Embracing Tradition: Preserving Indigenous Languages in the Digital Age

“Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” – Gloria Anzaldúa (Anzaldúa, 2012)

With the tragic passing of Pauline Stensgar in May 2023, the Nxaʔamxcín (also known as Moses-Columbia, or Columbia-Wenatchi) language is the most recent in a long line of indigenous languages to go extinct. Tammy James, director of employment and education for the Colville Tribes said they “will never have another fluent speaker” (Hanlon, 2023). The Endangered Languages Project portends that “languages are becoming extinct today at an alarming rate” and about 3000 (some 43 %) of all languages are endangered (Endangered Languages Project, n.d.). In the bleakest scenarios, experts foresee upwards of ninety percent of all languages vanishing in the next century, and even their most optimistic estimations have only fifty percent surviving (with only ten percent considered fully safe). The loss of a language is a devastating blow for a community, a culture, and the world, as Naha H. Lee summarises:

“Language loss often involves the loss of cultural or ethnic identity (Tsunoda, 2005), the loss of part of the sum of human knowledge (Hale, 1992), the loss of linguistic diversity (Hale, 1992), and the loss of languages themselves, all of which affect linguists’ ability to discover the full range of what is possible in human language and cognition (Lee & VanWay, 2016).”

Today we take the time to remember Pauline Stensgar’s exceptional work in preservation, and in the spirit of the United Nations’ proclamation of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), as well as in celebration of International Mother Language Day, we want to emphasize the importance of keeping indigenous languages alive in the face of rapid globalization and its concomitant linguistic homogenization. It is imperative also that we recognize the hard, often overlooked work of archivists, linguists, and indigenous activists in language preservation efforts across the world, as well as recent technological developments that, if implemented carefully, can assist in this mission.

Though globalization has often been identified as a risk factor to indigenous languages across the world, Chasaide et al. point out that “some of the same technological and globalization trends that are contributing to the loss of languages can potentially be harnessed to stem this erosion” (Chasaide et al., year). Where once our knowledge of pronunciation was fully dependent on generational handover, today’s technology allows for a different type of record-keeping and knowledge transfer. Where text-to-speech and phonetization are intuitive, gamification allows for faster and oftentimes more enjoyable learning. Language conservation projects such as The Endangered Languages Project, allow native speakers all over the globe to contribute to preservation efforts and facilitate the propagation of global preservation activist networks. There is no doubt that “the recent explosion in technology presents opportunities to aid in efforts at learning [and/]or re-acquiring […] heritage language[s]” (Chasaide et al., year). Though the advancements of the aforementioned provide a myriad of avenues for conservation, we must still be prudent with their implementation; lest they do more harm than good.

As is often the case global digital divides provide major challenges to language preservation. Daniel J. Villa is one of many working on the intersection of technology and minority language preservation. He has pinpointed a core question that all of these efforts must address to be fruitful: Who is best positioned to preserve indigenous languages, and are they the people with access to the technology necessary to do so? He asserts that “the use and implementation of recording and digital storage technologies require individuals who are capable of dealing with the necessary hardware, software, and key components of these electronic innovations, and who are sensitive to the language needs they confront.” In other words, he underlines the necessity for people trained in these technologies who are both in-group (“those individuals who have a voice in determining such matters as who has access to its language, culture, and other dimensions of that group’s physical and spiritual realities.”) and have access to “authentic materials” relating to the language (defined as original texts, films, and recordings of language usage, among other media, that accurately reflect how a language community employs its heritage tongue, materials that have not been specifically created for instructional purposes).

“External” experts, though valiant in their efforts, often fail to accurately preserve a language as it is used. Languages are living things, constantly shifting and evolving through time and space, not reducible to static outside observation. A solution is to directly train mother tongue speakers to use the advanced technology so that their insights and “teaching[s] can be collected, archived, and prepared by in-group members for other in-group members.” Additionally, being context-sensitive, tailoring technologies to the needs of a language and community, is essential. We must be wary of indiscriminately using machine learning technologies and focus instead on the human component: arming indigenous activists with the necessary knowledge and materials is a crucial building block in the preservation of their languages.

Nevertheless, current technological efforts are still not able to replace intergenerational teaching: “Computers cannot [yet] become a surrogate for one generation of minority language speakers passing that tongue to subsequent generations.” The Endangered Languages Project warns that “languages not being [taught and learned by the new generation of] children are not just endangered, they are [most likely] doomed” for extinction. On this International Mother Language Day, we thank activists across the world for their efforts in teaching and archiving indigenous languages, and reaffirm the International Decade of Indigenous Languages’ commitment to “creating sustainable changes in complex social dynamics for the preservation, revitalization, and promotion of Indigenous languages.”

As we reflect on the vital importance of preserving indigenous languages, let us remember the words of Gloria Anzaldúa: “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language.” Today, as we honor the memory of Pauline Stensgar and celebrate the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, let us recognize the significant role of technology in this endeavor. While globalization poses risks to indigenous languages, advancements in technology offer new opportunities for preservation. Projects like The Endangered Languages Project and initiatives led by dedicated linguists and activists are leveraging technology to stem the erosion of linguistic diversity. However, we must proceed with caution, ensuring that technology is wielded responsibly and in collaboration with indigenous communities. As we continue our collective efforts to safeguard indigenous languages, let us remember that while technology can facilitate preservation, it can never replace the invaluable wisdom passed down through generations. Together, let us commit to preserving, revitalizing, and promoting indigenous languages for generations to come.

Otje van der Mark

Communications Associate DSF



Anzaldúa, G. (2012). Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Chasaide, A. N., Chiaráin, N. N., Berthelsen, H., Wendler, C., & Murphy, A. (Year). Speech Technology as Documentation for Endangered Language Preservation: The Case of Irish. Phonetics and Speech Laboratory, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.

Endangered Languages Project, The. (n.d.). Endangered Languages: Why So Important? Retrieved from https://www.endangeredlanguages.com/about_importance/

Hanlon, J. (2023, May 5). Last fluent speaker of n̓xaʔm̓xčín̓ language dies at 96. The Spokesman-Review. https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2023/may/05/last-fluent-speaker-of-nxamxcin-language-dies-at-9/

Lee, N. H. (2020). The Status of Endangered Contact Languages of the World. Annual Review of Linguistics, 6, 301-318.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (n.d.). International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2023. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/indigenous-languages.html

Villa, D. J. (2002, May). Integrating Technology into Minority Language Preservation and Teaching Efforts: An Inside Job. Language Learning and Technology, 6(2), 92-101.

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