Scannell got the idea from his work on Gaelic.

Tweet Hereafter: Social Media Is Saving Native Languages

Doug Meigs
6/14/11

Globalization is often a force of destruction, a hegemonic bulldozer plowing over landscapes of indigenous culture. The Internet only amplifies globalization’s power—pervasive online “world languages” (English, Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.) dominate the web and continue pushing Native tongues into obsolescence.

A math professor has calculated an alternative equation.

Kevin Scannell is a 40-year-old Irish American working in Saint Louis University’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. He says online tools of globalization have created positive opportunities equal or greater than their dangers. In March, he created IndigenousTweets.com, a website that aims to preserve and proliferate indigenous language by connecting Twitter users online. “The Internet is also a tool that we can use to combat globalization and colonization,” says Scannell. “The important thing is for people to use their language if they want it to survive. The Internet—websites like Twitter and Facebook, blogs and e-mail—give people an opportunity to write and chat and be creative while using their language in a natural way.”

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a micro-blogging service that allows users to write and read short text messages called “tweets.” Each tweet is limited to 140 characters. Scannell’s website aggregates Twitter users who write in minority languages. He started with a list of 35 languages, which grew to almost 100 within two months. Twitter users can go to his website, view a list of other users writing in their own Native language, request to “follow” individuals, and then begin receiving their tweets.

IndigenousTweets.com began when Scannell wrote a computer program to cross-reference Twitter messages with statistical data for minority languages. His website names languages by their Native names. For example, Navajo is listed as Diné bizaad, i.e., “Navajo language.” Click into the language and relevant Twitter users are listed on a second screen. The site then ranks Twitterers based on various criteria, such as number of tweets and percentage written in the language.

In addition to Navajo, other North American indigenous languages on the website include Delaware/Lenape, Lakota, Inuktitut, Mi’kmaq/Micmac and Secwepemctsín. IndigenousTweets.com features a cornucopia of minority languages worldwide, including some nearly extinct languages such as Gamilaraay from eastern Australia (the website notes one Twitter user who wrote a single tweet in Gamilaraay).

A white mathematician living in the Midwest might seem an unlikely champion for Native language. Scannell was born into an Irish family in Boston, and he decided to seek his cultural roots after finishing university studies. He is now a fluent Irish Gaelic speaker. Every year he visits Ireland to spend time immersed in the nation’s minority Gaelic-speaking communities. “I started out trying to develop tools or resources for my community, the Irish community, and then I realized that [my work] could scale up and apply to lots of other languages,” he says.

He dedicated the past decade to developing online tools for minority languages. Although Gaelic is his primary interest, he also worked with 30 to 40 other languages before creating IndigenousTweets.com. “People should be able to go online and not have to use English just because that’s the language of the computer,” he says.

Scannell worked with Mozilla Localization projects since about 2004. He translated Mozilla’s Firefox web browser into Irish. He also wrote other programs to search the Internet for minority-language data and built spell-checkers for Gaelic and other languages. He started using Twitter early in the site’s five-year history, but he was a passive user. Twitter now has more than 175 million accounts (though many are inactive). Scannell says he didn’t realize Twitter’s potential for indigenous language until February, when a collaborator working on a Haitian Creole spell-checker asked if he could download Twitter data. “I said okay, and in about a week, I had written a little script to download tweets and analyzed them according to language,” he says. “Then I realized, Hey, this is something that people could use to find each other. From personal experience using Twitter as an Irish speaker, it’s hard to find other people who are using your language.”

Native language activity varies widely, he says. A cursory glance through IndigenousTweets.com reveals that many Native writers post predominantly in English or another global language, while half of the languages listed on the website have fewer than six Twitter users. Within the Navajo Diné category, four Twitter users have written less than one percent of their tweets in the Native language. The Ojibwe language boasts 15 users writing in Anishinaabemowin; the most active goes by the name Teddy Makwa (@TeddyMakwa). He has written almost 10,000 tweets, with more than 20 percent of content written in Anishinaabemowin.

Some other Twitter accounts display nearly exclusive use of a minority language. For example, the BBC has an active Welsh Twitter feed promoting its Cymraeg, “Welsh,” language news (@BBCcymru), and for a while the College of Hawaiian Language tweeted nearly 93 percent of its Twitter posts in the Hawaiian language. Scannell has confirmed 600 different languages online, and he expects that no more than 700 to 800 exist on the web. That’s about a tenth of the world’s languages spoken today. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger estimates that half of the world’s spoken languages will disappear by the end of the century if nothing is done.

The world’s leading experts on endangered languages are optimistic about the role of social media. Social media have provided a vital role in connecting language communities in diasporic situations, says Peter Austin, a director at the University of London’s Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project. He cites Basque people speaking Euskara in Spain, northern Africa and scattered in Europe. Euskara speakers currently show the second-highest number of minority-language Twitter users with almost 3,800 accounts according to IndigenousTweets.com.

Austin lauds Scannell’s site as a novel resource for indigenous communities; however, he says some of the listed languages are nowhere close to endangered—Yorùbá for example, has 61 Twitter users on IndigenousTweets.com and nearly 20 million speakers living in West Africa. He also believes Facebook is more powerful than Twitter as a language community tool.
Practical obstacles block many language communities trying to utilize social media. Keyboards, input methods and fonts may be problematic. Meanwhile, the technology gap is another concern. Young people are the most adept with the Internet, but they often lack Native language fluency. Elders in communities have the language fluency, but they might be reluctant to engage in social media or lack the necessary tech hardware. “My fear is that if we don’t provide the resources and the tools and the translated software, then the young people are just going to continue using English,” says Scannell. “So to me, it’s absolutely essential that we make it easy for people to use their native language online.”

Austin says the “coolness factor” of Twitter and Facebook is also important. Peer-sensitive teenagers can be reluctant to chat with grandparents in their Native tongue, but social media has created globally popular, mainstream tools for young people to build rapport with peers. “Attitudes play a huge role in language maintenance, language shift and language loss,” he says. “The reason that young people don’t want to speak their grandparents’ language is because of their attitude towards it, maybe negative feelings towards a reservation, or maybe they feel the language is old or useless or out of date.”

If youths get excited about gossiping in their Native language with friends on Twitter or Facebook, they might become more interested in learning the language from grandparents or joining community language programs, too. “We can’t guarantee that someone twittering in a language is going to keep it going, but it does raise the potential for people to say ‘Wow, this is something really valuable and a lot of fun,’ ” he says.

Barbara Nolan shares Austin’s optimism. She just launched a new language-learning website in April. The 64-year-old Nishnaabe-kwe didn’t learn English until age 5 in the residential school system. She lives at Garden River First Nation on the outskirts of Sault St. Marie, Ontario. She says most young people lack fluency in the Ojibwe language today. She first taught Anishinaabemowin in an area public school in 1973. She helped colleges to develop language curriculum and taught immersion courses for nine years before refocusing her energy through the Internet. “The language is medicine, It will help us to become whole again,” she says. “A lot of Anishinaabe people are not fluent in their language, but they’re doing something to bring it back.”

Nolan says Ojibwe tweets demonstrate a proficiency ranging from the new learner to the fluent speaker. She celebrates every language effort, and is trying to re-create immersion-style learning experience using online technology and will continue experimenting with social media’s role in the equation. “We see online, websites, Twitter, Facebook and social media as the only way our language will survive,” she says.

IndigenousTweets.com is still a new website. Scannell expects it to continue expanding. Any Twitter users writing in an indigenous language who wish to be listed on IndigenousTweets.com may contact him at kscanne@gmail.com.

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