At EssayJack, we love the English language. Our co-founder and CEO, Dr. Lindy Ledohowski, used to tell her students:
“analyze the world around you and be empowered!”
Dr. Ledohowski said that as a professor of English, and for most of us on Team EssayJack, English is the medium for that analysis and empowerment. It’s the language we teach and communicate in, the language most of us think in and use on a daily basis. But this blog post isn’t about English-language essays, English literacy, ELL or using the English language at all. Instead, I want to share some thoughts we’ve been having about how EssayJack can contribute to the fight to preserve endangered languages.
What are endangered language? They are languages threatened with extinction. That is, a language that may soon have no speakers. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger lists about 2,500 such languages. In Canada, endangered languages include Mi’kmaq, Ojibwe and Inuinnaqtun.
How do we know if a language is endangered? What are the criteria? UNESCO has a system of five categories that it uses in its atlas to determine the extent to which a language is threatened. The five categories are:
Safe: Language is spoken by all generations; intergenerational transmission is uninterrupted >> not included in the atlas.
Vulnerable: Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home).
Definitely endangered: Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in the home.
Severely endangered: Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves.
Critically endangered: The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently.
Extinct: There are no speakers left >> included in the atlas if presumably extinct since the 1950s.
Why does this matter? Why should we care about a language dying?
David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, encapsulated what is lost when a language disappears: “what is primarily lost is the expression of a unique vision of what it means to be human.” Toronto journalist Kat Eschner has identified three additional consequences:
Loss of historical and cultural memory.
Loss of local knowledge.
People losing the language they grew up speaking or finding themselves one of the last speakers of the language.
Dr. Pamela Serota Cote points to the repercussions of language loss for diversity, culture, identity and community:
“Because language discloses cultural and historical meaning, the loss of language is a loss of that link to the past. Without a link to the past, people in a culture lose a sense of place, purpose and path; one must know where one came from to know where one is going. The loss of language undermines a people’s sense of identity and belonging, which uproots the entire community in the end. Yes, they may become incorporated into the dominant language and culture that has subsumed them, but they have lost their heritage along the way.”
In the anthropologist Wade Davis’s evocative formulation, each language is an “old-growth forest of the mind.”
So, what can be done and what does any of this have to do with educational technology and EssayJack, an essay-writing tool?
Scholars, activists, artists, politicians and concerned citizens are developing creative approaches to address the loss of languages around the world. In many countries, there are movements to maintain minority languages and provide immersion schooling in them. Breton in France and Welsh in the United Kingdom are two examples, as is Lakota in South Dakota where an immersion programme was recently inaugurated. Two members of the Canadian Parliament have recently given speeches in indigenous languages. As ethnographers and linguists feel “helpless in the face of the gradual erasure of collective memory that goes along with this loss of linguistic diversity,” some composers are incorporating threatened languages into their work. Canadian filmmakers are currently working on the first ever film in Haida, a language with fewer than twenty fluent speakers.
You may have noticed a lot of Canadian examples in this post. As many as ninety indigenous languages in Canada are estimated to be endangered and there is currently a federal push to “preserve, protect and revitalize” these languages as part of the larger process of reconciliation.
Canadian innovators are also at the forefront of using technology to teach and learn native languages. Here are just a few examples:
Six Nations Polytechnic has developed an app for teaching the Mohawk language.
There is also an app for the Ktunaxa language of British Columbia as well as digital files for other languages.
First Voices is an internet resource that compiles audio files of Ktunaxa and other indigenous languages to “support Aboriginal people engaged in language archiving, language teaching & culture revitalization.”
Nicole Smith, a Ta’an Kwach’an elementary-school teacher in the Yukon, used recordings of her grandmother to create an app for the Southern Tutchone language, which can be used in classes and without an internet connection once downloaded.
EssayJack is part of this effort and this conversation. The resources listed above are designed to teach a language by imparting vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. Nicole Smith, the creator of the Southern Tutchone app, stated that “technology in the classroom is where we’re going so this is great for teachers to use.” In any learning environment, and especially in immersion schools, students must apply the language they are learning. They have to complete written assignments. In writing essays, they will have the same challenges facing students who write in English, combined with the additional challenges of writing in what may be a second language or a language that they have encountered primarily through speech. Students learning in indigenous languages need essay-writing help in indigenous languages.
EssayJack is complementary to language-learning tools in that the EssayJack platform is completely customisable by educators and parents. This means that templates can be created with headings, tips, prompts, definitions and sentence starters in any language. Teachers can also add video and audio files, either to help to students or to give them something to respond to, such as a speech or a story told by an elder, in an essay. So, as students learn an indigenous or minority language, they can also learn to structure and organise their thoughts in that language and practise writing in it.
Here is a mock up of what this looks like in Inuktitut, one of Canada’s main Inuit languages. (Note to Inuktitut speakers: this is very much just a draft. Any template that would actually be available to students would be created and proofread by a teacher or speaker of the language.)
Allowing students to write in their language is our contribution to the effort to foster the use of Aboriginal languages and minority languages worldwide. I hope you find this as exciting as we do. If you would like more information on EssayJack in your language, please contact me. I look forward to working with you and harnessing EssayJack’s potential to empower students through mastery of the written word, not only in English but also in Tsimshianic, Nuu-chah-nulth and Squamish!
Useful samples and examples: