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BASAbali: How the Internet Can Save Local Languages

By Guest Writer on May 28, 2018

balinese digital language

The Balinese Cultural Agency estimates that less than a fourth of Balinese can still speak the Balinese language.  Worldwide it is believed that “by the end of this century, in the next 85 years, we will lose 3500 languages – half of the 7000 languages that are spoken today” due to a number of social, political and economic factors.

Despite all that we know about the benefits and sustainability of diverse ecosystems, we are heading toward a world that is a linguistic monoculture.

The Balinese Language

At BASAbali, a collaboration of scholars and community members trying to revitalize Balinese, a local language of Indonesia, we’re trying to change the way we think about and address local languages:

  • Intervene – and engage others – while there is still a solid base of speakers
  • Use the power of the internet to provide a platform to share knowledge and to make a statement about the relevance of Balinese in today’s digital world
  • Bring people from the local, national and international communities together to leverage their wisdom to reversing the decline of local languages

Our approach is to use two different technologies to document and engage the pubic in becoming part of the effort to strengthen the local language:

  • A video-based dialogue learning program to teach Balinese
  • A Balinese cultural wiki-dictionary

The learning program is part of an ambitious effort by Transparent Language to provide materials for all under-resourced languages.  The platform allows for video-based dialogues to emerge from the community rather than using one standard set of dialogues for all languages.

For the Balinese materials, we brought together local linguists, videographers, and community members to design and develop the materials together with the belief to thrive, we need to engage multiple sectors, disciplines and viewpoints.

The Balinese cultural wiki dictionary/encyclopedia shares this same inclusive multi-perspective philosophy.  It is being developed with semantic media wiki software, the same software behind Wikipedia.

Our Challenges

Like Wikipedia, the Balinese wiki benefits from the collective wisdom of the public.  We’ve had some challenges though:

  • Internet access is spotty or not available,
  • Wiki newbies often feel that they lack the technical skills to contribute (a problem of Wikipedia for the neophyte as well),
  • We often find ourselves hitting the limits of what is possible on the programming end,
  • Users have expressed fear of using Balinese on the internet because of the complexity of its status registers.

Some young techie Balinese have also told us that although they really like the wiki, “it feels weird” to use what is traditionally an oral language in a digital format.

Things are starting to change

We see the emergence of a flattened modern form of Balinese emerging that can be used on the Internet even when users don’t know who is reading their posts and what their relationship is to the readers.  This “social media language” is increasingly being embraced by millennials and (reluctantly) by traditionalists.

Yes, Facebook can revitalise local languages.

Those without sufficient bandwidth or courage are sending us additions to the wiki by email, via social media, or sometimes, by handing us a flash drive, so we’ve needed to increase our capacity to enter what people give us for the wiki rather than solely relying on the public to enter information directly themselves.

Since encyclopedias and dictionaries are not traditionally part of Balinese culture, explaining the wiki as online encyclopedia or dictionary does not always make sense.  So we’ve started using storytelling, comics, word games and other traditional “technologies” as a ramp on to the wiki.

Bali has a rich tradition of political commentary through the use of clown type characters in performance and more recently, through print media. We’re also increasingly trying to involve girls and women, who are very present in Balinese traditional culture but less so in Balinese digital culture.

The wiki is coming along.  In addition to the dictionary part, there are sections for books about Bali, a Who’s Who, traditional manuscripts, modern literature and more.  It was just named as this year’s International Linguapax Award winner, a prize given to “outstanding action carried out in different areas in favour of the preservation of linguistic diversity, revitalization and reactivation of linguistic communities and the promotion of multilingualism.”

With Google analytics, we can easily measure the number of people using the wiki (over 300,000), where they are from (the majority are now from Bali), what pages users access and how often they stay on each page.

We’re equally interested, though, in the deeper impact of the wiki on Bali’s cultural ecosystem.

With the United Nation’s proclamation of 2019 as the International Year of indigenous Languages, we’re trying to access how best to ascertain the impact of our approach on how people value, use, and pass on Balinese to future generations and how to engage even more people in keeping Balinese – and all local languages – strong.

By Alissa Stern, Founding Director of BASAbali

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4 Comments to “BASAbali: How the Internet Can Save Local Languages”

  1. Stephen says:

    Good job on keeping Bali healthy! Your statistics on languages in general considerably overstate the problem. This stat is bouncing around from article to article, but has no strong background.

    See https://www.ethnologue.com/endangered-languages for a concrete and academically robust discussion of the problem, or https://visitingfriends.fierbaugh.org/2015/03/05/language-extinction-vs-ethnologue/ for a simple English explanation.

    From it: “Of the world’s 7,102 languages, only 916 are dying (13%). Languages classified as dying are no longer being passed on naturally to new generations and are doomed without significant outside intervention. Another 1,531 languages are classified as “In Trouble” (22%). These languages are not currently dying out, but long term trends are troubling. About two-thirds of the world’s languages are healthy and either stable or actually growing.”

  2. Alissa Stern says:

    Stephen, you make an excellent point about how difficult it is – even among scholars – to identify what it actually means for a language to be threatened and how to count the number of languages that are considered to be threatened.

    Not everyone uses the same measure. As this piece by Rogers and Campbell points out (https://bit.ly/2H0as44), the “Catalogue of Endangered Languages” utilizes a “Language Endangerment Index (LEI)” to provide “a score for the degree of endangerment each language faces. … Fishman’s (1991) GIDS—“Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale”—has been influential. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (Moseley, 2010) uses its “Language Vitality and Endangerment Framework.” Ethnologue (Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2013) utilizes Lewis and Simons (2010), an extended version of GIDS, called “Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS).”

    According to the Lyle Campell, Director of the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, a list compiled by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and the LINGUIST List at Eastern Michigan University with a grant from the National Science Foundation, “The endangered languages crisis is far greater in magnitude than the threat to endangered species”…. Over 40% of the world’s 7,000 languages are endangered…. More than 100 of the world’s 420 independent language families are already extinct, which means that over 25% of the linguistic diversity of the world is just gone” (https://bit.ly/2IZXG7x).

    UNESCO – basing its calculations in part on the 16th edition of Ethnologue — estimates that at least “43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. This figure does not include the data-deficient languages, for which no reliable information is available. As their exact number is unknown, data-deficient languages are presented together with the safe ones…” (http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/index.php).

    Ethnologue itself says that “[R]oughly a third of languages are now endangered, often with less than 1000 speakers remaining” (https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/how-many-languages).

    Our goal is to keep local languages strong. As you so well explain in your piece (https://bit.ly/2xolmBc): “When a language dies, not just a language, but a history, a culture, a way of life dies. Minority language communities should have the support they need to make a well-informed decision on how they want to deal with their own futures. All languages should be able to fully participate in education, religion, and other aspects of life.”

  3. Alissa,
    The extent to which BASAbali has welcomed and engaged with all aspects of the community, both official and grassroots, is truly impressive. Engagement is what gives tools impact!

    Thanks for mentioning Transparent Language. I love your description of our goal: “provide materials for all under-resourced languages,” even italicizing the “all.” Talk about a stretch goal!

    Our language-specialized tech and support are offered to under-resourced language projects at no charge via 7000.org, should folks want further information.

    • Alissa Stern says:

      Being able to use a platform that can handle non-Western languages and which embraces video and dialogue-based learning has been incredibly helpful to us, as have the countless hours of tech support. Thank you, Michael, for providing these resources to us and other under-resourced languages.

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