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!


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!)


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