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Nina Berman Post by Nina Berman

By Nina Berman on January 19th, 2021

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Wikitongues: Global Tactics Towards Language Preservation

Big Ideas | Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression | Artists and Members

Since 2014, Wikitongues has worked to preserve languages at risk of extinction and to revitalize languages that are falling out of use and out of prominence all over the world. The team behind Wikitongues affirms linguistic sovereignty as our global cultural right

In its beginnings, Wikitongues primarily crowdsourced video oral histories in every language possible from all over the world as a kind of language seed bank. Early videos feature speakers sharing languages from Aragonese to K’iche’. Recent videos highlight speakers of Gallo and the Khoekhoe language. Crowdsourced video linguistic documentation is still a vital part of Wikitongues’s work, but as the Wikitongues team begins 2021, they have even bigger aspirations.

The Wikitongues team built a language revitalization toolkit, brought together a cohort of people using the toolkit to accomplish a variety of different goals, are starting a web crawling project to find more documentation of languages, and are working to preserve diasporic Jewish languages. 

Wikitongues co-founder Daniel Bögre Udell shares with us the inspiration behind Wikitongues, the importance of language preservation, details about their current and upcoming projects, how Fractured Atlas fiscal sponsorship supported Wikitongues in its early days, as well as how a focus on ambitious projects has helped them access new funding resources. 

The Wikitongues team built a language revitalization toolkit, brought together a cohort of people using the toolkit to accomplish a variety of different goals, are starting a web crawling project to find more documentation of languages, and are working to preserve diasporic Jewish languages. 

Wikitongues co-founder Daniel Bögre Udell shares with us the inspiration behind Wikitongues, the importance of language preservation, details about their current and upcoming projects, how Fractured Atlas fiscal sponsorship supported Wikitongues in its early days, as well as how a focus on ambitious projects has helped them access new funding resources. 

 

Wikitongues Interview-1

How did you become involved and interested in language preservation and revitalization? 

I had an opportunity to study abroad in high school and I was in Spain, the original premise was to go and learn to speak Spanish. While I was there I got also really into the Catalan language from Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands. And like all regional languages in Spain, it is historically persecuted. During the Franco dictatorship, depending on the decade and region, it ranged from being highly regulated to illegal to speak languages that weren't Spanish… Catalan, Basque, Galician, and others. Languages were banned from the public sphere. Publishing in them ranged from being illegal to super, super regulated in ways that publishing in Spanish was not. And it was illegal to have names in these languages.

An example that might be interesting to someone who's working in the arts, for instance, was the famous Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. His name was Pau Casals, but it was illegal to be named Pau. And so publicly he had to go by Pablo, which is the Spanish translation of Pau. I got really interested in this history. I eventually lived in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, but I spent my abroad year in Zaragoza, a predominantly Spanish-speaking city in the Aragon region. During my first few weeks there, my history teacher, a Castilian named Álvaro, ran a section on the different languages of Spain. It turned out that he was an art historian who focused on Catalan modernist architecture and had therefore learned Catalan himself, so I convinced him to teach me. Later, I learned that another one of my teachers, Oriol, was from Catalonia. So in a sense, I learned Spanish and Catalan at the same time. However, being outside of Catalonia, I encountered a lot of anti-Catalan sentiment. Some of the people in my life—friends, acquaintances—were actually against me learning Catalan and that made me want to learn it more. 

I found a way to extend my abroad program and go and do an internship in Barcelona and immerse myself in Catalan. I think it was just this whole experience that got me thinking more immediately about the relationship between language and identity as well as social justice. 

I was raised to be very political but in a relatively monolingual environment. My dad's parents were Yiddish speakers and Yiddish was very, very embedded in his English. And so I grew up with a lot of words that I knew were Jewish and I knew were ours. But it took me a very long time to arrive at a place where I had realized that [these words] were not just [from] a fully formed language, but a language that is mine.

 

It wasn't until I was in college that I realized that a language died in my parents’ generation, also Yiddish. The thing that's so wild is on my father's side, my Zayde [grandfather] collected Yiddish poetry. He was very invested in Yiddish culture, but he didn’t teach his kids. 

That's how easy and that's how fast it happens, right? You just need to cut off one generation and then it's done.

There’s a whole history of violence that accompanies [language loss]. One generation deciding not to pass their language on to the next is not something that happens in a vacuum. It is the result of politics. It is a result of injustice. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about linguistic diversity, in general, is that it's waning as an inevitable byproduct or a side effect of globalization. And that's just not true. Globalization does not need to be a homogenizing force. It is because, in the 19th and 20th centuries, virtually every country worked to stamp out minority languages.

Here in the US, we had the residential schools where Native and Indigenous kids were obliged to go until 1978. When they'd go to these schools, they would be punished for speaking their language, given an English language name.

The whole point of that was sort of cultural genocide. One of the architects of the school system described it as a method of killing the Indian, but saving the man. This is not an "America bad" thing. Every country did this. But that's what happened to our parents, to our grandparents, to our great grandparents. And that's why the state of linguistic diversity today is super precarious. 

But it's not all bad. Language revitalization is a growing movement. As the 19th-century revival of Hebrew teaches us, even dormant languages can be brought back to life.

Cultures can reclaim languages. And it's in the past 50 years, there's been an explosion of interest in this. I think we're on the cusp of a big shift or maybe we're in the middle of this shift that’s already happening and we don’t exactly know where we are. We'll know in 50 years. 

They're only a couple of countries that do active language persecution right now. Most countries kind of operate under this paradigm of benign neglect or lip service. But the absence of actual persecution creates room for grassroots initiatives to achieve things. 

The right to your language isn't even esoteric. The right to speak your language is enshrined in the Declaration of Human Rights. This is a very, very basic human right, the same as the right to freedom of expression, freedom of movement and the right to your languages is encoded in there. And it's rightfully encoded in there because language is the vehicle of expression for individuals and for communities. When you lose your language, you lose a measure of cultural sovereignty. There's a reason that language extinction is so often tied to empires. The six official languages of the UN are English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, standard Arabic and Russian. These are all the languages of empires from the past six hundred years: British Empire, Spanish Empire, French Empire, Chinese Empire, Russian Empire, Islamic Caliphate. 

 

Tell me about the work that Wikitongues does and some of your current projects. 

Wikitongues started as primarily an archival project. Our original idea was simply to get at least one video in every language in the world because we wanted to raise awareness about the scope and scale of linguistic diversity.

We wanted people to be excited about keeping their own languages alive and documenting their own languages.

And as we started working with people all over the world, we started [hearing] questions about “How do I save my language?” That's an incredibly complicated question to answer and one that linguistics hasn't really tried to answer in a systemic way. I don't knock linguistics for that because it is really complicated. Every culture is different and the way languages die change from group to group. But we decided over the past year to try and answer that. We teamed up with an organization called the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, which does similar work to us. While we focus on video, they focus on dictionaries. So we’re… really nice counterparts to one another. 

We spent some time interviewing people who are working on successful revitalization projects, and we thought a little bit about all the things that we've learned as organizations working with so many people all over the world. And we put out this toolkit for what we call a language sustainability toolkit. It's essentially a non-linear framework for getting started with language revitalization. It talks about how to think about starting evaluating what your language needs because revitalization means different things. It has different stages. 

If you have three elders who speak the language and that's it, you're not going to go from that to this language being the primary mother tongue of your community in five or 20 years. If everyone still speaks it but you're not using it as much, then [revitalization] is more about interesting community organizing to figure out how to get everyone to keep using it and still be proud of it. So we encourage you to think a lot about that. We encourage you to build a team because not everyone in your community is going to care about this right away. Then it talks about how to document your language. Then all of these strategies that you can deploy in the social process of revitalization, whether it's about teaching the language or producing media. 

In this toolkit, we talk a little bit about evaluating your progress, because that’s one thing that's really tough about language revitalization. It's an intergenerational process and it's very hard to say, “OK, I'm going to start saving my language and I'll know in 50 years if I did a good job” because that's just not a human scale. And so there is an element of project management and agile frameworks that I think you can apply to this stuff.

We have three projects that are lined up in 2021. We're working with a cohort of people who are on the cusp of language revitalization initiatives. [We are working] with each of them to see if they can make measurable progress over a 12-month period toward their revitalization initiatives. We're going to work with each of the people in this cohort, set goals with them and see how effectively they can reach those goals. Because what we want to understand is [if] this toolkit that we put together [is] worth it? Is it meaningful? And can we demonstrate that there are universal applications to this? 

[In our cohort] we cover a lot of different people. There's a woman from Texas. She's an Afro-Seminole Creole speaker, and there's only a few older speakers of this language and very little documentation. So she's really starting from square zero, not quite the Hebrew story, but almost in some ways worse, because there's very little material in the language and nobody learned it, not even liturgically. We're working with a guy in the D.R. Congo. His name is Hangi and his language, Kihunde is spoken by a few hundred thousand people. His goal is to ensure that children are learning it. It's not necessarily an endangered language, but will be in 20 years if this generation…if the young people now don't learn it. Then there's a woman in Guinea whose language Nalu was displaced by French and she needs to reclaim it. She [needs to] learn it and but then organize the community to keep speaking it. There's a guy from Pakistan, but he lives in Russia and his language Wakhi is still spoken and still learned by young people, but waning in usage. His [work] is more about producing memes or other contemporary media to get people excited about it again. This group of women from Taiwan are working on getting board games and other not-strictly educational materials in Taiwanese Hokkien, normalizing the language. Taiwanese Hokkien is definitely not endangered, but it certainly is under-represented and under-supported by the government of Taiwan. This language activist cohort is definitely the project that I think is going to take up the bulk of our research. 

We're working on a web crawling project, because we want to see how many languages have materials that are just floating around the internet. One of the biggest obstacles to language revitalization is [people] not having access to materials in their language. Sometimes it's because the only documentation that ever was made is sitting in an archive somewhere. But how much of this stuff is scanned? And then there's all these different grassroots projects. There's one Twitter feed, L'Office du Jèrriais that makes memes in Jèrriais language. If you look at the past three years of that stuff, it's actually a lot of content. 

So there are three buckets. There's revitalization, there's archiving, and there's documentation. Revitalization is the cohort, archiving is this crawling project. And then the documentation project, we're going to keep growing, keep doing the grassroots documentation that we've always done. But as we start to have operational capacity, we want to start thinking about targeted documentation projects where we can go in and work with languages more rigorously. Ideally, for every language we want eight hours of video and a 3,000-word dictionary because that's a good quantity of documentation that preserves the language. 

Speaking of the revitalization of Hebrew and our shared cultural background of Jewish diaspora languages, everywhere Jewish people have settled, languages like Yiddish have emerged… in most cases, as the “creolization” of Hebrew and Aramaic with local vernaculars. For example, Mizrahi Jewish communities from the Middle East and North Africa had different Judeo-Arabic languages. So we want to work on those and so we're starting that project. Our goal is to record eight hours of video and a 3,000-word dictionary in five Jewish languages. We’ve begun working on Judeo-Malayalam from India and we’re about to start working with speakers of Judeo-Yemeni Arabic. If anyone reading this speaks a Jewish language, or their relatives do, I hope they’ll reach out!

 

How do you find people across the globe to work with?

They find us mostly! We're pretty active on YouTube. It's a small channel, we have [nearly] 100,000 subscribers. It reaches about 700,000 or 800,000 views a month. And so people just find us. There's a good degree of word of mouth. 

In 2019, the year of Indigenous languages, we went to every conference we could. That also helped raise our profile in the academic world. 

 

You mentioned the web crawling project, but what are some of the other ways that you leverage various technological tools? What happens when you're going into communities that don't necessarily always have a lot of tech literacy?

It's usually young people who are the ones who find us, and they're the ones who record older people. It's usually young people who are a bridge to the older people. 

When it comes to communities where tech literacy broadly is low, we haven't really found a way to deal with that yet. And part of the reason that we want to work on a targeted documentation project is that if we can demonstrate the capacity to do that, we might be able to raise money to do that kind of work in a more old fashioned way where we send someone out to do that. 

But I would say communities that don't have any tech literacy are increasingly few because internet access keeps growing. Some people have much better internet than others and have much more consistent internet than others, but it’s increasingly rare that nobody in town has a phone or ever has access to Wi-Fi. 

Now that we're starting to fundraise beyond basic necessities and can actually start thinking about project budgets, one thing I'd really love to be able to offer is buying data; sending grants for data packages to people in countries where net neutrality is not in force, which is most countries. 

Our contributor in the DRC, Hangi, his internet goes in and out because he doesn't have a broadband hookup at home. He's got a phone that he can charge sometimes for a few bucks a day. [More data], would go a long way to help his revitalization initiative. 

One thing that we're big on with technologies is that we don't build technology. We tried [it] a couple of years ago, [when we built] an app went nowhere. And that's because there are so many tools that already exist. And our idea is more about just being available on as many platforms as possible.

Go where people are. People are already on WhatsApp. People are already on Messenger. And so we're trying to be on as many of these [platforms] as we can. We're sort of on Telegram because that's big in Central Asia. 

I'd say the most flexible thing we ever did was we used this kind of like... a sneaker net scenario where we had a volunteer in Borneo. He's Javanese, but he was teaching in Borneo and he recorded a bunch of indigenous Bornean languages. It was easier for him to mail a USB drive to a volunteer in Jakarta who uploaded it there. And so I'd say that was probably the most creative use of technology we've ever had. And that was a very specific set of circumstances. 

I think that that's the kind of thing where the infrastructure is going to fix the problem a lot sooner than we will. So I don't worry about this too, too much. 

 

Wikitongues used to be fiscally sponsored and then became your own 501(c)(3) Can you chart what that organizational change looked like and how one has set you up for the next step? 

I started Wikitongues with my friend from Brazil, Freddie. We met in college. We were BFA's and didn't really have exposure to nonprofit management or business management. We started this nonprofit because we knew we wanted to build something around this idea, but we weren't thinking strategically about [funding]. So we got this fiscal sponsorship and that definitely helped us do some very early fundraising. 

We ended the fiscal sponsorship once we got our 501(c)(3). We knew we just wanted that because we wanted the ability to fundraise without an external layer. We did a Kickstarter for that app that we built but went nowhere. And so we were kind of quasi-funded that year. We should have set a much higher goal than what we raised for. That was, I would say, not a very successful project. Then, our fundraising was like this for a very long time because we'd get little bursts of money. But it wasn't enough to have a stable operational infrastructure. I was freelancing as a web developer and finishing my master’s degree, and Freddie got a full-time job. So this wasn't a huge priority. And like, in some ways, the project was just chugging along because the original idea of crowdsourcing this documentation, that just kept going. 

In 2019, we were found by someone in the Bay Area who was very enthusiastic about what we were doing and was willing to donate in a bigger capacity and threw a fundraiser for us. That was the beginning of us having an operational budget. And so my programs manager Kristen and I hired [ourselves] part-time, and that continued into COVID. That ended very quickly because we were short on runway and all the fundraising conversations that I'd been having had collapsed. So she and I went on the pandemic unemployment and Wikitongues continued to accrue some revenue through ads, recurring donations, and things like that. And then we ended up getting an SBA loan through the CARES package. We couldn't get PPP because Kristen and I were 1099 employees not W2. Kristen and I have been reemployed since like August. So things are good now. Things are in a really good position. 

We're going into January really, really strong. We restructured our board during this time for fundraising and operational development, and now we're in a position where, in terms of guaranteed monthly revenue, we're about 40 percent of our break-even for base operational costs. 

Now we're working on project money. And now that we have more projects, family foundations and things like that are all of a sudden an open door, which they weren't really before because most foundations don't do operational capacity building. Now all of a sudden, we have this archival project, the Jewish languages [project,] and the cohort. These are much more concrete. 

Going back to the fiscal sponsorship, I think had we known what we were doing and knew how to fundraise and knew how to start a nonprofit with a sense of strategic vision, I think it would have accelerated us tremendously because the process of getting your 501(c)(3) [is long]. We incorporated our nonprofit in 2014, we got our 501(c)(3) at the very end of 2015. So it took like over a year. So the fiscal sponsorship I think is absolutely essential for nonprofits. 

 

In addition to the resources that you have in the toolkit, for someone who comes across this article and is thinking to themselves, “I think a language that I had some connection to that has either been erased or is being erased,” what are some first steps, if they want to hold on to it or reclaim it? 

The very first step is just to search our website and see if we have anything on there. You can search to see if we have any videos or dictionaries for it and as we start doing the web crawling project, all of the findings will be indexed there as well. So you'll be able to search us with a simple Google search. If you write to hello@wikitongues.org, we'll be happy to help you work through this process because it's not always the most accessible. 

Also, think about your relatives. A lot of us have people in our family who might have actually been more involved in [language reclamation] than we realize. And they just never told us. Facebook groups are another really good way to find people who are interested in or who speak your language. And so I think [those are] really good steps. 

 


 

Language preservation and revitalization are just some facets of the wider struggle for language justice. Learn about other aspects, including how we can all incorporate language justice into our other struggles for societal change. 

And, for more about Wikitongues, check out their website and follow them on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

More posts by Nina Berman

About Nina Berman

Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.