Preserving ancient languages with new technology

By Zach Rosen
March 30, 2016

Tayíri panna weìma nà hùàga, ííó? 

Nateni forms sentences like bowls, correct?

More than anything, it’s the laughter of my Nateni informant, Hillaire SABI, and the emphatic clapping of his hand on my back that lets me know that I’m finally starting to understand not just basic Nateni vocabulary but some of the profound differences in how the Natemba both look at the world and use language to frame that worldview. 

Language acquisition, even in European languages similar to English, can be one of the most difficult challenges a Volunteer will face during their service. To truly speak in another language, a Volunteer needs not so much to let go of their own culture and worldview so much as learn how to reposition themselves in the frame of their host community’s social consciousness. If German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was correct in saying that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” then the act of learning a new language is the tantamount to cartography during the age of exploration — an exercise in fear, stomach maladies and retracing the very boundaries of the world we see ourselves existing in. In a word: the singularly most daunting task you’re going to face during your community integration. 

Despite encouragement from the Peace Corps to acquire not just the national language of a Volunteer’s host country but to concentrate on the acquisition of local languages as well, many Volunteers do not necessarily have the resources — or sometimes even a clear framework — to assist them in leaving the safe shores of English. This becomes an even greater issue in a country like Benin, in West Africa, where there are 55 recognized languages, and innumerable dialects. Peace Corps simply does not have the means to develop resources for every linguistic community in the country. However, with the modern omnipresence of technology like smartphones in our lives, even at post, perhaps Peace Corps doesn’t need to. 

It was this idea in mind that I initially began working on the development of an Android app that we could use to create a national local language database here in Benin. Several weeks and innumerable cups of coffee later, BLA! was officially launched in Benin.

The Benin Language Acquisitor app for AndroidOS (or BLA! for short) is just one response to the call for new linguistic resource development, using technology as the means to do so. The application allows users to collect Peace Corps-related vocabulary in their community, offline, and then  upload that data to a cloud database when in range of either cellular data service or Wi-Fi later on. 

My team’s goal is to create a database of each unique local language, cross-referenced by Volunteers’ posts (so as to track dialectical differences, as well), all while working with the local language tutors and informants in the host community. From there, that database can be used to create dialect-specific language resources and even be used to develop new apps that Americans can use at home to learn some of the many beautiful languages spoken here in Benin. 

Perhaps more importantly, however, time is running out to collect data on these languages at all. Of the 7,000 known languages spoken in the world, some estimates show that by 2100 nearly half of these languages will no longer be spoken — will go extinct. 

To understand the gravity of this, consider waking up one morning to the realization that English is no longer spoken — and never will be again — by your neighbors, by your friends or even by your children. Many languages, like Anii — a language unique to the community around the city of Bassila here in Benin — are likely to go the way of high school Latin far sooner than that, as aging populations continue to pass away without their offspring learning their ancestral languages or having sufficient means to record them. 

Why is this important? Because to build an app like BLA! is actually not that difficult given adequate Internet resources and enough dark roast. This same project can be easily duplicated in, or adapted to (thanks to its simple coding), any other Peace Corps country in the world, making us Volunteers uniquely capable of creating and deploying similar language preservation projects across the globe. 

We can, with technology as it is, start to record these languages before it's too late. 

Considering how closely linked a language is to a culture's accepted psychology and cosmology (learning about and disseminating information about these two being the prime objective in all third goal activities), the fact that we can deploy software-based tools like BLA! is sufficient enough inspiration to do it. 

Zach Rosen