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What I Did I Learn While Documenting My Native Language – Subhashish Panigrahi

Half of the world’s languages are dying. But we can preserve age-old cultural heritage by documenting languages around us in digital medium. A story from Subhashish Panigrahi’s TEDxYouthAmaatraAcademy talk on July 15.

This was during the winter of 2014. I was home. At that point of time I was learning about the storytelling patterns of our community. I was persuading my grandma for days to narrate me some of the stories of her time. But she has always been moody and she wouldn’t tell me.

One morning she kind of spontaneously started telling me a story. Past one story, I had this gut feeling that I have to record it even though I didn’t know how to use it. So I subtly took out my camera and started shooting silently. She would not just narrate the story but would make herself part of it. A sad incident that the characters would be going through would make her shed tears. And she would burst into laughter with a happy ending of the story.

She also sang me a few songs — songs that brides used to sing right after their marriage as the brides would leave their parents and live with their in laws.

Brides and other members of their family would hold each other and cry. So these were songs of separation and used to be sad songs to begin with. But slowly, the whole thing became a social phenomenon. People started creating literature around it. There was humor, sarcasm and a lot more than sad content. But not everyone is good at crying. So, this whole thing was rehearsed beforehand, and women like my grandma played a great role as master trainers. Recording these unique songs, and stories of my own community was fun. I also uploaded and made them available publicly.

But I never understood how valuable those recordings were until I met Daniel Bogre Udell who would tell me how he and his friend Freddie Andrade are building a project called Wikitongues. They were collaborating with volunteers around the world to record videos of people narrating a story or incident in their native languages. I loved the idea. Videos on Wikitongues helped me a lot to learn about many beautiful stories from all over the world that were totally hidden otherwise. They also inspired me to add subtitles and more information to my recordings.

Unfortunately, a lot many languages are dying really fast. UNESCO made an estimate that almost half of the 6909 living languages of the world might be vanishing in a century’s time. We lose at least one language in every second week. 220 Indian languages have died in the last 50 years. 197 Indian languages that are identified by UNESCO as endangered might die soon. We’re becoming exceedingly monolingual. Linguist Steven Bird once quoted about researchers that have found out that monolingual people are more likely to have their brains dying faster.

How languages die?

Languages, when come in contact with other languages, get influenced. At times, it is an irreversible change. Many sociopolitical aspects decide the fate of our languages. For instance, public policies around state official language make “some” languages the language of education, scientific research, and governance, where the remaining languages might just be left out there to slowly die. Because “minority languages” don’t pay off in jobs and beyond, you would not find much media in those languages. The problem is stories of the monolingual people are not documented at all/to a minimal extent, and there is a huge gap to be filled up.

More or less, the whole of Africa, or the Americas or even Vietnam or Philippines knew nothing about the Latin alphabet just a few hundred years ago. But all thanks to the colonialism — they all share the same script now. But very less is known about the original scripts of the languages of this new world. Fortunately, many scholars that were still part of the same colonial system, tried to document about languages, writing systems, and  people that lead us today to discover many fascinating stories of the world around us.

Irrespective of our cultural and linguistic diversity around the world, we all use our native languages as a tool — a tool to communicate, and to encode and decode our emotions, our stories, secrets, happiness and sorrows.

If we don’t start digitally documenting languages — especially the endangered ones — we might lose many colors of this human civilization. Languages are just tools. But they are a gateway to a new world. And not everything can be translated. Languages are like humans. They contain indigenous knowledge — knowledge that also matters to the modern society. It’s up to us, the speakers, to decide how long we want to keep them alive.

Languages can bind people!

Sometime back, I was interviewing a Karbi language speaker. Karbi is an endangered language spoken by about 41900 people in the Indian state of Assam and northeast India. So this person I was interviewing would share with about a particular festival called “Cho Mang Kan”, a festival to remember the deceased ancestors. But in addition to that, people also have feasts, drink locally-brewed alcohol and dance during the festival. Not just that, it’s also a place for young people to find their future spouses.

Learning about this festival was a very fascinating thing. What surprised me the most is we, in our own community, also have a festival with a slight variation, and similar festivals exist across South and East Asia. Even though I read about it in the past, it was like rediscovering myself to hear from someone of a different community. Them and us certainly look different, speak different different languages. But deep down inside, we are closely tied to each other. Hadn’t it been the digital recording that I was doing, I could have never experienced this connection so strongly.

But, maybe, documenting a language is not your thing. I agree. Not everything is for everyone. I was wondering about how to mobilize more people to document the dying languages, and came across something interesting. So, my wife would record these video messages using Snapchat’s voice changer and those cool video filters to record something funny, and send them to her siblings. They would watch it and reply back with a similar funny video message. But the most important thing here is — the language that they have been using in their Snapchat conversations used to be spoken in their grandparent’s generation. Not many people today speak in that language. They are using Augmented Reality, Deep Learning, and Artificial Intelligence and are helping thrive a marginalized language, not because they are keen on documenting their language, but because it is fun to use it. I realized that people actually don’t need to make language documentation their religion, but can be creative and use language as a tool. However, when the example of wife’s interaction with her language is happening in a private space, we need more digital content in public platforms.

So, I want to leave you with four thoughts for you to consider how you want to creatively document languages that you hear around you.

  1. Show a little more curiosity when you meet someone who is out-of-town, and ask what language they speak with their grandparents. Request them to tell you a story or a sing a song or narrate anything and record it.
  2. Use tools you love — Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter. Host a live session on social media and invite a guest to narrate a story, ask them to teach you a traditional game of their community, and go creative about the way you record it.
  3. Share your recording publicly in an open license. By default your works are copyrighted which means that others need your prior permission to use them. So, to allow everyone to use your work, mention one the open licenses while sharing the content publicly. I would personally recommend the Creative Commons licenses, and most multimedia platforms like Vimeo and YouTube allow them. But most importantly, there are open source platforms like the Wikimedia Commons, Internet Archive, and which also support extensive metadata making the content searchable.
  4. Document some vital information like summary of the recorded content in English, and share that along with the content. These information or metadata help others discover your work, and even translate that information into different languages. Metadata is extremely valuable to take any content to a larger audience

If you continue to record languages that you come across with, and start sharing them publicly in an open license, we will have a large library of multimedia content in many native languages. That can lead to hundreds of things we can’t imagine right now. Tools like text-to-speech can be built from audio libraries that can help people with visual impairment, illiteracy, and autism access knowledge and contribute to the knowledge commons.

Three researchers from the University of Washington recently conducted an experiment using Public Domain video and audio files of Obama’s speeches. They used Artificial Intelligence to manipulate Obama’s videos and make him lip-sync to the pre-recorded audios. And the result was really fascinating. They managed to produce videos that looked almost real. But they could do this only because those videos and audio files existed publicly in a public domain license.

You never know that you can create history by making recordings of languages around you and publishing them publicly with open licenses. And your work can help revive many dying languages.

Subhashish Panigrahi
Subhashish Panigrahi is the founder of OpenSpeaks. He is an educator; language, technology and community catalyst; author and public speaker. As a community manager over the last six years, he led Mozilla's Community Development for Asia, and played various roles at Wikimedia Foundation and the Centre for Internet and Society. He shaped Mozilla's global communications for the Campus Clubs program, launched a research to measure the state of Open Source across India's top 20 tech, law and design universities; Built and implemented the Wikimedia strategic plans for India; increased Wikipedia’s reach (readers) by more than 60% (3x global readership) in and participation (editors) by 50% [as compared to ~10% global growth] in 6 Indian languages. Winner of the 2015 People’s Choice Award for covering open source-related highlights, and awarded as "Wikimedia Advocate and Expert" by for extensively showcasing the Wikimedia community and projects. Speaker at TEDx and many international Open Source/knowledge conferences across 11 countries. Author of "Rising Voices: Digital Language Activism" “Digital Activism in Asia Reader”, and a few hundred posts on major global blogs.

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