Open-source software can revitalize indigenous languages

© UNESCO

Against a bright blue sky, a bird frantically flies around falling objects that appear from out of nowhere, guided by a voice shouting the names of the objects in a language unknown to most. With each correct identification and pronunciation, the bird is able to live another day.

This is not real life, but the main sequence of events in the mobile application Thazin, designed for learning Arakhanese, one of Myanmar’s numerous endangered indigenous languages. Earlier this month, the app was awarded an Indigenous Prize at a hackathon organized by UNESCO and FOSSASIA in honour of United Nations 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The hackathon was part of the “FOSSASIA Summit 2019 Singapore – Open Source, Big Data, Design Thinking and Free Knowledge” from 14 – 17 March, where hundreds of open-tech gurus, software developers and hackers sporting red T-shirts crowded into the Lifelong Learning Institute exhibition hall. Most wandered around to learn about the latest innovations in free and open-source software (FOSS), with major industry players such as IBM and Facebook participating.

The main audience was the open-tech community, but eight representatives of indigenous communities living in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand were invited to take part in the hackathon with the explicit aim of developing innovative solutions to save indigenous languages. To that end, they were joined by nearly 100 young developers, resulting in the creation of 15 concepts and prototypes for strengthening, promoting, safeguarding and revitalizing languages, in particular indigenous languages. Apart from Thazin, the prototypes and concepts included a marketplace app for selling indigenous crafts, and an AI-powered, crowd-sourced corpus for gathering translations of indigenous languages.

“Many people think when tech grows up, languages and diversity of cultures will die,” said Oranee Jariyapotngam, a Thailand-based advocate for learning indigenous languages. “But I think they can support each other.”

In addition to the hackathon and exhibition, a panel discussion was organized that offered additional opportunities for open-source developers and tech specialists to learn more about the issues affecting indigenous persons and languages in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam.

“Through this summit and hackathon, I’ve come to learn that there are many open-source software [tools] that we can use and apply to our work,” said Phnom Thano, a young indigenous media activist also based in Thailand. “Most of them are free, [which is important] to indigenous people who often cannot afford software and technology. I hope to see that indigenous people will utilize the technologies available in order to preserve their own culture.”

Although indigenous peoples make up less than 6% of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s languages. Indigenous languages are not only methods of communication, but also extensive and complex systems of knowledge that have developed over millennia. They are central to the identity of indigenous peoples, the preservation of their cultures, worldviews and visions, and an expression of self-determination.

In Southeast Asia alone, at least 1,000 different indigenous languages are spoken, some more widely than others. While Karen, for example, primarily spoken throughout northern Thailand, has been widely documented and is spoken by several million people, languages such as Dupaninan Agta in the Philippines are endangered with only about 1,000 native speakers.

While indigenous languages are a critical part of the heritage and traditions of people all over the world, they are greatly endangered and disappearing at an alarming rate. This is why the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages in order to raise awareness.

The UNESCO and FOSSASIA collaboration is based on the shared belief in the potential of free and open-source software and the open-source community to share ideas, create knowledge and develop innovative solutions to advance peace and sustainable development. This aligns with UNESCO’s mandate to build inclusive knowledge societies and empower people though access to information and knowledge.

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