Linguists gathered Thursday for the International Institute Conference to discuss the endangerment and revitalization of Indigenous languages. The day-long conference worked to build a stronger relationship between the University of Michigan and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by reporting policy recommendation discussions from the conference to the forum.

Panelists discussed the relationship between technology and the endangerment of Indigenous languages and the effects of colonial legacies on languages, focusing on Indigenous languages worldwide. Experts in the Indigenous languages of China, Siberia, Mexico, India and the Middle East discussed their work, their concerns and potential solutions for the revitalization of some languages and how to maintain the strength of others.

Panelists debated the impact of technology on how languages survive and evolve. Panelist G.N. Devy, an Indian linguist, emphasized the way technology inhibits communication and alters the language and culture of a group.

“Having technology might lead to less communication,” Devy said. “(Languages) have defined the character of life of those people and the moment you take away that life the definition changes, (Indigenous peoples) become different and somebody else.”

Devy said he sees young children standing next to each other, texting rather than speaking to one another. This concerns him because he worries this technology puts languages in danger.

“I’m not against technology,” Devy said. “But voice is language and a lot of technology is silencing voice.”

In order to maintain the strength of Indigenous languages and ensure their survival, Devy proposed imposing monetary punishments on countries to encourage governments to work to maintain Indigenous languages. 2019 was designated as the “Year of Indigenous Languages” by the United Nations, and Devy proposed using this year to begin measuring the presence of languages in countries.

With 7,000 languages in the world, Devy said he understands the importance of language to a community. He suggested charging countries that lose a language over 10 years.

“Observing the next year as ‘Year of the Indigenous Languages,’ if (a country) loses any language in the next 10 years, as recorded in (the country’s) census, (the country) has to pay,” Devy said.

Devy’s concern contrasted with panelist Colleen Fitzgerald, program director for Documenting Endangered Languages at the National Science Foundation. Fitzgerald sees technology as a way of benefitting relationships and communication.

Fitzgerald discussed the influence of Indigenous languages in the technological world. Social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Whatsapp have worked to incorporate Indigenous languages into their digital platforms. She said Cherokee Nation has worked with Microsoft and Google to have a team of translators to incorporate the Indigenous community.

“Technology can be a vehicle,” Fitzgerald said. “There is a large digital divide in the U.S. — not to mention the rest of the world. When I talk with language programs that are trying to decide what to do next, we think about what you have at your realistic disposal.”

Fitzgerald also said video conferencing and other forms of technology can be helpful in maintaining languages.

In reference to Devy’s proposal to create governmental language policies, Fitzgerald reflected on the roots of language and how there are natural incentives and benefits to learning languages. She referenced the role language plays in the creation of community.

“When a community decides to prioritize a language to keep it going, it’s worth having some thought to incentives,” Fitzgerald said. “A language policy can do some things, but when you talk about communities that don’t have the same kinds of resources … there are ways that … languages are integrated.”

Rackham student Shalmali Jadhav found the correlation between technology and language survival discussed to be particularly concerning.

“I am worried if we depend on Facebook and Google to preserve languages (in countries) where capitalism is responsible (for language loss, we give) some languages a mode of survival more than others, which is the problem in the first place,” Jadhav said.

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