THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE
We are all impoverished when a living language disappears. Language is the method by which we convey not only words, but emotions, values and social practices. Languages are both one of the most important carriers of cultural diversity and the tools that have evolved for handling different systems of knowledge and world views. 96% of the languages of the planet are spoken by only 4% of its peoples, but now one minority language dies with its last speaker every 10 days. Within the next fifty years, over half of humanity’s 6,700 living languages are slated to disappear – a linguistic catastrophe. The death of a language represents the disappearance of a cultural identity, of its traditions, the distinctiveness of individuals, relationships and the groups to which they belong. Meanwhile both the Internet and current computer tools are biased against minority language content, let alone oral cultures, implicitly carrying a message of colonial superiority.
The digital revolution, rather than creating a “global village”, accelerates the worldwide cultural demise. Digital ‘information and communication technologies’ using majority languages developed by, and for, the large urban power blocks are inappropriate for indigenous peoples. Those solutions undermine minority cultures by inherently carrying messages of Western cultural superiority, mental models, mores and aspirations. Too often, the teaching of ICT skills in developing countries follows the perception of education as ‘filling empty vessels’.
Initiatives to create orthographies, lexicons or phrase books for a few of the thousands of endangered languages are pitifully resourced and risk changing the oral nature of a culture. The ICT solution delivered is usually PC-based, presupposing that the traditional knowledge, practices and traditions of an oral culture could be accessed through a text keyboard by the trained elite of community youth sitting in a special computer centre.
A list of the ideal ICT characteristics suited for indigenous use might include: low power; low device cost; low connection costs, i.e. asynchronous as well as synchronous communication; mobile, usable both in the home and traditional places, but also location-aware; voice-centric, supporting any local language; a variety of access devices that are customizable for different cultural contexts and usage models; inclusive, i.e. not just for the elite, also elders, youth, male and female; easy-to-use, but also easy-to-manage by the community; private networks with secure knowledge bases; multi-faceted, role-based access models reflecting cultural practices.
More than half the planet’s cultures are held by less than 5% of its population. These 370M indigenous peoples are the most marginalized and dispossessed. As indigenous communities are displaced from their traditional homelands, their societies are disenfranchised and diluted, co-opted by the cash economy, technology and their accompanying dominant value systems. In 50 years over one half of the world’s cultures will be gone forever, representing half of humanity’s source of alternative world views, values and belief systems. The cultural diversity that sparks human creativity is disappearing much faster than the planet's diversity of plants and animals. It is cruelly ironic that those least responsible for global warming or economic crises are the most vulnerable to their impact.
This represents a cataclysmic loss of millennia of culture, wisdom and knowledge. Such precious heritage is an irreplaceable resource for a planet threatened by urban monocultures and their economies of scale, environmental challenges, greed, competition and the increasing gap between rich and poor. The fast-vanishing cultural mosaic contains knowledge of fragile environments, the custodians of biodiversity, unique models of cooperative living, other approaches to education, health and well being, irreplaceable skills, artistry and ancient wisdom.
With more than half of the world’s population now living in cities and two billion predicted to be in shantytown misery by 2030, the whole of humanity increasingly needs this living resource of alternatives. Humanity’s challenge is therefore how to moderate the forces driven by a single bottom-line, to nurture and celebrate the right to be different in a society of multiculturalism rather than assimilation.
Too many outsiders have studied indigenous cultures academically, rather than helping the insiders value their living culture and build their own community capacity. Archival projects do not help - cultures are lived, enacted and dynamically evolve, they cannot be ‘preserved’. Neither the collection of physical artifacts, nor the preservation of monuments, nor recordings of its stories will preserve a culture. Rather, the paradigm should be participatory- for communities to debate for themselves their developmental choices or interactions with the outside world, making decisions that are informed: both by an understanding of the new options, opportunities or threats brought by globalization and by their core values, beliefs and cultural strengths.
A UNESCO objective is the identification and preservation of the best of the world’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’, including the proclamation of ‘Living Human Treasures’: musicians, poets, elders or expert storytellers. Whilst participating national states do offer programs to help preserve their intangible heritage, few try to exploit new digital means to engage all members of a culture around their oral heritage.
Initiatives ‘for’ the developing world have understandably focused on urgent basic human needs, rarely even acknowledging minority languages or cultural traditions. This approach is not self-sustaining, being based on a false dichotomy: it is the capacity to aspire which ultimately nurtures the collective creativity, energy and will to survive. Sustainable diversity means that tangible development in terms of people’s material well-being should go hand-in-hand with intangible development of spiritual and intellectual well-being, rooted in identity.