as multilingual signs and restored place names are aimed at protecting Indigenous languages — but more can be done. (Yereth Rosen)

Most Gwich’in children living in the Northwest Territories in Canada and Northern Alaska will never learn to speak their native language. Of the 6,000 Gwich’in people in the Arctic, fewer than 400 of them speak the language fluently. The language is rarely spoken in homes anymore and most of the remaining speakers are grandparents. With speakers of the language rapidly disappearing, Gwich’in children no longer have access to generations of cultural heritage and folklore. The strong cultural link that binds the community together is gone.

Among the world’s 6,500-plus different languages, more than half of these are in danger of extinction by the next century. But it is not just words that we lose. We also lose stories and traditions, scientific knowledge about nature and ecosystems, and a unique worldview.

There are more than 40 indigenous languages within the Arctic Circle, most of which face the threat of extinction. The decline in Indigenous language use is partly due to young people speaking their country’s dominant language, such as English, over their native tongue. The lack of policies and programs protecting Indigenous languages and a legacy of forced assimilation exacerbate the problem. Climate change is further threatening Arctic Indigenous languages as the communities themselves are physically in danger with melting ice, coastal erosion, and increased natural disasters. The changing climate has also rendered many words obsolete. For example, researchers have noted words used to describe particular environmental conditions, such as “taqnegheq” (thick, dark, weathered ice), are no longer used among the Yupik people of Western Alaska.

While some efforts have been made to include Indigenous languages on the internet and social media, Arctic Indigenous languages have been mostly left behind by modern technology. Some Arctic Indigenous languages are featured on basic translation websites. Alaska’s Inupiaq language was even recently added as a language option on Facebook. Some communities have also started successful social media campaigns, such as #SpeakGwich’inToMe and #SpeakTlichoToMe, to encourage the use of indigenous languages on social media. However, for most Arctic languages, there is no Google Translate, Duolingo, or comprehensive online translation tools or dictionaries. Existing translation tools lack the cultural context that is vital to the languages.

To combat the extinction of Arctic Indigenous languages, an online language learning platform and app is crucial to preserving these languages. An online language learning platform should include three main features: 1) video lessons and stories uploaded by native speakers of the language, 2) interactive learning tools such as flash cards and games, and 3) online translation tool with both written and audio translations. The essence of this platform is that it captures the local wisdom and knowledge that is essential to the language and the culture of its speakers. Many of the features of this platform and app could be used offline so those with an unstable internet connection would be able to use the platform. This platform could start with the Inuit languages of the U.S., Canada, and Greenland, with the intention of including more Arctic Indigenous languages in the future.

There are several ways an online language learning platform would aid in language and cultural preservation. First, through videos of traditional folklore, this platform would incorporate the local knowledge and culture of the communities. This also prevents losses of meaning that can only be captured through stories, facial expressions, and other nonverbal expressions. Native speakers of Indigenous languages, local teachers, and linguists can collect the data and videos for the platform to ensure that cultural heritage is included within the platform and with the right sensitivity. Recognizing that languages are not static but instead constantly evolving, this platform would balance preserving local wisdom with constantly changing adaptations within the language.

Second, this platform would store crucial scientific knowledge about nature. Most indigenous communities share a close connection with the natural environment and their languages contain significant knowledge about ecosystems and plant and animal behavior that has been passed down through generations. A feature on the platform that includes plants, animals, weather patterns, and other environmental aspects that are significant to the local community would ensure that this information is preserved.

Third, this platform can be targeted to children from elementary to high school and can be incorporated into school curriculums. Local governments are beginning to recognize the importance of indigenous language programs in schools. Just earlier this year, for example, the Department of Education in Alaska announced that they will promote Native language learning in schools. Additionally, in Canada, Indigenous groups, including the Inuit in the Arctic, are currently developing language legislation to preserve, promote, and revitalize indigenous languages. As more governments and institutions are recognizing the need to preserve indigenous languages, this platform fills the gap in effective and modern language learning tools. Outside of the classroom, children of indigenous parents that have moved outside of the community can still learn their native tongue and connect with their culture.

To be implemented, the platform would require funding from either a government or private donor. Subscription fees or advertising could also help secure funds to maintain the platform. Native speakers, local teachers, and linguists who can collect the data and videos with the right sensitivity and skills are necessary to create the platform. Other stakeholders include local governments, school administrators, community leaders, and cultural centers to support the production of the platform and its incorporation within school curriculums. Despite the recent recognition from many local governments on the importance of indigenous language preservation, this platform could face potential bureaucratic challenges in altering curriculums in some areas.

Once a language is lost, it is gone forever. An online language learning platform would reverse this trend, keep the languages relevant, and help those children of Gwich’in communities and beyond to reconnect with their culture.

Brittney Melloy is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She has a background and interest in international development and climate change.

This piece is one of a series of op-eds written by students of the Arctic Innovators Course at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Arctic Initiative or Arctic Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.