Texting in Endangered Languages

If you’re trying to preserve an endangered language, technology can be both your best friend and your worst enemy. More and more frequently, however, technology has become an ally in the quest to keep indigenous languages alive. Apps and computer programs have been developed to bring these previously left-behind languages into the digital age. That makes it easier and more practical for people to keep using them.

Indigenous Language Institute executive director Inée Slaughter explained this sea change to the New York Times:

“For a long time, technology was the enemy.  Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language. Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that. It was a huge, huge problem, and it’s still there. But now we know ways technology can be helpful.”

Young people are naturally attracted to technology, and nobody wants to be left out of the latest digital advances. However, technology has become accessible enough and easy enough to use that people can bring their languages online themselves- – and that has made all the difference in the world.

In fact, linguistics professor K. David Harrison told the New York Times that “We are getting languages where the first writing is not the translation of the Bible — as it has often happened — but text messages.”

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of that type of grass-roots effort in keeping a language alive.  However, challenges still remain, particularly challenges related to hardware. For example, while it’s relatively easy to create a new keyboard for a touchscreen phone, not everyone can afford that technology. Convincing manufacturers to build a new physical keyboard for an under-served market is considerably more difficult.

Advocates for N’Ko, an alphabet used to write the Mande family of languages, have been trying to get a simple cell phone that uses N’Ko produced. However, because it’s a niche market, none of the manufacturers have been willing to take on the project. N’Ko speaker Lamine Dabo explained that “Everyone says it’s possible, but the money is not enough for them to make it a priority.” Hopefully, that will change.

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