What linguistics students can do to help preserve indigenous languages

“Every two weeks a language disappears taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.” *

Every year, communities around the world join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to recognize International Mother Language Day. This year, the 2019 theme celebrates Indigenous languages in particular, asserting that “Indigenous languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation.” When the United Nations General Assembly first recognized the day in 2009, they called upon their members “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.” Students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa took first steps last fall in Catherine Lee’s Introduction to Language course and Kavon Hooshiar’s Language in Hawaiʻi and the Pacific course by writing about Polynesian and Melanesian languages on Wikipedia.

There are around 450 Oceanic languages with nearly 2 million speakers total. Some of these languages, such as Hawaiian, are in danger of going extinct. Others, like Moriori, have already. But documenting, archiving, and celebrating them can help preserve their rich histories. Catherine Lee’s students more than doubled the lengths of Wikipedia articles such as the Wallisian languageTuamotuan language, and Rakahanga-Manihiki language as part of their class assignment. And Kavon Hooshiar’s students expanded numerous articles about languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, including the Iyo languageKwoma language, and Kaluli language.

According to Lee’s course syllabus, students sought to “understand how language works, how we use it, and how it is integrated within culture, history, society, and cognition.” And instead of channeling their new learnings into a traditional research paper, they’ve shared it for the benefit of language preservation and learners around the world.

As the United Nations website states, “Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance, and dialogue.”

Thanks to students at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa for bringing knowledge of languages to the world’s biggest free knowledge repository. Your work makes the world better!

Interested in incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into your course? Visit teach.wikiedu.org for all you need to get started.


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