According to some linguistic estimates, there are close to 3,000 endangered languages in the world, and every two weeks, one of them goes extinct. While social media and the internet have hastened the spread of English, Mandarin and other dominant languages, Daniel Bögre Udell and the team at Wikitongues believe that these same tools can rescue and revitalize threatened languages—when deployed by native speakers and their communities.
“Our current situation is no accident of history,” says Bögre Udell. “Throughout the 20th century and today, forced language assimilation was a common policy around the world. In Canada and the U.S., indigenous children were taken from their homes and punished in boarding schools for speaking their native tongues. Welsh and Irish children were flogged in Britain. Until 2003, it was commonplace for public schools in Mexico to ban indigenous students from speaking their languages. The list goes on. But today, the tide is turning.”
“We are here to help protect and grow living languages and to sustain the communities that speak them.”— Daniel Bögre Udell ES’08
With 1,500 contributors and counting from 70 counties, Wikitongues already plays a major role in this movement. Founded in 2014 by Bögre Udell and his college roommate, Frederico Andrade, the New York-based nonprofit began as an open internet archive of every language in the world. Over 400 languages and dialects have been documented to date on Wikitongues You Tube channel, and the group is helping to lead UNESCO’s 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Contributors on You Tube include María, who speaks Guarani, which in Paraguay shares co-official status with Spanish; Roanne, who speaks Apsáalooke, the language used by roughly 4,000 people of the Crow Nation in southeastern Montana; and Isso, who speaks Lemerig, an Oceanic language that has only a few remaining speakers on Vanua Lava in Vanuatu.
“Although we started as an archival project, we quickly realized we were serving a different purpose,” says Bögre Udell. “People are asking, ‘What can I do to save my language?’ We are here to help people protect and grow their languages and to sustain the communities that speak them.”
Different languages have different needs, and Wikitongues sees itself as a doorway to a range of revitalization strategies. A language that still has thousands of speakers needs to document grammar and capture vocabulary. At the other end of the spectrum, a language truly on the brink of extinction needs a plan for engaging young people and creating social media content.
“We’re not aiming to replace formal linguistics,” Bögre Udell explains. “Our advisory board includes renowned linguists. But there are 6,000 to 8,000 languages estimated to exist around the globe. There simply aren’t enough linguists to work with every language. That’s our mission: to bridge the gaps. We’re about equalizing access to language reclamation. Everyone has the right to their own language, their own culture.”
Bögre Udell trances the roots of his interest back to Zaragoza and SYA, where he discovered he had an ear for languages, despite previous difficulties. “After SYA, I firmly believe that most people who think they are ‘bad’ at languages just haven’t had the opportunity to study one constructively,” he says. Through his history class with Álvaro Ávila de le Torre, Bögre Udell discovered Catalan and decided to study both languages at once. “It was very important to me to establish a life in Zaragoza,” he says. “I was close to my host family and made lots of Spanish friends, so I had plenty of people to practice with. For the first time in my life, I was also exposed to how people politicize language and how it relates to other kinds of bias. Many people discouraged me, and one even said, ‘Don’t learn this language. Catalans are terrible.’”
Bögre Udell returned to Hotchkiss eager to find a way back to Spain. He was awarded a grant for off-campus study during his senior spring and used the funds to live in Barcelona while volunteering for the Republican Left of Catalonia, a pro-independence party aligned with the European Free Alliance in Brussels, which advocates for cultural minorities and linguistic rights.The experience cemented his commitment to language diversity. Entering college at the New School, he pursued a combined BA, BFA and MA degree program in design, technology and history. He also discovered his roommate, Andrade, shared a similar passion for languages. For a time, the two considered designing an online platform—something akin to YouTube or Wikipedia—but concluded it would be too expensive to build and maintain. Instead, they decided to harness the power of shared media to forge connections and spark activism across cultures, countries and distances.
“Saving a language is the work of a community,” says Bögre Udell. “It requires a lifetime or more. Wikitongues can’t do that work, but we can ensure that all people have access to their cultural sovereignty. We can amplify these voices. As we do so, we’re defying the assumption that globalization can’t be inclusive.”