Endangered Languages Want the Airwaves

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We’re always reading about the promise of new technology to help restore endangered languages, but one of the most promising technologies is surprisingly old-fashioned: radio.

The Atlantic recently ran an article about how radio broadcasts are boosting endangered languages all over the world. In the United States, for example, The Pew Research Center reports that there were 48 Native-owned radio stations in the United States as of 2011. Many, though not all, broadcast some content in indigenous languages.

Worldwide, radio has been an important component in the revival of many endangered languages, with the Maori language in New Zealand a particular success story.

Radio is effective precisely because the technology has been around for a while. Easy access and relatively low costs make it an accessible way to ensure that people continue to hear indigenous languages spoken and take pride in their cultural heritage.

Cultural Survival, a group dedicated to protecting indigenous languages and culture, provides support for groups wishing to create or expand such stations in Guatemala, which according to UNESCO has 23 languages under threat of extinction. Mark Camp, the group’s deputy executive director, told the Atlantic:

“[Radio]’s not a silver bullet, but it’s an important piece. If you don’t have some sort of media—and radio is the best in our opinion—to counterbalance the predominant commercial media that is all in Spanish or in English, it makes language less of a modern, living thing. It becomes something that you might do with your grandparents.”

By necessity, radio stations with programming in endangered languages also tend to be run by members of the local community, with programming that reflects local perspectives and concerns. So, they serve a dual purpose: preserving languages and providing more relevant news and entertainment.

Some endangered and minority language stations also broadcast online. Omniglot has a fairly long list of them, if you’re interested.

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