Mariana Carneiro
Author Mariana Carneiro

Localization: Making a Positive Impact for Endangered Languages

November 12 2019 | Localization

In 2019, we observe the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019), an effort to promote and protect indigenous languages and the people who speak them. In light of that, I will open this blog post by acknowledging that, as I write it, I stand on indigenous land: the traditional territory of Coast Salish peoples.

Evidence of this heritage is all around us here in Washington – Seattle, Lake Sammamish, Issaquah, and so many other names, places, and traditions – but over the years, many of us have become estranged from our indigenous roots. The numbers reflect that: the UN report on endangered languages shows that there are roughly 7 thousand languages worldwide, and although that may seem like a large amount, half of the world’s population speaks only the largest 16 languages, such as English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. In contrast, while the indigenous population adds up to 6% of the world’s population, they speak – and therefore are the sole guardians of – the majority of all known languages. This imbalance means that 2680 of the world’s languages are in danger of extinction, and most of those are indigenous.

So, standing from this historical distance, you may ask yourself, ‘How is this relevant to Blueprint Localization’? In the world of technology and coding, what role do indigenous languages play? What could JavaScript, Python, and C++ possibly have in common with Sioux, Yanomami, and Nahuatl?

The answer to that is very simple and straight-forward: these are all languages, codes with limitless possibilities that help us make sense of the world, communicate and connect. They are the tools to create universes, shape things and, most importantly, give them meaning. While code languages build pixelated worlds for us to discover through computer screens or VR headsets, human languages build the lexicon and lay the pathways in our brains so we can make sense of everything around us.

Both these types of languages, when combined, allow us to transform our world. The connection between language and technology dates back to ancient times. Had we never been able to communicate effectively, we would have never built pyramids, made swords, or invented mills – all of which have been central to human survival and cultural development. During World War II, for example, the use of language and technology was instrumental in leading the Allies toward victory. The US Marine Corps recruited bilingual Navajo and other indigenous language speakers to encrypt and decrypt messages with classified tactical information. Without them, history could have taken a different turn. 

But just as language changes our world, so do we change languages through use and time – new words can be created, foreign words can be adopted, and unused words can completely fade away. Languages can be mixed and combined. And humans have roamed the world far and long enough that languages – and with them the cultures and identities they hold – have blended all over the globe. As one of the main conquering nations in modern history, Portugal, for instance, carried its language across oceans to territories in South America, Africa, and Asia. The modern outcome is that now Portuguese can be found in many versions: its original European version, the most recent versions spoken in Angola, Macau, and other African and Asian nations, and finally, Brazilian Portuguese – my native language. Although people from any of these regions may be able to clearly communicate in Portuguese without the need for a translator, the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese, for example, are vast and deep. Take the word guri, which is often used in the south of Brazil to refer to a young boy. It derives from guirii, a word from the Tupi Guarani language meaning ‘tender and soft,’ and cannot be found in European Portuguese. The combination of African and Indigenous languages spoken in colonial Brazil produced a nation, a culture, and a dialect of its own.

As a translator, it is often challenging to find equivalents for names of fruits, plants, and animals in other languages. And that is not only because those can be particular to a certain region, but also because the words we use to name them more often than not derive from indigenous words – a statement to their vast expertise of the land, its creatures, and its bounty: yagwati'rika (jaguatirica/ocelot), suruku'kutinga (sururucu/bushmaster snake), tukuna'ré (tucunaré/butterfly peacock bass), iwa'kati (abacaxi/pineapple), mãdi’og (mandioca/cassava or yuca), mara kuya (maracujá/passion fruit), and many more.

Not surprisingly, however, accents and regional vocabulary used in Brazil are often attributed to the corresponding European immigrants who settled in those regions centuries ago: Germans in Santa Catarina, Italians in São Paulo, and the French in Rio de Janeiro, for instance. And although that is inarguably true, a deeper look into these regional accents will reveal that they also reflect the plurality of the Indigenous peoples that make us. Having had the unique opportunity to travel across all of Brazil for three months, I was able to witness the richness of our diversity in person. And it was a timely reminder to observe and honor all the roots that build the fabric of our nation – roots that are imprinted not only in our speech, but also in our skin, in our faces, in our resilience, in our relationship with nature and our knowledge of its gifts, in our music, in our traditions… in everything that makes our identity as Brazilians. Protecting this legacy means protecting our past, our present, and our future.

Blueprint Localization currently supports Brazilian Portuguese, in addition to European Portuguese and 19 other languages. By providing localized content, we are ensuring that products can be shared all over the world while preserving the heritage and idiosyncrasies of the target locales since the products have been  customized to be used and enjoyed by people who share that culture, that language, that code. There is immeasurable value in being able to do that at a time when so many languages are disappearing. Technology presents us with an opportunity to connect the world while keeping it as rich and diverse as it is. Let’s seize this opportunity to celebrate our heritage and its ancient wisdom, our history and its complex knowledge systems, our collective individuality and unique understanding of the world.

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