The Current

Google Earth project about Indigenous languages feels like 'tourism,' scholar says

A new Google Earth project aims to celebrate Indigenous languages, but Canadian scholar Jennifer Wemigwans is less than impressed. She tells us why we need better tools to preserve and revitalize endangered tongues.

Tech companies could do more to save endangered languages, Jennifer Wemigwans says

A new project lets Google Earth users hear over 50 Indigenous languages from across the globe. (Google)

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A recently launched Google Earth project, which aims to celebrate endangered Indigenous languages, feels "kind of like cultural tourism," a Canadian scholar says.

Jennifer Wemigwans said the digital map, which allows users to click and hear more than 50 Indigenous language speakers, did not go far enough and big tech companies could do a lot more to save endangered languages.

"It was very short. It was, you know, kind of like: 'Who are you, and can you tell us what this language is, and [sing] a song.' And that was it," said Wemigwans, an assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

The project, called Celebrating Indigenous Languages, was commissioned to coincide with the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages. It includes seven languages from Canada.

Dolores Greyeyes Sand, one of the Canadian participants, is a Plains Cree language teacher in Saskatchewan. 

She told CBC News she was glad the recordings would be there for her grandchildren, and even her great-grandchildren.

"It lets the world know that yes, they're here, and they have their own ways, and language, and culture, and traditions and worldview, which are as valid as any other language group in the world."

Dolores Greyeyes Sand, a Plains Cree language teacher, contributed to the project. (Google)

Wemigwans — who is Anishnaabekwe (Ojibwe/Potawatomi) from Wikwemikong First Nation — agreed that the project helps to raise awareness.

"But what I'm curious about, too, is that in raising awareness, does it just become, then, a memorial? Or can we go beyond," she asked The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

Raleigh Seamster, senior program manager with Google Earth Outreach, said there's hope the project will grow, if more people are interested in adding their own languages. 

"We're really hoping that people around the world can really begin to appreciate the contribution these languages make to global diversity, and think about the languages in their own area," Seamster told CBC News, following the launch of the project last week.

She added that each location includes information about "organizations that work on the ground to preserve these languages," as well as how users "could support them locally." 

But Wemigwans says there are few organizations devoted to preserving languages in general.

Users of Google Earth are now able to hear over 50 Indigenous language speakers from across the globe saying words and simple phrases and even singing traditional songs. 2:08

More consultation needed 

Wemigwans, who specializes in the convergence of Indigenous knowledge and new media technologies, says tech companies could be doing more to preserve and revitalize endangered tongues.

While the Google Earth project uses cutting-edge technology to present and preserve these language snippets, a simpler model would allow Indigenous communities to create their own digital archives.

"Look at the bare bones of what is needed to create a useful mobile language app, and then create a template that then everyone from different communities could upload their own words," she suggested.

She noted that some of the Indigenous communities she has worked with don't have access to iPhones, and would require software that worked on more basic models and devices.

Wemigwans said that she herself has struggled while trying to read to her son in Anishinaabemowin.

"I killed the language because I was using English pronunciations to make out the sounds of the word," she told McCue.

An app curated by the communities themselves, which includes sound clips of correct pronunciations, would overcome that problem, she said.

"It would mean doing some consultation with communities and doing some consultation with people like myself who have developed projects in the past, and then trying to work a way to create a template that's open and free."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from Rhiannon Johnson. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.