“The loss of a community’s language leads to widespread cultural change including a movement away from aboriginal medicines, a movement away from aboriginal foods, a rise in diet based diseases, and children losing relations with their local environments,” says Xeli’tia Temryss Lane, Lummi, in a video on the Wiki for Indigenous Languages website.
The site allows anyone to record, learn, and in a way help save their language, and it can be accessed from anywhere in the world, whether that be a mobile phone, a public library, or a home computer.
The site is the culmination of efforts by David Shorter, who spent nearly two decades working with Yaqui tribal members, both in Mexico and in the United States. He would spend time in communities that didn’t have dependable electricity or running water, but most everyone did have smartphones, and could use Facebook and Google.
“Language is everything—Native culture and vitality are linked to language,” he told ICTMN, noting how important language revitalization is. “Youth are engaging digital technologies and elders have language knowledge.”
His goal has been to create a digital platform that indigenous communities can use how they see fit. “I would like the community to do what it thinks is best. They may not want videos, they may not want everyone to have access,” Shorter explained. “We want them to use it however best serves them.”
Wiki for Indigenous Languages users share an iPad to practice learning an indigenous language.
Currently the site has Yoem Noki and some Quechua on it, but that part isn’t quite built out yet. Shorter is in the process of contacting tribes to see if any want to utilize the site.
“We don’t want this to be me telling any tribal community what is best for them,” he said. “It’s really a wait and see approach—see which tribes and indigenous communities will find it useful and what they would like to see.”
Shorter does not think anyone is going to become fluent in any language online, but does hope this website can connect language learners with people who can help them learn. Users can upload dictionaries, definitions, take part in community meetings, and help others with language learning.
Sonya Gavin, Navajo, covers basic words in a language class.
The website he created is called a “wiki,” which is an indigenous Hawaiian word meaning “to hurry.” He says the reason for using a wiki is to emphasize a bottom up approach, and said the example of the Yoem Noki language that is currently on the site is just one way it could look.
“We’ve got a site where the tribe could tell me what they think is useful and then we could start working on it,” Shorter said.
The site is a work in progress, but it includes links to various online dictionaries, from Abenaki to Zapoteco, and each week some 300 people are using the Yaqui dictionary, which Shorter said is exciting.
“It all starts with just a seed,” he said. “So even if it grows slowly, the project could really become something big over time.”