Daniel Bögre Udell &Kristen Tcherneshoff

New York (Operating globally)

Project Overview

Language diversity is in peril: today some 7,000 languages are spoken and signed around the world, but acute challenges facing linguistic communities—from forced assimilation to political exclusion—could make 3,000 of those languages fall silent by the end of this century. Such a loss would take a tragic toll upon our collective spiritual, cultural, and ecological knowledge. In response, Wikitongues seeks to build a “language revitalization accelerator” that gives marginalized people resources to launch mother-tongue projects in their communities. By equipping individuals to document, teach, and promote their languages, the project strengthens intergenerational heritage, cultivates self-expression, and builds community resilience. Research shows, for example, that language revitalization promotes better mental health and stronger outcomes in early childhood education. And because Indigenous languages encode expressions reflecting delicate ecosystems, sustaining threatened languages directly supports biodiversity and resource conservation. Through interlocking strategies of language documentation, revitalization, and activism, Wikitongues shows how promoting language justice can forge needed connections for people and the planet. “In preserving and understanding what makes us different,” noted Wikitongues cofounder Daniel Bögre Udell, “we may come to understand what makes us the same.”

Five Questions

1What needs does your project address and how?

About 7,000 languages are spoken and signed today, but 3,000 languages could disappear in a generation, erasing half of humanity’s cultural, historical, and ecological knowledge. However, language extinction is not inevitable: with the right resources, adults can learn their heritage languages, teach their children, and raise new native speakers, keeping their cultures alive. To reverse the trend of language extinction, Wikitongues safeguards endangered languages, expands access to mother-tongue resources, and directly supports language revitalization.

2Tell us about a moment that helped inspire your idea.

Daniel built Wikitongues because he’s personally impacted by language revitalization. He grew up with remnants of Yiddish, a language that was driven into decline by genocide. However, he never felt empowered to own his culture until he saw other people do it. In 2009, he moved to Barcelona, where he learned to speak Catalan, a successfully revitalized language. There, the relationship between language and cultural sovereignty came into sharp focus. For Kristen, working with a women’s pro-bono law firm in Tanzania was revealing: the majority of women she worked with spoke Indigenous languages, yet they were expected to defend themselves via a colonial language. Those moments led Kristen to consider the imposed language hierarchy and the importance of language sovereignty.

3What is the biggest challenge you face right now?

Language revitalization is central to building the future. Strong language diversity improves early childhood education, expands economic opportunity, accelerates environmental conservation, and drives scientific research. And yet. The language extinction crisis, and the many efforts to mitigate it, remain largely unknown outside academic and core activist circles. Our greatest challenge is reaching the general public and explaining why language revitalization matters—to globalization, to justice, and to our relationship with the natural world.

4What other leaders have informed your work?

When Daniel was in high school, he saw the anthropologist Wade Davis give a version of his 2003 Ted Talk, “Dreams from Endangered Cultures.” That was when he first learned about the scope, scale, and sheer wonder of linguistic diversity, as well as the looming catastrophe of language extinction. More recently in 2018, he met Donna Pierite from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, a pivotal figure in the Tunica language’s reawakening. It takes a unique clarity of foresight to initiate the generational process of keeping one’s language alive. Daniel wanted to make the lessons from Donna’s work accessible to everyone.

5Describe a participant, client, community member, or someone else who represents what your project is all about.

Windy Goodloe is a member of the Black Seminole community of Texas and Coahuila. Their language, Afro-Seminole Creole, is the expression of a vast, transatlantic history, the convergence of West African languages, Indigenous Muskogean languages, 17th century English, and Spanish. Today, only a few dozen people speak Afro-Seminole Creole, the result of forced assimilation in the 1960s. But Windy is bringing her culture back. After helping to launch a museum of Black Seminole history, she joined Wikitongues to reawaken Afro-Seminole Creole, bringing together the last native speakers and heritage learners who want to reclaim their language for the next generation.

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