Fall 2021 Fellow: Raksit Lau-Preechathammarach
Language endangerment is an urgent issue in the present day, with over 40% of the world’s languages at risk of having no more speakers within the next century. Carrying out language revitalization requires a multipronged approach and collaboration between a diverse group of stakeholders. In this paper, we will focus on one such prong involving the use of digital technology as a tool in the revitalization of the Meeramuni language, an endangered Southern Ryukyuan language spoken in Japan.
Digital technology, while relatively recent, has been invaluable in the world of education due to the ease of access and with which resources can constantly revised and updated. Usage of the Internet, web-based applications, and smartphones is particularly popular among young people, a key demographic for the success of language revitalization. As transmission of language to younger generations is vital for a language to continue to be used, digital technology provides an opportunity to draw younger users’ interest in their ancestral language through the usage of interactive and dynamic material.
The current project harnesses digital technology through the creation of an interactive website for learning Meeramuni through the collaboration of multiple stakeholders, including community members, linguists, artists, and coders. The website consists of a number of language learning tools: language lessons for vocabulary, grammar, and conversation, stories and media for contextual learning, interactive games for reviewing material, and resources, including a dictionary, conjugation tables, and a sound correspondence tool that draws upon users’ knowledge of Japanese to strengthen associations with Meeramuni and aid in the learning process. A key dimension to the website is the emphasis on culturally appropriate material for language learning, rather than a one-size-fits-all model that fails to capture cultural nuance.
In developing this website, we employed a communicative approach to teaching Meeramuni. In order to enhance new speakers’ communicative competence, we designed lessons using principles of inductive learning, in which users are encouraged to combine their prior knowledge with contextual cues while learning material. In this way, stronger associations are formed and learning is done through pattern recognition and application, rather than through translation and rote memorization. Following each lesson, users may access reference materials and resources that explicitly explain grammatical patterns and vocabulary, in order to check the hypotheses they formed during inductive learning and to reinforce what they learned.
Another goal of this project is to create a resource that is easily expandible by those who want to contribute to the Meeramuni website and reproducible by those who wish to adapt the skeleton of the website to teach another language. To this end, the code for the website materials is public and will be accompanied by a user’s guide explaining how to use the code templates. The code is meant to be accessible both to newcomers to website coding and to more advanced coders. The former group may change the bare minimum, which will be highlighted for easy change, while the latter group will be able to customize the website as they see fit.
Ultimately, this project contributes to the dearth of digital materials for endangered languages and demonstrates how an emphasis on collaboration, sharing of data, and reproducibility can provide a scalable solution to the challenge of language revitalization.
Figure: Front page of Meeramuni language website: https://meeramuni.github.io/sakishima/
The full paper will be submitted for publication.