From Mexico to Australia, Indigenous youth reimagine the internet for their languages

Illustration by Isela Xospa, under copyright and used by Global Voices with permission.

There are some 7,000 languages in the world, but only 10 dominate the internet. English leads, with 25.9 percent of online content, followed by Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Indonesian, French, Japanese, Russian, and German. Facing this reality, Indigenous youth from Mexico to Australia are carving out spaces for their languages on the web.

Forty percent of all languages are at “some level of endangerment,” according to UNESCO, and Indigenous languages are particularly at risk, as hegemonic languages permeate education, governments, and media worldwide.

On July 13, Indigenous language activists from Mexico and Australia shared strategies during an online talk co-organized by Global Voices and First Languages Australia, with the support of the Embassy of Australia in Mexico.

There are 68 Indigenous languages in Mexico and 250 in Australia, making these countries part of the most diverse linguistic places on the planet, along with Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, and Brazil, to name a few.

“Australia and Mexico are two countries that are the result of colonies and the imposition of a hegemonic language,” said the event's moderator, Isela Xospa, a Nahua Indigenous illustrator. For her, this situation leads to seeing and understanding the world in only one language, which is a huge loss.

“It's very important to understand that the internet is dominated by hegemonic languages. You can access the internet if you know the hegemonic language, but not in your own language,” she said. She argues that this is one of the reasons why youth do not see themselves online and might abandon their language.

Panelists concurred that youth are speaking their ancestral languages less frequently, mainly due to disconnection with their elders. Parents do not know or do not teach their languages to their children as often, leaving the task to grandparents, if they are around.

Joaquín Yescas Martínez, a Zapoteco Xhidza man from Oaxaca, Mexico, explained: “Many parents were afraid of schools; they were punished [for speaking their language] when they were younger in schools. Because of all that fear, many classmates of my generation do not speak their language.”

Making Indigenous languages more ubiquitous online may have a role to play in attracting youth to learn, practice, and lose the shame of speaking their language.

“When young people can see and hear their language being used on popular social media platforms, and shared, and made accessible on the internet, it is encouraging them to seek them out and share their language and culture,” Annalee Pope, a Wakka Wakka woman from Central Queensland, Australia, said.

Yet, it is not only about using Indigenous languages on popular online platforms, but also about imagining news to make the internet their own. For example, Rachel Dikul Baker, a Yolŋu woman from the Northern Territory in Australia, argues for new internet domains that use her Yolŋu Matha language and reflect the Yolŋu philosophy of the kinship system — a set of cultural rules in which children learn their specific relationship to every other Yolŋu and to many elements of the natural world.

“The Yolŋu kinship system is a relation to the land, a relation to what’s within the land, including humans and languages,” she said. “A lot of the disconnections happen because the internet domains are not Yolŋulized; therefore the language learning on the internet is not designed on Yolŋu kinship system.” In her organization, ARDS Aboriginal Corporation, she is helping develop a “Warami language platform that is kinship-based,” she said.

Indigenous language activists from Mexico and Australia shared strategies during an online talk co-organized by Global Voices and First Languages Australia, with the support of the Embassy of Australia in Mexico, on July 13, 2021.

Joaquín, for his part, dreams of free software and social media created by and for Indigenous people, in their own languages. Along with his advocacy for free software, Joaquín co-founded and works for several initiatives designed to spread the use of the Xhidza language. He sees his two passions merge to create new spaces on the internet.

He would like to see an expanding network of digital activists who work to improve internet connection in communities where digital access is scarce but also promote Indigenous “community-based internets” to share information.

“We can create our own social media within [Indigenous] communities and generate more speakers; we can create other internet networks with more content in our language,” he said.

Maya speaker María Lilia Hau Ucan, originally from Kinil, Yucatán, Mexico, expressed hope in seeing youth in Yucatán express themselves creatively in their Indigenous languages through songs, poetry, and other forms of narratives.

“They are making the language their own when writing, which is fantastic. There are also groups of young people who are getting involved in community radios, broadcasting, periodicals, social networks… they are even trying to transmit the language by teaching it through TikToks.”

For example, in Latin America, there are TikTok accounts to learn Nahuat from El Salvador, Maya Kaqchikel from Mexico and Guatemala, Kichwa from Ecuador, and Waorani from Amazonian Ecuador. In general, “Native TikTok“, where youth share Indigenous culture, humor, and demands for Indigenous and land rights, had a boom on the platform. There are also apps to learn Indigenous languages in Mexico and Australia.

Music is another way Indigenous youth are sharing their languages. Rapper Baker Boy raps in his native language, Yolŋu Matha, as well as English, in his song Meditjin, featuring JessB:

Singer Sara Curruchich, from Guatemala, sings in her native Maya Kaqchikel language and in Spanish. She is also a language and human rights advocate promoting Indigenous languages in music. In 2020, she created a playlist on Spotify featuring Indigenous women from all over the world, called Voces de Mujeres Indígenas IXOQI.

“It's a human right for native peoples to speak their language, to express themselves, to socialize, and to not feel ashamed to speak it,” Isela Xospa said.

You can watch the recording of the online talk “Indigenous+Digital: How young people are revitalizing their native languages on the internet” in Spanish.

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