Proposed talk for STILLA: “Using software to promote and teach indigenous languages”

My friend Serafin Coronel-Molina organized the FIRST BIENNIAL SYMPOSIUM ON TEACHING INDIGENOUS LANGUAGES OF LATIN AMERICA (STILLA-2008) for August 14-16 and invited me to give a talk. Sadly, I was unable to present at the conference due to the reoccurrence of osteomyolytis in my right tibia. I was in the hospital for 8 days to get an operation on my leg at the end of July and needed to have the incision cleaned daily for the next month. Since I was never able to present my talk, I thought that I would post this summary of my talk in case anyone was interested.


In the future, computers and the software which runs them will become increasingly ubiquitous. Just as the radio over the past century transformed from a large piece of furniture into a tiny transistor variety carried in the palms of millions, the computer likewise will miniaturize and disperse through society reaching the most marginalized and remote sectors. With hardware prices dropping 7.4% annually, the computer which once occupied large rooms and cost millions of dollars will become within a matter of decades as cheap and light as the radio of today. Just as herders in the remote parts of the Altiplano rely on their transistor radios for news and entertainment, the palmtop computer will be the “infotainment” device of tomorrow.

The spread of electronic technology through society has generally been a force undermining the status and viability of local languages and cultures. Radio, television, walkmens, CD/DVD players, and portable gaming devices have facilitated the spread of the global media and its socio-linguistic influences. The music of Shakira and Mana and the video of Hollywood fills the ears and eyes of the youth, subtly re-enforcing the social message that their local language and culture are less useful and less “cool”, especially in the current context of increasing mobility between the rural and urban spheres and globalization.

[Present slides showing indigenous language use and ethnic auto-identification from the 2001 Bolivian National Census and the Vanderbilt surveys.]

Technology as the transmitter of modernity is a powerful shaper of social perceptions among the youth. Many indigenous youth perceive Spanish and English as future-oriented languages proffering progress and advancement, whereas the indigenous language are oriented toward the past and the activities of their grandparents. While technology has largely served as a means to undermine the vitality of indigenous languages, technology can be adapted toward any end. The question is how can we use technology as a means to change negative social perceptions toward indigenous languages, while also using it as a tool to promote the use and teaching of indigenous languages.

Unlike other technologies like the radio and the television which turn the user into the passive recipient of the content, the computer empowers the user to be an active agent, who is not only able to create and/or transform the content, but also theoretically able to alter the cultural and linguistic interface between the user and the content. The low cost of developing virtual interfaces breaks the large economies of scale of the past which forced people to use dominant languages. Furthermore, the configurable nature of a computer allows for the possibility that the user may select its language and the cultural form of the software.

This ability to alter the cultural-linguistic context of the computer will become increasingly important as all the current functions of the radio, television, cell phone and BlackBerry are unified into the cheap palmtop computers carried by the majority of the populace within the foreseeable future. In a few decades, speakers of indigenous languages in even the most remote areas will be carrying palmtop computers just as they now carry transistor radios to receive their news and entertainment and interact with the wider world. It thus becomes urgent that the computer be transformed into a force promoting indigenous languages, rather than a force of acculturation for dominant languages.

This talk will suggest ways in which promoters and educators of indigenous languages can adapt computer technology to help it become a positive force promoting literacy and writing skills, while also changing social perceptions toward these languages.

Many of the current approaches to e-learning won’t work, in particular: (1) the interactive, online methodology used by Moodle and Claroline, (2) the early-age constructivist methods of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Project, and (3) the technology-focused, rather than content-focused telecenters. While some of these approaches may be appropriate in the US, promoters and educators of indigenous languages in Latin America should use the computer and particularly the internet in different ways.

Rather than focusing on the internet as an interactive medium of teaching, the internet should be harnessed as a means of distribution of writing tools and content in indigenous languages. One of the chief challenges of promoting indigenous languages in written form is the lack of access to books. The limited market and the dispersion of the limited readership makes traditional publishing unfeasible, but the internet breaks down these barriers. Unfortunately, most current online materials are not readily usable when most people only have access to the internet for a few hours in a cyber-cafe, so the material needs to be published in a downloadable form which can be saved in Flash memory sticks and used at home or readably printed out and photocopied by people who do not have printers. In order to facilitate this new form of distribution, educators are encouraged to release their material under Creative Commons licensing which allows their works to be reformatted into downloadable and printable forms.

One of the great challenges of promoting and teaching indigenous languages is the lack of literacy in these languages. The general lack of materials creates a chicken-and-egg problem, where people question the benefits of literacy when there is little to read in indigenous languages, but few will bother to write when there are so few readers. Fortunately, most younger speakers of indigenous languages are already literate in Spanish, so their literacy skills can be transferred to their native tongues with limited training. Spell-checkers which correct spelling errors in real time can help train people to write in the alphabet of their native language. Even if they begin writing by sounding out indigenous words using the Spanish alphabet, the repeated error correction of a spell-checker can teach them to write in the proper alphabet over time. Most people learn to write correctly not through memorization of orthographical rules, but rather through hours of error correction in school—and a spell-checker can replace the tedious work of a live teacher in this regard.

The second major challenge of literacy is the lack of specialized vocabulary outside the ken of normal speech, but electronic dictionaries can provide access to this vocabulary. A teacher struggling to teach math in a native tongue needs access to a dictionary to learn words like “multiply” and “fraction”. Electronic dictionaries in the form of desktop applications and printable files can provide access to this specialized vocabulary at minimal cost.

In addition, people need forums to publish in indigenous languages and receive feedback, but the current paucity of readers limits the audience. The internet, however, is a means for congregated people with specialized interests, allowing promoters and educators of indigenous languages to pool together and encourage each other in their efforts, rather than struggling in isolation.

In addition to writing aids, people need to be able to use software in their native tongues. Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) empowers ordinary people to alter the language and iconography of their software, without being held captive to the market forces and centralized control of traditional proprietary software. Combining both localization and globalization (or “glocalization”) the FLOSS movement harnesses global efforts to create better code, but allows that software to customized for local cultural and linguistic interfaces. The participatory and decentralized nature of FLOSS development allows for new and creative linguistic revitalizations efforts, especially around translation and the creation of neologisms in indigenous languages. Our current project to translate AbiWord, Firefox and OpenOffice in Quechua, Aymara and Guarani envisions an interactive process whereby speakers of indigenous languages become active participants in translating the software and defining the future of their languages.

Latin American youth, especially male youth, often congregate in cyber-cafes to download the latest in media and style from abroad. If the interface of the computer and crucial applications like web browsers were in their indigenous tongues rather than the dominant Spanish or English, youth would begin to perceive their indigenous language as a transmitter and enabler of modernity, allowing them access to the wider world and its content, rather than being in opposition to that wider world.

Redefining indigenous languages as bearers of modernity and progress in people’s minds is a crucial step toward revitalizing these languages and allowing them to flourish in the next generation. Nonetheless, the goal is not simply to use the language in the context of the computer, but rather redefine the computer within the cultural context of the language. For instance, rather than simply slapping Aymara or Quechua words on a Western interface, the interface itself should be adapted to the iconography and symbolism of the Aymara or Quechua culture. If a “file” is defined as khipu and a “folder” as q’ipi, then graphical representations of khipus and q’ipis should appear in the interface. Using such software becomes not another means of western acculturation, but rather a means of uplifting and re-enforcing the cultural knowledge of the user.

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