Crossing the Digital Divide

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I'm at AAAS 2012 in Vancouver BC, and as soon as I can get out of the section officers' meeting (which started at 6:30 this morning), I'm going to head over to the symposium on "Endangered and Minority Languages Crossing the Digital Divide", co-organized by David Harrison and Claire Bowern. The abstract:

Speakers of endangered languages are leveraging new technologies to sustain and revitalize their mother tongues. The panel explores new uses of new digital tools and the practices and ideologies that underlie these innovations. What new possibilities are gained through social networking, video streaming, twitter, software interfaces, smartphones, machine translation, and digital talking dictionaries? How can crowd-sourced translation and localization projects protect intellectual property while providing a technology resource? The panelists present actual and imagined uses and impacts of new digital technologies for a variety of stakeholders: speakers, educators, archivists, linguists, language activists, and technology providers. There are also benefits to science when indigenous languages assume a prominent role in digital technologies. They can provide testing grounds for new media and technological delivery, presenting a level of data complexity often not found in major global languages and thus leading to new discoveries. And they lend greater prominence to traditional knowledge, thus expanding access to the human knowledgebase.

I'm sorry to say that AAAS has still not managed to stumble into the 21st century, and so you won't be able to see this — or any of the other terrific symposia, plenary talks, and so — unless you happen to be in Vancouver and registered for the meeting. Meanwhile, here are the abstracts from the participants in this symposium:

K. David Harrison, Swarthmore College, PA
Technology and the effects of globalization are viewed by some as a threat to small languages. But indigenous language activists, often working in collaboration with linguists, increasingly view digital media as opportunities to expand the domains of their languages, and thus enhance visibility, prestige, and potential transmission. Some of the keys to sustainability for small languages may perhaps be found in these strategies which rely, in Walter Ong’s felicitous term, on the “technologizing of the word”.

Margaret Noori, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
In an ever changing world it is imperative that speakers use every available channel. In ancient times it was said the people talked to rocks and animals. Today it is wires and wavelengths that have become animated with the sound of Anishinaabemowin. Rather than focus on any one medium or platform, this talk will explore ways that technology fosters creative, continual pursuit of the simplest, most far-reaching solution. From Facebook to voice recognition to interactive learning tools, find out more about how communities both small and large, private and public, can subvert the tools of daily modern life to keep a language alive.

Leena Evic, Pirurvik Center for Inuit Language, Culture, and Wellbeing, Iqaluit, NU, Canada
As a People, we Inuit have always embraced tools and technologies that enhanced our ability to adapt, prosper and communicate with each other in our vast Arctic homeland. The evolution of information and communication technology provides us with a tool to link our communities in a way unimaginable just a generation ago. It is not without difficulty and it requires a continual effort to ensure that our Inuktitut language is incorporated into the latest developments. Pirurvik, meaning "a place of growth", is a unique Nunavut company that has become well known as a leader for technological innovation. We have been involved, not only in developing the technology but in creating the opportunities for people to begin using it. Through outreach to Nunavut communities we have witnessed the enormous potential that is unleashed when Inuktitut speakers see their language on a computer screen. In doing so, Inuit are empowered to think in our language, write in our language and even print in our language. These are all critical pieces of ensuring that smaller languages, like Inuktitut, continue to be used in a wide range of day to day activities. These steps also enable greater numbers of Inuit to participate in and contribute to the global community that is connected through computer technology. With examples relating to the Inuktitut localization of the Microsoft Windows and Office software and the development of on-line and iOS based language acquisition tools, this talk will discuss the social and technological steps taken to establish Inuktitut's place in the digital world.

Update — There are about 40 people in the audience here. The presentations are excellent, and it's really a shame that they won't be more broadly available.

Update #2 — An interview with David Harrison and Meg Noori is available here.


  1. Chandra said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    So they are holding a symposium on crossing the digital divide, but have not yet managed to do so themselves?

    [(myl) The symposium presenters would love to make a version openly available — it's the AAAS bureaucracy that is opposed.]

    Too bad I'm not quite near enough to Vancouver to attend – it all sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading about the presentations in future posts. Enjoy the city!

  2. Rubrick said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    Mr. Anishin, to his urban-raised African-American neighbor: "Hey, what are you doing on your lawn there?"


    Profuse apologies for my inability to resist.

  3. John Lawler said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    The symposium presenters have the option, like all scientists, of posting on the Web. If the AAAS forbids this, then I'm glad I'm not a member.

    [(myl) That's what Victoria Stodden did last year with the audio and slides from a symposium I was involved in at AAAS 2011, "The Digitization of Science: Reproducibility and Interdisciplinary Knowledge Transfer" (See "Reproducible Science at AAAS 2011", 2/18/2011). Victoria didn't ask permission, as far as I know; perhaps if she had, AAAS would have said "no", since they make money by selling audio recordings of sessions — though the recordings are nearly useless without the slides, and so presumably they don't make very much money from this source, and might not care after all. (Though I've also heard the argument that such "publication" on the web constitutes an unauthorized use of the society's authority…)

    But session organizers shouldn't have to do this for themselves. And it would be nice to have video, audio and slides in an integrated package — there are solutions for doing this fairly easily, but most working scientists don't have the needed hardware and software lying around, and in any case all this would probably have to be negotiated by the society with the meeting hotels. On this point, the LSA is no better.]

  4. Private Zydeco said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    Q-pheevr on Language Names and some charades which symbolize them:

  5. Russell Horton said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    Via LinguistList, a BBC account of how speakers of endangered languages are already using digital tools:

    [(myl) That article is about exactly the things featured in the AAAS panel, especially the work of its co-organizer David Harrison. Given the article's date, I suspect that it was stimulated by the symposium, the AAAS press release, or perhaps the interview with him in the AAAS 2012 press area.]

  6. Endangered Languages and Cultures » Blog Archive » Endangered languages, technology and social media (again) said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 7:25 am

    […] Digital Divide" co-organized by David Harrison and Claire Bowern (see Mark Liberman's Language Log post for a report). The abstract for the session says: "Speakers of endangered languages are […]

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