Skip to content
Home » Blog (hidden) » “Creating Online Resources for Language Revitalization”

“Creating Online Resources for Language Revitalization”

Above photo: Interview with Former Headmaster of Boro School, 2018. Fieldwork for Archive for Northeast Indian Languages.

By Christina Wasson

The United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to “focus global attention on the critical risks confronting indigenous languages” and to “increase the capacity of all stakeholders to take measures that will support, access and promote indigenous languages in accordance with the legitimate rights of the people who speak them.”In this post I describe my work with online language archives, one type of tool that can contribute to language revitalization efforts.

As internet technologies became increasingly accessible in the early 2000s, online language archives began to spring up as resources to support language preservation and revitalization, as well as to provide data on lesser-known languages for linguistic analysis. Such language archives are repositories of recordings, transcripts, and translations in a selected set of languages. They usually include linguistic analyses of the languages, and may also contain various kinds of cultural data, such as field notes, photos, and recordings of music. Well-known language archives include AILLA, ELAR,TLA, and PARADISEC.

Most larger language archives were created by linguists, and were typically designed with linguists as the primary user group. However, they are often considered cumbersome to use, and not many linguists draw on them as a source of research data. Members of indigenous groups also tend to have a hard time navigating them. Online resources created by indigenous communities for their own needs look quite different (for instance, the Miami-Illinois Digital Archive and Myaamia Dictionary).

Since 2016, I have been bringing the world of language archives into dialogue with the field of user-centered design, with the goal of helping language archives become more accessible and useful to both indigenous communities and linguists. I am still in the research phase; the planned outcome is a set of guidelines for the user-centered design of language archives.

To initiate this dialogue, I co-organized an NSF-funded workshop in 2016 that brought together representatives of key stakeholder groups to map the terrain. Next, I embarked on collaborations with two groups developing language archives. One archive is for Tibeto-Burman languages of Northeast India; so far, I have worked with the Lamkang and Anal communities in Manipur, and the Dimasa and Boro in Assam. The other archive is a collaboration with the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations in British Columbia, part of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations. Findings from these research efforts, including white papers and publications, are available on the research page of my professional website as well as the website User-Centered Design of Language Archives.

While my research is still ongoing, here are some insights that have emerged regarding the needs of indigenous communities around online archives:

  • The cultural logic of language archives is profoundly shaped by Western science, in particular the fields of archiving and linguistics. The more a language archive adheres to predetermined definitions of what kinds of materials it should contain and how those materials should be organized, the less it is user-centered for indigenous communities.
  • Indigenous communities often don’t draw a hard line between linguistic information and cultural information, so it may make sense to reformulate a “language archive” as a “language and culture archive.” Communities worried about losing aspects of their language are typically also worried about losing traditional knowledge and cultural practices.
  • The needs of indigenous communities may be radically different from the needs of linguists. A language archive that aspires to serve both types of users may need to have separate portals/interfaces for each group.
  • If an indigenous community’s language was historically not written, its orthography may still be under development, and/or more than one writing system may exist. A preliminary need may be the development of a standardized orthography. Written materials are only useful if community members can read them.
  • By the same token, a community may have a need for pedagogical materials to help teach members how to read and/or speak their language. Data in language archives are often formatted for use by linguists and other researchers, rather than for language learning.
  • Technology constraints of indigenous groups need to be considered in the design of a language archive. For instance, in NE India few people have computers, but many have smartphones. Such constraints can be addressed by, for instance, creating a user-friendly mobile interface and offering downloadable documents.
  • Since younger community members are often more comfortable with technology than older ones, they may be the primary audience for an online archive. Community members in diaspora may be another audience.

My understanding of language archives is informed by an awareness of colonial histories, and a recognition of the role played by colonial administrations in contributing to language loss in indigenous communities. In an effort to move away from the wrongs of the past, my research and applied activities draw on two key strands of scholarship: work on indigenous research methods (in particular, appropriate modes of collaboration for non-indigenous researchers) and work on indigenous data sovereignty. Examples of the former are books by Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Margaret Kovach. An excellent recent work on indigenous data sovereignty is Good Data, edited by Angela Daly, S. Kate Devitt, and Monique Mann.

Christina Wasson is professor of anthropology at the University of North Texas. She is a linguistic anthropologist and has also worked in the field of design and user experience for many years. For more information, see

From JLA:

The Co-Editors of JLA would like to bring to your attention select articles addressing the themes of indigeneity and archival work in the study of language and culture. Feliciano-Santos considers the interdiscursive work of language activists who advocate for a variety lacking a spoken form; Hill describes and critiques the ideologies mediating some work in endangered language advocacy; and, in the next issue of JLA, Hosemann reflects on the affordances of AILLA, the digital Archives of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, for differently positioned actors.

-Feliciano-Santos, Sherina. 2017. How Do You Speak Taíno? Indigenous Activism and Linguistic Practices in Puerto Rico. JLA 27(1): 4-21. Article link
-Hill, Jane H. 2002. “Expert Rhetorics” in Advocacy for Endangered Languages: Who Is Listening and What Do They Hear? JLA 12(2): 119-133. Article link
-Hosemann, Aimee J. forthcoming. Constructing a Decentered Archival Method: AILLA Recordings and Wanano/Kotiria Kaya Basa “Sad Songs.” JLA 29 (2).