Global Language Justice in the Digital Sphere

One of the keystones of the Global Language Justice Sawyer-Seminar was Dr. Isabelle Zaugg’s course, Global Language Justice in the Digital Sphere, offered in spring of 2018, 2019, and 2022. The students’ final projects were particularly rich and in-depth explorations of the topic of GLJ, which highlight the multi-faceted nature of this field. The students’ projects spanned topics as diverse as font design, the tragic realities of minority oppression, and the responsibilities and societal roles of tech corporations. 

Scripts, Health Literacy, and Language Empowerment

One student, Chelsy Wu, created a new digital font for the Nüshu script. Initially developed by women of Jiangyong County in Hunan Province, China, it is the first and only known gendered script in the world. The script was created and used exclusively by women who were forbidden formal education for many centuries, and passed on from mother to daughter. Highly stylized, written vertically and right to left, Nüshu characters are syllabic, unlike Chinese characters, which are logograms. The Nüshu script was encoded in Unicode 10.0 in 2017, an important first step for digital support.  The next key support is a font, which provides devices a means to display text in that script. Chelsy shared her research methods in designing the Nüshu font and the challenges she faced, due to the script’s calligraphic nature and the fact that the last original writer, Yang Huanyi, died in 2004. Chelsy has made her font freely available on her website.

Another student, Kayla Schiffer, explored the intersections of digital literacy, health literacy, and language literacy.  While, as Kayla argues, the world of digital health is relatively new, it is therefore all the more important to focus on issues of global language justice as the field grows. She highlights that while limited English proficiency (LEP) has long been a barrier to provider-patient relations, limited health proficiency (LHP) is an additional communication barrier. Her work illustrated that the advent of digital healthcare, for example through Electronic Health Records (EHRs), further compounds the provider-patient gap by placing higher demands on patients with LEP orLHP, or who speak a language that is digitally-disadvantaged. In the current provider-client setting, patients who lack domain knowledge are also forced to be able to digitally navigate their own health records. Kayla argues that while FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) thus represent an international, centralized, digital health system, language is relegated to individual community translation efforts, which run into many barriers.  In turn, she addressed the challenges faced by ad hoc medical translators who lack domain knowledge in healthcare, and an effort to fill this gap through a medical translation app built by Bill Tan and his company Transcendent Endeavors. Kayla’s research highlighted how the present system of international digital healthcare often falls short of addressing gaps in provider-patient interaction. More work needs to be done, particularly in combining language translation resources with technical domain knowledge. 

Shifting gears from the role of language in the health-tech sector, we turn to what Kyra Ann Dawkins identifies as the 4R’s of the African-American language experience: language Reparation, Reappropriation, Reclamation, and Restoration. Like a rose that grew out of concrete, the beauty and tenacity of African-American English (AAE) is juxtaposed with the tension that the language (and NOT a dialect, as Kyra argues) faces from being historically devalued and stigmatized. AAE has its own set of rules and grammars, such as the habitual “be.” It is this rule that allows us to say things like “it be like that sometime” when we face difficulties. She emphasized that framing AAE instead as “African-American Language” emphasizes that it is an African language with English influences, thus emphasizing its African roots. Kyra uses the Gullah language as an example of African-American language development. Historically, the Gullah language was seen as a “crude” dialect of English. However, extensive research has shown that it is in fact a separate language that draws on a number of African languages. Finally, when exploring the topic of language restoration, Kyra dives into modern ancestry technologies such as 23andMe. These technologies, Kyra argues, which identify “genetic roots,” could also offer African-Americans an opportunity to embrace and learn the languages of their ancestors.  This interest in African languages, Kyra suggests, could in turn help renew pride in these languages on the African continent, as well as be a force for the production of better digital supports for digitally-disadvantaged languages. From Tupac to Gullah Gullah Island to 23andMe, Kyra’s project effectively traces the interplay of language with the historical forces of slavery and colonialism, and opens new horizons of Reparation, Reappropriation, Reclamation, and Restoration.

History and Politics of Languages

Three students focused their investigations on minority language histories and policies within the global geopolitical sphere. Tatarstan, Russia is home to a wealth of natural resources (particularly natural gas) and Russia’s biggest minority group: Tatars. Dante Matero investigated the current and long-standing oppression (particularly linguistic) of the Tatars, who are at risk of linguistic and cultural loss. Dante’s project focused on the history of the Tatar people and language, particularly multiple shifts in script, and the power dynamics that led Tatar to become a “kitchen language” while Russian began to serve as the language of economic mobility and instruction. However, the Russian government’s top-down opposition is also fueling a resurgence in nationalist mobilization amongst ethnic minority groups, and young Tatars are attempting linguistic revival through grassroots efforts such as viral rap videos to gain currency and traction amongst the youth.  

Ziyi Xiong, our visiting student from China, gave a presentation titled “Educational policies on Languages in China.” He examined minority language policies in China, identifying the various scripts per language, and the opportunity to use these scripts on digital platforms as well as in the classroom.  He highlighted China’s rich script and language diversity, as well as the policies the government has implemented to make these languages digitally vital. 

In 2019, the same year that the UN has declared the International Year of Indigenous Languages, a top politician calls for Taiwan to make English a national language and Taiwan a Chinese-English bilingual society by 2030. In a country that is rich with Indigenous languages, why should English, a bully language, be given official status? Daniel Pai highlighted how the current ruling party in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), aims to simultaneously promote both Indigenization and Internationalization.  Daniel’s research focused on the educational and social changes that may occur in Taiwan as a result of the inclusion of English in the educational domain. Through interviews with Taiwanese teachers, Daniel shared how Indigenous language community members and advocates believe a focus on English would only drain educational time and resources from Indigenous language learning. He also touched on evidence that using children’s mother tongue as language of instruction increases comprehension and attainment of additional languages later in their education. In essence, local languages and English should not be pitted against each other, or English given the upper hand; rather, education in the former should only enhance acquisition of the latter. 

Tech Companies and Social Media

The last three students explored the field of GLJ through research on tech companies and social media practices. As increasingly important avenues to communicate and learn another language, tech companies hold ever-increasing power over digital affordances and traffic. In today’s age, it is hard to have a discussion concerning digital practices without mentioning the companies that control digital platforms. Kyra’s nuanced argument on the relationship between African-American Language and Standard English was the perfect segue to Amulya Tadimety’s presentation on the complicated relationship between Tagalog and English.   As we increasingly see online, code-switching has gone digital. The Filipino language Tagalog is quite well-supported digitally, yet “Taglish,” or the phenomenon of mixing Tagalog with English, defines a major part of the Filipino Twitter subculture. In her case study, Amulya traced the colonial history of the Philippines, the country’s bilingualism, and the power dynamics at play in the Filipino diaspora in order to dissect “Taglish” and its origins. She found that patterns within Taglish tweets, i.e. in which a tweet starts in English and ends in Tagalog, upend received wisdom within the field of linguistics about code-switching.  Her insightful hypothesis is that the Twitter interface, written in English, prompts users to begin their thoughts in English, but then users quickly turn to Tagalog for the punchline of their joke or comment. 

Another student, Krithika Kuppusamy, also analyzed the Twitterverse. In South Asia, English is the lingua-franca, uniting the ethnically and racially diverse subcontinent through the linguistic remnants of colonization. Building on Kornai and Simons’ work on measuring the digital vitality of languages, her hypothesis questioned their scheme for measuring digital use of a language. As a result, her exploration expanded beyond counting Wikipedia article entries to capturing Twitter data in the 16 South Asian languages that Twitter’s algorithm identified. Collecting 16,740 tweets through Twitter’s API, she plotted the tweet frequency against the language, the population of L1 speakers, and the EGIDS value to see if there was a correlation between number of tweets and speakers and a correlation between digital use and EGIDS value. Surprisingly, her results indicate that the data was heavily skewed toward Hindi tweets, making it the only language that would be classified as “thriving” under Kornai and Simons’ definition. Additionally, she found that EGIDS did not have a perfect correlation with digital use. She also created a digital map of South Asia and plotted data points depicting regions where particular languages are spoken and the frequency of tweets in each language.

Taewan Shim’s presentation analyzed the popular language learning platform Duolingo. Taewan examined the business model of Duolingo, questioning whether Duolingo, as it is designed now, could promote the acquisition of digitally-disadvantaged or endangered languages while meeting its profit goals.  Although Duolingo is advertised as an easy and effective way to pick up diverse languages while playing a “game,” Taewan demonstrated that it is a product primarily designed for an American audience that heavily favors high English-proficiency. Taewan’s recommendations to help Duolingo promote disadvantaged languages included incentives for volunteers in Duolingo incubators (i.e. languages that are under beta testing and not released to the public yet), partnerships with universities that teach effective educational models, and a merger or partnership with Google Translate in order to gain access to more minority language datasets.  

Spring 2018 

Students in the spring 2018 GLJ class also developed powerful final projects, and some continue to explore GLJ themes in extracurricular contexts.  Zoha Qamar investigated both the political history of language and script differentiation in South Asia, as well as the way in which the development of Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools can help support digitally-disadvantaged languages.  Heidi Hahyoung Park identified Youtube as one of the most vital domains for digitally-disadvantaged language content, due to the fact that video bypasses the challenges associated with inputting and displaying text in minority languages and scripts.  While Youtube’s mission encompasses serving global communities, Heidi proposed a number of measures Youtube could take to make its platform more linguistically inclusive and financially accessible for content creators from all over the world, who might not be able to access financial goods like credit cards. 

Madeleine Leddy, inspired by her simultaneous thesis research on French- and Arabic-language Moroccan literature, decided to dive into the digital side of this particular linguistic landscape, while also exercising her budding passion for graphic design.  After exploring the online presences of Morocco’s most-used languages—which include not only Arabic and French, but also a variety of indigenous languages, including Amazigh, Tachelhit (or “Chleuh”), and Tarifit—she honed in on the latter group’s shared script, the Tifinagh alphabet, as a potential workspace. Largely underrepresented online (especially compared to Arabic and French), the Tifinagh script was, at the time Madeleine undertook her project, encoded in the Unicode registry but available in only 18 fonts (as compared to several tens of thousands for the Latin script used to write this paragraph). Starting with a few sketches and a fat dossier of research on Amazigh written culture, Madeleine was quickly bitten by the type-design bug, and ended up designing, and making available for free download, this font, inspired by the Dutch Typothèque type foundry’s multi-script, Arabic-compatible Fedra font.  Madeleine is currently designing a website for what she hopes will take the form of a multi-script font-publishing project or foundry.  You can see the skeleton of her website, and follow its evolution, here.

Emma Yee Yick wrote her final project on specific examples of Indigenous storytelling practices and their compatibility with the current digital affordances of online platforms.  She found that while digital platforms do offer an opportunity for Indigenous storytelling to be shared with community members across time and distance, digital affordances must be adapted to the specific needs of communities.  For example, if a particular story is only told at a certain time of year to a particular audience, then a digital platform would have to account for these variables in terms of when it makes content available and to whom. Continuing to explore her GLJ interests as an Editorial Fellow at the Malala Fund’s Assembly publication, Emma recently interviewed Indigenous Guatemalan singer-songwriter Sara Curruchich about her role in elevating her community’s language and culture through her work.

In summation, all of Dr. Zaugg’s GLJ students explored important and diverse aspects of language histories, technologies, communication practices, and policies across the globe. These research projects highlighted linguistic inequalities in sectors that we often do not consciously realize involve language and power. Often, from the privilege of knowing a digitally well-supported and thriving language such as English, we ignore linguistic barriers in digital health records or challenges faced during language acquisition for speakers of L1 languages that are not English. We might not be aware of linguistic erasure of Indigenous languages, such as Tatar in Russia and Amis in Taiwan, or even languages that have strong digital support, such as Tagalog, as a result of increasing global digitization and the increasing incursion of English into those spaces. Global Language Justice in the Digital Sphere must mean increasing awareness of these issues, urging those developing digital technologies to pay attention to language access, and supporting every community’s ability to use their language in all digital spaces. 

By Krithika Kuppusamy

Image: Chelsy Wu


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