On a Mission to Save Languages From Extinction

Daniel Bogre Udell and Wikitongues are trying to archive languages before they die
November 5, 2018 Updated: November 12, 2018

NEW YORK—There are 800 different languages spoken among New York’s 8.5 million residents, and unfortunately, that number may be decreasing. One man is on a mission to make sure the city and the world don’t lose their linguistic diversity.

The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger states that 230 languages have died since 1950. According to Ethnologue, approximately a third of extant languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers alive today.

When a language becomes extinct, a community collapses. That group loses the ability to speak their mother tongue, and to pass it on to their children. A whole culture is ultimately lost.

“A community loses bonds to their heritage. A community loses the kind of glue that binds them together,” Daniel Bogre Udell, director of Wikitongues, told The Epoch Times.

Learning a Language

Udell is a sixth-generation American. His mother’s family came from Scotland and Hungary, and his father’s side were Ashkenazi Jews. As he was growing up, English was spoken at home in rural Pennsylvania.

When Udell turned 13, he got his first job as a busboy at a local restaurant. Many of his coworkers were Spanish speakers, and Udell made an effort to learn their language. By the time he was 16, he had conversational proficiency in Spanish. Initially, he saw language as just a practical tool.

Daniel Bögre Udell at a conference
(L-R) Daniel Bogre Udell with members of the Odia Wikimedians User Group Sailesh Patnaik, Jnanaranjan Sahu, and Subhashish Panigrahi. (Courtesy of Subhashish Panigrahi)

“I think that at that time, I still understood language as a primarily utilitarian phenomenon, something that could just get us through the day, help us in business, help us in travel,” Udell said. “But like most majority language speakers, I think I still understood language as something to be taken for granted, not something that was necessarily integral to my identity, my culture, who I was.”

During high school, Udell had the opportunity to study abroad in Zaragoza, Spain. Immersed in the Spanish-speaking city, he thought that Spanish was the only language spoken in the country.

Linguistic Diversity

However, when Udell arrived, he discovered that Spain actually has four official languages as well as several unofficial languages.

“My mind was kind of immediately blown and expanded, and I was very, very curious about what the cultural experience of Spain really was,” Udell recalled.

Fortunately, he had a Spanish history teacher who was also passionate about the linguistic diversity of the country. After visiting Barcelona, Udell found himself learning Catalan with the instructor; the two would speak for five minutes a day to practice.

When Udell was a senior in high school, he returned to Spain as an intern for a political party in Barcelona, where he plunged himself into learning Catalan.

Andrade with Udell
(L-R) Namibia community leader Theron Kolokwe with his son and Wikitongues directors Daniel Bogre Udell and Frederico Andrade. (Courtesy of Daniel Bogre Udell/Wikitongues)

As opposed to Zaragoza, Barcelona is a much more international city, so Udell became more involved with minority cultural and language activists throughout Europe. A minority language is spoken by less than half the population in a specific geographical area.

“It was during this time that I fully wrapped my head around the notions that there are 7,000 or more languages spoken in the world today, and that each of them is not just really a utilitarian phenomenon, but something that is really integral to identity, to the experience of culture, and that their preservation and sustainability is really something that we should all support,” Udell explained.

The Tower of Babel

This realization led Udell to embark on an ambitious, noble endeavor. He had recognized a growing movement to preserve the world’s linguistic and cultural heritage, and wanted to be a part of the effort.

Udell began thinking about building an open internet archive of every language in the world, because there wasn’t a place he could go to listen to a certain native tongue. First, he started a YouTube channel of oral histories told in different languages. At the same time, he had been studying at the Parsons School of Design in New York, where he had access to many international students who spoke varied languages.

Daniel Bögre Udell in a class
An Immersion class for the Tunica language, led by Donna Pierite (2nd L) and her daughter Elizabeth (top C). (Courtesy of Daniel Bogre Udell/Wikitongues)

He posted a recording of 10 different languages with a call to action on his YouTube channel to help him document every language in the world, and a handful of people replied.

They began corresponding with each other to develop a plan. After Udell graduated from Parsons, his close friend and eventual co-director Frederico Andrade suggested they take their endeavor more seriously.

Culture and Heritage

By 2016, the duo had a team of over 100 volunteers around the world and became a nonprofit called Wikitongues. Now, they are in 70 countries and have more than 1,000 contributors, including 80 active volunteers and 13 weekly volunteers. The decentralized nature of the organization allows anyone who wants to record and preserve their language to do so.

For instance, there’s a linguist in Texas who is a Sicilian-American interested in the revival movements of Native American languages, so he reaches out to tribes in the Southeast who want to get involved with Wikitongues.

“If you have a phone with a camera, you can record oral histories. And so what that allows is people from very diverse backgrounds to participate. We have volunteers in New York City, and we have volunteers in rural Liberia,” Udell explained.

Udell with volunteers
Daniel Bogre Udell (C) and Frederico Andrade (top R) with Wikitongues volunteers . (Courtesy of Daniel Bogre Udell/Wikitongues)

Many minority languages are spoken in rural or remote areas without internet access, which makes it difficult for those speakers to participate. Udell and speakers overcome this obstacle by using what he calls “Creative Scrappyness.” For instance, a person with internet access can go into a community without service, record their oral histories, and report back to the organization.

Udell emphasized that language loss is not a natural culmination of progress. During the last 200 years, nations have spent a tremendous amount of effort to eradicate cultural minorities. One of the methods was to compel people to speak one national language, and punish them for speaking their minority language.

“When we look at language endangerment around the world, there’s nothing natural about this process. The threats to linguistic diversity being posed now are a direct result of the past 200 years of injustice,” Udell argued.

Udell and Andrade
(L-R) Head volunteer leader Kristen Tcherneshoff, Daniel Bogre Udell, and Frederico Andrade. (Courtesy of Daniel Bogre Udell/Wikitongues)

For Udell, preserving languages has a larger, global impact importance beyond maintaining culture and heritage.

“The wisdom of humanity does not come from our homogeneity, but from our diversity. And so by surrendering to the idea of language loss as inevitable, we’re depriving future generations of wisdom that we don’t yet know about.”

To find out more about Wikitongues, or to contribute, visit. www.wikitongues.org