Welcome to Fool for Language

Welcome to Fool for Language, the site for people who are crazy about learning languages - like me! If you are new to this blog, I recommend you read the articles in order. The information will make better sense.

This is my first blog and writing each essay has been much more enjoyable than I expected. I have spent most of my life teaching and, more importantly, learning languages. I have “survived” a wide range of teaching techniques, materials and teachers. The result is that I have a pretty clear idea of what has and has NOT worked for me. Yes, I am opinionated, but even if you don’t agree with me, I hope you will enjoy the stories and think about what gets you “wired” when you dive into the wonderful world of learning another language.

I want to thank some people who have helped me maintain momentum with this blog. To give you, the reader, a break, every 10th essay is written by a guest blogger, all close friends with their own special take on language learning. As for the uploading process, Kurt meticulously proofreads and makes insightful comments on each essay; while Yoh patiently provides technical support, including selection of the vibrant visuals. Thank you!


50. If I can do it, so can you.

Wow – blogpost Number 50! I never imagined at the start of this project that we would get so far. To keep the tradition of a guest blogger every 10th entry, I have asked Yoh, the systems engineer for Sulantra.com, to write a piece describing his own personal journey learning languages. Fluent in four, he has direct experience using our website and has even tested his ability to communicate in Khmer on the streets of Siem Reap in Cambodia. In other words, he is the ideal author for this special entry. Enjoy!

If I can do it, so can you.
by Yoh

The first time I heard someone call me a polyglot, I felt very uncomfortable. To me, a polyglot is someone who is crazy about learning languages and extremely multilingual. I am jealous of real polyglots. I wish I could be fluent in a new language in 3 months as some websites say you can. To be honest, I have very limited interest in learning new languages and my experience of learning Mandarin, English and Japanese was definitely not an easy journey.

I was born in Leshan, a small city in Sichuan Province, China. There are many dialects in Sichuan and each city has its own, but they say the Leshan dialect is the most unusual. Some researchers say the pronunciation of Leshan dialect resembles an archaic form of Chinese from the Qin Dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of China. Every time I went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, I struggled to speak standard Sichuanese because some of the locals there couldn’t understand my “ancient” accent.

From elementary school to high school, the pinyin test was always a nightmare for me. Pinyin is the phonetic writing system for transcribing Chinese characters, which uses the Roman alphabet. It was designed for Mandarin, not for dialects. Having local teachers whose accent was not any better than mine teaching me how to read in Chinese wasn’t helping too much. I was expected to use only Mandarin in Chinese lessons, but I didn’t realize how bad my pronunciation was until I went to college in Dalian in the north of China. There were students from all over the country and Mandarin was the official language. It took a while for me to get used to speaking Mandarin properly. My English teacher in college, Miss Zeng, told me later that she could not understand me sometimes in the first couple of months because of my thick Sichuan accent.

One day, Miss Zeng approached me about entering an English speech contest. I thought it was a joke. “You don’t even understand my Chinese sometimes, why me?” I asked.

“Because you look harmless and I am too afraid to ask other students. According to the people in charge, each class must have at least one student to join the contest. You have to help me…”

Miss Zeng was a new teacher, and we were her first group of students. We got along with each other very well from the first day. I really liked her so I decided to accept the challenge. For about 3 months I worked very hard on my speech with Miss Zeng and another lovely English teacher, Megan from America. With their help, I surprisingly won the English speech contest, even with my “standard Chinese” accent. Okay, I have to confess that I suspect the amount of time I spent in the office of the English Department did make a good impression with the judges who were also working there.

As in most Chinese colleges, there were no English classes after the second year. What a relief! I thought I didn’t have to learn languages anymore. But I was naïve and it was too early for me to rejoice. During a serious career counseling session with Miss Wang, another teacher whom I respected a lot, she strongly suggested I learn Japanese, which would give me an advantage job hunting in Dalian where there were a lot of Japanese companies. She was right. I wouldn’t have been able to get a job offer from a Japanese company and come to work in Tokyo if I hadn’t taken Japanese classes in college.

So now you see why I feel uncomfortable when people call me multilingual. I was never aiming or dreaming to be able to function in 3 new and different languages. I picked them up because I had to. Even now I still have an accent in most of my languages and constantly encounter new words I don’t know. But I am happy that I have learned these languages, which opened many new doors and are helping me to see more of the world every day.

The only advice I can give people who want to learn a language is that, once you commit to it, you have to bring everything to it. The more time and energy you spend on it, the more you will get in return. It’s that simple. I am not an overly intelligent person and my background didn’t seem suited to language learning. If I can do it, so can you.


49. Saving Languages Online - Part 6/6: The Economics of Endangered

Yoh, the Systems Engineer for Sulantra.com, speaks four languages fluently: Mandarin, learned from elementary school, English started in secondary school, Japanese undertaken at university, and his mother tongue, a dialect of Sichuan that is barely understood a few kilometers from his hometown. He feels that, for young people today, the best motivation to study his first language would be an economic reason.

Although some educators may cringe at the idea, economic incentives to learn another language can be very effective. In Canada, I have friends working for the federal government who have spent untold hours learning one of our national languages in order to get a bilingual bonus. Another friend, a native English speaker from Yorkshire, learned Welsh as an adult and was able to secure a management position in a government agency in Wales. She was selected in favour of two local candidates thanks to her superior communication skills in Welsh.

The above are examples of an "instrumental motivation", learning a language to do something specific and, in this case, gain financial benefits. The promise of gainful employment can engage a community, particularly young people giving them a reason to investigate their culture, develop their language skills, and even remain in their homeland. This is long term, or "integrative motivation".

How can employment opportunities be developed for heritage cultures? An obvious possibility is through "ethno-tourism", or the introduction of one's heritage to outside visitors. In my travels to build Sulantra.com, I am frequently asked about native groups in North America. Hollywood has done an excellent job of piquing curiosity and, although the knowledge may be very distorted, there is genuine interest. Why not take advantage of this interest and open an online doorway to the community with the opportunity for direct experience? For example, in the e-Community Center described in blogpost 45, a space along the lines of "Get to know us better" could include the option of visiting the local community.

Opponents of this suggestion could argue it is "Disneyfication" of an indigenous culture and/or may prove costly. My rebuttal is that it needn't be plastic or expensive. Given the obvious interest of the visitor (after all, he or she did track down the community online), an ethno-tourist should be open to an authentic experience, such as a homestay or meeting with elders to ask questions and be educated.

You do not need to build an amusement park for ethno-tourists. Just offer a genuine experience in the community. Perhaps some components of a visit would be simulated, for example, accommodation in a traditional abode which locals have not used for decades. But it needn't be artificial and, if designed thoughtfully and combined with existing facilities, could be used to educate the young, contrasting traditional culture with the present, knowledge that everyone benefits from.

Another argument against an ethno-tourism approach is that, if successful, the number of visitors could overwhelm the community, possibly "corrupting" the social fabric and undermining the very culture the plan was intended to protect. A solution is to limit the number of visitors and the duration of their stay, something which the country of Bhutan presently does to protect its indigenous culture. The number of tourists waitlisted to visit this small country demonstrates that exclusivity has the potential for success.

With regard to "exclusivity", why not go one step further and reward ethno-tourists who have gone the extra mile? For example, dedicated travelers who have completed an online language course in the e-Community Center before their visit could be made an honorary member of the community. Or an ethno-tourist could be given an indigenous name by an elder at the end of the sojourn based on incidents and impressions of the visitor gleaned by guides, homestay families, etc.

The latter idea comes from personal experience. One month after beginning Chinese studies at university, our teacher assigned us Chinese names using her impressions of us in class. My cohort still addresses each other by these names almost forty years later. They come loaded with special memories and attach us to the target language culture like an umbilical cord.

In 1974, the Canadian government passed legislation requiring all those selling their wares in Canada to provide packaging, manuals, etc. in both French and English, Canada's official languages. In my childhood, I clearly remember reading the backs of cereal boxes and soup cans, comparing the French version with my native English. It may sound simplistic, but it helped motivate a young monolingual boy to learn français. Fascinated by the exotic words, I spent untold hours checking out any labels that crossed my path, and still surprise myself at the words I remember learned at a breakfast table in rural Alberta.

So why not legislate that all goods marketed in a heritage community include labelling that is in the heritage language? Because such a move is costly and some manufacturers might choose to bypass the region and sell their wares elsewhere. But there is an alternative that could allow for bilingual packaging, as well as create employment opportunities.

In Japan, goods are imported from around the world and, although tins, jars and boxes may have details written in English, Spanish or even Arabic, Japanese frequently does not make the cut. The solution? Sticky labels attached to original packaging with information given in Japanese. Why not do the same for heritage languages? Relatively inexpensive, these labels require translation skills that generate income for the translators (i.e. an economic need for fluency in the heritage language) and could encourage community members of all ages to literally look at their language again.

The possibilities for economic advancement of a heritage language are there to be explored. All it takes is some brainstorming, investigation of existing efforts by individuals, groups or governments to strengthen the use of their language, and a pro-active attitude to resuscitate the heart of one's heritage.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


48. Saving Languages Online - Part 5/6: Opening up, not giving up

In my previous blogpost, I talked about blended courses, or combining computers with classroom training, to develop communication skills in a very short time. In the courses I coordinate, learners start online, continue in the classroom with native "para-teachers" then head overseas to test their ability to communicate in situ.

Throughout each course, I administer surveys to identify changes in how participants perceive their language learning ability, as well as to confirm ongoing interest in learning languages. In one course, Shinobu, a young Japanese woman who had lived in the USA and was fluent in English and Japanese, wrote "I would love to study any language this way, even if only a few people speak it.” This comment has huge implications for endangered heritage languages. A positive first encounter with a language makes some individuals more open to the study of others (see blogpost 2).

Many within a heritage language community assume outsiders have no interest in learning their tongue; however, this is not necessarily the case. As a young man of 19, I was very keen to learn the language of Malaysia, a country I hardly knew existed prior to visiting there on an exchange program (see blogposts 10, 11, 13 and14). This interest was kindled through direct contact and positive experiences. Can online interaction foster such an attitude?

In blogposts 45 and 46, I discussed how an e-Community Center could support a range of services relevant to the heritage community. This site can also provide a doorway for others to approach the community, developing interest and empathy through online contact. Which brings us to a delicate issue: to what extent should people from "outside", including those from the mainstream culture that has oppressed the heritage community, be encouraged to join its activities?

In a recent article about efforts to restore the Comanche language (http://chronicle.com/article/Comanche-Nation-College-Tries/139631/?cid=cc&utm_source=cc&utm_medium=en), academics stated there was suspicion and resistance to outsiders trying to learn the heritage language. One woman was quoted as saying, "I don't think it's important for more people to speak the language. It's important for our people to speak it."

No matter what the reasons (and there are certainly valid ones), exclusivity is an attitude the heritage community can ill afford. To my way of thinking, the more people involved with learning a language, the better its chances are for survival.

Extreme opinions make for good copy and I question whether the majority in a heritage language community are as wary as the Comanche woman. As mentioned in blogpost 44, I have had direct experiences with the Iban in East Malaysia, Haida and Cree in Canada, Kosraens in Micronesia, and Welsh in the UK. In all cases, efforts I made to learn the heritage language were acknowledged positively. I would go so far as to say that the fact an outsider was making an effort to learn the language gave new relevance to its use.

I believe bringing the attention of "outsiders" to any language and reinforcing interest through direct contact, both online and in the real world, is an excellent way to promote any language and culture. This includes non-mainstream languages.

In 2007, I coordinated a short course in Thai, then escorted ("dragged" is perhaps more appropriate) a group of Japanese students to Thailand for onsite testing. After studying Thai for about two weeks, everyone headed to Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani, or simply “Ubon”, a provincial town in the northeastern province of Isaan, to apply their communication skills. Most participants joined the program reluctantly (the main motivation seemed to be credits to meet graduation requirements) but based on a positive experience studying Thai, all boarded the plane for Bangkok excited if a little terrified.

We arrived in Bangkok late and the group's first meal was at a noodle stand where each person ordered in Thai, visibly thrilled at the achievement. With each encounter in the local language confidence grew and, by the time we boarded the overnight train to Ubon, the group was excitedly anticipating their next adventure.

In Ubon, I paired the group with students from a local university. Each morning, the Ubon kids would meet us and explain what they had in mind for the day. The budget was limited, which meant activities were cheap but enjoyable, the kind of things only young people can collectively come up with. I stepped back and let them sort things out for themselves, listening to stories of their adventures at the end of each day and informally recording linguistic progress.

During the course of this short visit it became apparent that, rather than learning standard Thai, my students were picking up the local dialect, logical given the place and people they were spending time with. On the other hand, my students' attitude to learning this local language surprised me. They were clearly enjoying the experience, keen to collect Isaan terms, using them with each other and leaving me in the dark (for an in-depth description of this course check http://jalt-publications.org/archive/proceedings/2007/E123.pdf).

After returning to Japan, participants continued using Isaan phrases with each other, a kind of secret language that kept the memory of their Ubon experience alive. I recently had a reunion with several of the participants and was intrigued to discover that after five years they still remember many phrases, the language apparently welded into their collective psyches.

The point of my story is that interest in an indigenous, non-mainstream language was kindled over a very short period and has been maintained. I believe the same can be accomplished for heritage languages with suitable conditions in place: structured, non-threatening online language training and the opportunity for direct interaction with the heritage community both online and, ideally, in the real world.

Increased contact and the development of interest in a heritage culture and language can also have direct economic benefits for the community. In my final blogpost of this series, I will talk about these potential benefits.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


47. Saving Languages Online - Part 4/6: Back to reality

I work in a computer sciences department of a Japanese university and most people assume that I am a major advocate of learning online. Not true. I have too many students who are lost in their cyber world, incapable of communicating face-to-face with real people. Seriously.

In my previous three postings, I have talked about the benefits of creating an online presence to rejuvenate the language and cultural heritage of a community. On the other hand, it is crucial to bring computer activity back to reality, to synchronize your online presence with the real world.

Synchronicity varies with each feature of your e-Community Center. In this essay, I will discuss potential activities derived from the “Language Trove” space described in my previous essay. I should also state upfront that I will include discussion of my website, www.sulantra.com, in order to describe from direct experience how my students take online study to the streets in blended language courses.

In blogpost 33, I described how I train learners for one week online, continue studying in the classroom for two weeks then jump on an airplane with everyone and fly to a country where the language is spoken for testing. What does this have to do with heritage languages struggling for their survival? Possibly a great deal.

My website was derived from a classroom training approach I have been researching for over thirty years. As a result, the online and classroom versions are completely integrated, sharing the same instructional format, as well as comparable content. This is important since it means there are no nasty surprises when learners go from their computers to the classroom. After all, our first exposure to new ways of learning can permanently alter our attitude for better or worse (see blogpost 2).

In fact, the key to integration in a blended course lies with the teacher. I ask potential instructors to take a course online before heading into the classroom. I also seek out native speakers who are not teachers by trade, for example, exchange students. My experience has been that certified teachers tend to favour a familiar pedagogy and can be threatened by a new teaching approach. Once my "para-teacher" has gone through a Sulantra Starter course, we have a common understanding of the pedagogy, and the odds for full synchronization of the online and classroom study experience are greatly improved. 

Who would make a good para-teacher for a heritage language course? Obviously a native speaker works best but, in the case of heritage languages, there may not be too many left. On the other hand, there is another group to tap for instructors, which I refer to as the "middle generation". These are individuals whose mother tongue was likely stigmatized during their lifetime, including corporal punishment for using their heritage language at school. When questioned about the language of their childhood, members of this group frequently state they "don't speak it anymore." This is not necessarily true. 

The middle generation may be a little rusty but its members are certainly familiar with the sounds and meanings of the language of their youth. Their direct involvement, for example, as para-teachers or acting as volunteer tutors for young people studying online materials, can provide the impetus to retrieve the heritage language the middle generation still possesses. Through formal and informal involvement with the elders and youth of a community, this group can serve as a critical bridge between what was and what could be, restoring both linguistic and cultural knowledge. The middle generation can plant the seeds for revival, not burial, of the heritage language.

Assuming an appropriate online course is in place reinforced by classroom training with para-teachers, the focus shifts to use of the heritage language within the community. Just as a chat room provides a space for learners to practice online, the community should come up with activities held at specific times and locations in the real world for enthusiasts to use and improve their language skills. True recovery means having the chance to listen and speak - and have fun without worrying about correct grammar or test results. 

For example, why not have traditional cooking classes followed by dinner together? Or learn some songs and have a "karaoke party" every few months? (I have done both while learning Japanese and had a great time.) Language use is validated through interaction. It is up to the community to come up with contexts that give everyone a chance to use the language and, in the process, develop pride in their heritage.

With confidence comes creativity, which also contributes to restoring a language. Too often the focus of restoration efforts is simply cataloguing totems and teepees, relegating the heritage language to a hermetic box instead of considering how it could be "modernized". How far can this modernization process go? Languages are vibrant and those that are flexible and adapt are stronger for it. Just because a language does not contain the word for "telephone" or "computer" does not mean one cannot be invented. Why not use words that already exist, or change pronunciation so that it fits more comfortably into the frame of a heritage language?

Mainstream languages do this all the time. For example, rather than use a bastardized English version of "telephone", Chinese speakers say "dian hua", literally translated as "electric words", a much clearer representation of what happens when you phone someone. As for "computer", the French, ever wary of being inundated in English, say "ordinateur", while Japanese modify the pronunciation "
konpyutah" to suit their speech , as well as reduce the word when its paired with others (e.g. a personal computer is called a "pasa-kon"). If these mainstream languages can create their own versions of modern words, heritage languages can, too.

The reality is that, as the world becomes more globalized through TV, travel and technical innovation, the surge of new ideas - and language - will be ongoing. I feel heritage communities need to re-invent, reach out and invite others into their culture. I will explore this topic in my next blogpost.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


46. Saving Languages Online - Part 3/6: Virtual Nuts & Bolts

In Part 2 of this series, I discussed how the Internet could be exploited to serve restoration of a heritage language, specifically through an online gathering place, or e-Community Center. In this essay, I will discuss potential features of such an online venue.

The functional "zones" of an e-Community Center should fill specific needs, providing information, and maintaining user interest through an entertaining and possibly interactive format. Features can be as varied as the imagination of the minds planning the site and include such spaces as:

1. Bulletin Board
Obvious content for a "Bulletin Board" includes community notices, such as upcoming weddings, births and funerals, and events that particularly highlight the heritage culture. To ensure ongoing updates, regular contributors should be enlisted, while a place for spontaneous contributions will encourage others to become involved.

2. Arts Center
An "Arts Center" provides locals with a place to display their creative efforts online. It develops interest in local culture and can reach a wider audience via links. The Arts Center can be all-inclusive with modern, as well as traditional works in a range of mediums, such as painting, drawing, handicrafts, music, or even movies. In North America, endangered language artists and projects have achieved critical acclaim, including the Quebecois duo, Kashtin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashtin), who perform in their native language, Innu-aimun, and the newsworthy Mayan soap opera, Baktún (http://www.latina.com/entertainment/tv/world-first-mayan-telenovela-baktun#axzz2jouFck4d), which describes the trials of a young man returning to his roots while adapting to the realities of modern life. Talent knows no boundaries and can directly involve all generations in the ongoing development of their culture. Who knows? Anything is possible online and your artists could go viral!

3. Our Stories
Stories from the past serve as the foundation for collective identity helping us to recognize who we are, while modern narratives are a reference for interpreting our place in today's world. With technology becoming more compact and inexpensive, user-generated content in an "Our Stories" zone is within reach. Imagine using a smartphone to film grandparents recounting ancestral tales to their grandchildren, or younger family members talking about their contemporary interests over dinner. With an easy to use input system in place, podcasts can be uploaded and are valuable content in a kind of community video station. Levels of access can be decided by the individual who designates the upload as "personal", "community" or "general public".

Rather than privacy issues, some community members may feel more uncomfortable with the technical aspects of going online. For such individuals, a "collection point" at existing facilities with technical assistance could be the solution. The goal is to make it easy for every person to be able to add his or her stories, particularly older generations. Community elders are the keepers of traditional knowledge and ancestral beliefs. The sad reality is that with their passing, we lose the wealth of information each person possesses. Our Stories provides a venue for collecting this priceless resource and acknowledging its value to the community.

4. Language Trove
I believe a well-designed "Language Trove" feature can make a difference when preserving and/or restoring a community’s tongue, particularly if it includes a "Heritage Zone" for data collected from elders, as well as structured courses to develop a solid foundation in the language. If the latter courses are well-designed, they can also be integrated into classroom training with native speaking "para-teachers". I will talk more about this in my next blogpost about combining online features with real world training.

As for the Heritage Zone, language data recorded with elders then uploaded becomes accessible by the entire community. Projects could include creation of a comprehensive online glossary of words and phrases, or development of more advanced training materials. Data collection sessions can be as casual as recording over a coffee, or structured with discussion centered on a specific topic, such as traditional skills or ancestral beliefs. 

In fact, such data collection is a common research activity performed by academics; however, the results are too often hidden away in filing cabinets. Putting the data online increases the potential for ongoing applications in the e-Community Center.

With development of basic communication skills in the Language Trove, the need then arises for a place to practice them in the e-Community Center, for example, an online Chat Room. One-on-one encounters with possible visual contact (e.g. via Skype) could take place in this space, as well as formal sessions held at scheduled times with guests being interviewed about a specific topic of interest to the community. Ideally, this online venue would evolve into a vibrant congregating place for all levels of speakers to practice the heritage language.

Involving the community in all aspects of the above features is critical; however, perspectives may be drastically different. Youthful members will likely be into games and the sophisticated computer graphics (CGs) that come with them. Unless you are sitting on a well-stocked heritage fund, such CGs require teams of programmers and are prohibitively expensive.

Older community member needs are more fundamental. Computers are often not a part of the reality for someone over 50. The biggest hurdle for mature users visiting an e-Community Center will probably be navigating the User Interface (UI). When checking other websites for ideas don’t just browse the content, but investigate how you access it. For good examples of user-friendly UI's, check out websites that target seniors. If the UI is not obvious and intuitive, motivation to use the e-Community Center will quickly disappear. A good UI will encourage everyone to go online.

Can an online e-Community Center really prove instrumental to the recovery of a language and its culture heritage? Obviously grassroots, face-to-face efforts are critical; however, an easily accessible online venue can play a vital role provided it encourages the involvement of everyone in the community, contains content that appeals to all ages, and can be incorporated into on-the-ground, real world efforts. I will talk about such efforts in my next blogpost.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


45. Saving Languages Online - Part 2/6: It takes the entire village

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the predicaments endangered languages face. Traditionally undermined by mainstream cultures, in today's world their biggest threat may be the Internet. But I also believe the Internet can be exploited to help a language and its cultural heritage survive, the focus of this essay.

In the endangered language communities that I have been involved with, there has often been a central meeting place, such as a lodge or longhouse, used for religious and social purposes, where decisions are made and information disseminated. These gathering places can be vibrant and critical to the life of a community. Why not transfer the concept to an online format by creating an "e-Community Center"?

The features of an e-Community Center are up to the indigenous group designing it and the resources they have to work with. Planning should involve a cross section of the community to ensure something of value for as many people as possible. The delivery platform must be accessible. Not everyone has a computer at home, but many have smartphones with a range of functions. Equally as important, the site should be interactive. An e-Community Center must contain more than photos of politicians shaking hands. It should allow for direct input and engage a broad spectrum of community members from youth to elders.

Based on experiences developing my own website, Sulantra.com, I can suggest the following tentative stages for creating an e-Community Center.

1. Brainstorm features of the "ideal" e-Community Center.

Create a planning group with a range of ages and interests to come up with tentative "zones" that have specific goals. Encourage members familiar with the Internet to suggest features they like on other sites. Spaces specific to the e-Community Center could include a "Bulletin Board" with updates on happenings in the area; an "Arts Center" for locals to display their artistic and performing art endeavours; an "Our Stories" area to encourage interaction between youth and their elders through the sharing of stories from the past and present; a "Language Trove" with structured courses in the heritage language, as well as an online glossary for inputting words and phrases collected from community elders; or a "Chat Room" where visitors can practice using the heritage language as they learn it. The ideas are as endless as the collective imagination of the planners.

2. Prioritize and confirm what is really feasible.

Your e-Community Center wish list will have to be prioritized as it will be impossible to simultaneously complete all features. Which spaces are crucial or would generate the most interest and traffic? Which features can be scheduled for later development? The brainstorming group can decide the order; however, a technician familiar with computer programming should be involved. What appears simple on paper could be a programming nightmare or even impossible.

3. Collect content.

The e-Community Center has endless possibilities for providing information and services to meet specific needs. Once key features have been decided, content that meets clear goals should be prepared. In my next blogpost, I will discuss in more depth possible content for the features mentioned in the first stage.

4. Design à la "shopping mall".

The next task is to organize a framework for the features you have chosen to make them accessible. For non-computer geeks (like me), one way to approach design is to think of your website like a shopping mall. Decide core features then group less critical functions around them. The latter should be easy to find for people with specific interests. There also needs to be room for expansion as you consider new features.

Professional web designers are useful; however, their references may be computer games, not cultural frames. Your website must be easy to navigate for EVERY member of the community. Have the designer identify family members intimidated by computers ("Could your grandmother navigate this website?") or, better still, introduce the designer to actual people. With computer novices in mind, your designer should create a more accessible venue.

5. Construct the site.

Building of a comprehensive website where a heritage language community can "gather" may seem daunting. Obviously, a technician is necessary to create a website that is easy to maintain and serves everyone. He or she should understand the community's needs then investigate existing sites for features that can be adapted or used in their entirety (e.g. as an affiliated site) to meet specific goals. There is no need to re-invent the wheel if Facebook or YouTube can meet your needs. You can customize later when you have the time and funds.

One final point is that your technician must be willing to give up the reins and train local replacements to maintain the e-Community Center. Ideally, he or she should remain available for consultations, but responsibility for managing the website belongs to the community.

The creation of an e-Community Center requires dedicated efforts and a budget. Some indigenous communities have access to heritage funds; others are on their own and must approach outside entities for resources. With expertise in funding proposals, universities can be a promising route for accessing funds. And with a pool of talent on staff at your local university, combining advisors from Anthropology, Linguistics, and Computer Science departments can make for an exceptional website. On the other hand, don't let the academics take over. It's fine to get by with a little help from friends, but make sure your e-Community Center is truly yours.

The good news is that, once a website has been created, it should be relatively inexpensive to maintain and build upon. You will have created something valuable and enduring for your community and, if you are willing to share, other communities can benefit from your innovation and expertise.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


44. Saving Languages Online - Part 1/6: "e" for Endangered

Saving Languages Online

Depending on your definition and when you are reading this article, the total number of languages in the world is between 6000 and 7000 with many endangered languages on the verge of disappearing. In a recent issue of National Geographic magazine, it was pointed out that one language is lost every two weeks.

The disappearance of a language means not just the loss of words, but of a culture and the knowledge it contains. It is a tragedy for all of us. Many communities are taking aggressive action to stop what others see as inevitable – the loss of their ancestral language. Can the Internet play a role in a language’s salvation? I very much believe it can.

Why is this loss of languages happening at such a terrifying speed? In many countries, a combination of past and present oppression can be identified, where a colonial or mainstream culture decides the endangered language hinders development and should be discouraged. Speakers of non-mainstream languages are punished for speaking anything other than the official vernacular with social walls set up to weaken or, in the worst scenarios, completely destroy the “non-official” language. Want a job? Then stop speaking your mother tongue.

In today's world perhaps the greatest menace to these endangered languages is the Internet. For speakers of non-mainstream languages, it is virtually impossible to take advantage of the vast quantity of information available online. If you do not understand a major language, particularly English, you are cut off.

I have lived and/or worked with speakers of Iban in Malaysia (see entries 13  and 14 ), Cree and Haida in Canada (see entry15), Mayan in Mexico's Yucatan, Kosraen in Micronesia (see entry 43), and Welsh in the UK (see entry 6). These are all unique languages with vibrant, proud cultures that should be supported and strengthened, not "phased out" by languages with a larger number of native speakers. Can the Internet come to the rescue?

Too often online efforts involve the cataloging of what was, rather than envisioning what could be. It is critical to retrieve the knowledge that community elders possess, but equally as vital to incorporate this knowledge, both cultural and linguistic, into a format that is accessible and presented in a way that attracts the youth of a community. If we truly wish to save a language, younger generations must be enticed to join the effort.

The Internet can be exploited to preserve culture and develop communication skills in an endangered language. Online technology is constantly improving and accessible to a broader base of users through cheap and user-friendly delivery devices. The use of smartphones is becoming ubiquitous as people of all ages discover opportunities to learn anytime and anywhere. Educational online products have the potential to reach a massive audience. All that is required is some hardware and an engaging website.

Besides helping the local community, the Internet also has the potential to create greater awareness of a people and their culture in the larger online world. More serious travelers, scholars and others could very well be interested in learning a native language of the Arctic or Amazon, especially if they can access materials from their mother tongue. The technology is there to build a delivery platform that allows direct access from one language to another. I know because we have done this with my website, Sulantra.com.

But the picture is not quite so rosy. Unfortunately for language learners, most language training websites just don't make the grade. Free sites tend to be piecemeal, containing lists of vocabulary or "key phrases" presented out of context. There is no cohesive study approach, nor serious attempt to prepare users for communication.

Websites offering structured language courses also have pitfalls. Using a carefully constructed "teaser" as bait, they lure users into paying a monthly fee for a questionable product that can disappoint quickly. Too often site designers devote their efforts to the package, not the product, essentially uploading a textbook with glossy visuals, buzzers and bells, but very little innovation in terms of the training approach.

This is a shame since so much is possible online. Imitating a textbook format with topic-based lessons containing reams of vocabulary and grammar rules to memorize just doesn’t work anymore. Online audiences have a limited attention span. Users want to be entertained as well as educated and have little patience for a boring format with results that are not soon evident.

For endangered languages, the situation is even more disheartening as texts to upload may not even exist. Companies providing online language training products focus their attention on major languages in order to reach a massive audience (think English, Chinese and Spanish) or languages whose speakers have pockets deep enough to cover ongoing monthly fees (e.g. German and Japanese). Endangered languages don't even appear on the educational radar. There is no place at the online table for them.

But this needn't be the status quo. The great thing about the Internet is that niche users can be catered to. Build a website and they will come. Online marketers refer to this approach as targeting "the long tail". Target smaller potential audiences - those scattered in the tail of the client comet - since they will find you with the right key words in place for search engines.

This is good news for endangered language communities. By taking matters into their own hands and aggressively creating an online presence, I believe speakers of indigenous languages can change the tide. By creating an electronic "meeting place" that aligns with the aspirations of the community, caters in an entertaining format to their youth, and even attracts "outsiders" who are curious and want to learn more about a people and their culture, indigenous language groups can entertain, educate and endure.

In my next entry, I will discuss the concept of an online meeting place, or "e-community center", that disseminates information and provides easily accessible services, including language training and cultural resources, for an endangered language community.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)