Wikitongues Transcript

Megan Figueroa: Hi. Welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa. I’m a wee bit sick.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. But at least you have a voice.
Megan Figueroa: Just in case anyone was wondering.
Carrie Gillon: People were.
Megan Figueroa: It’s the podcasting – it’s the life. Sometimes, you have to go on the air when you’re sick. [Laughs]
Carrie Gillon: We have an email from Jeffrey. “Dear Carrie and Megan, I recently finished listening to ‘Practice Makes Easier’ and I wanted to tell you how it helped me. I’m an attorney specializing in start-up companies in the San Francisco Bay area.
“As you know, or at least can imagine, this area attracts immigrants from all over the world with high concentrations from China and India, among other places. Many of my clients are founded by and employ a large number of non-native English speakers. At on onsite presentation I gave today, I think I was one of maybe three native English speakers in the room.
“Thinking of the episode, I made a special effort to remember that many folks were not native English speakers. I usually like to think of my job as translating law speak into English, but now I’ve come to see that maybe there’s a second step of translation involved as well. I’m putting an extra effort into being as clear as I can and also very, very patient. In the words, try not to be an asshole.”
Megan Figueroa: Aww, Jeffrey! [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: “I just thought that you should know that your podcast is actually changing behavior. I enjoy it very much, although I sorta hope I wasn’t an asshole before I started listening either. Please keep up the good work. Jeff.”
Thank you so much!
Megan Figueroa: Wow! A little sneak peek behind the scenes again. Carrie was like, “I have an email” and I was wondering if it was tooting our own horn. And she kinda hinted that, yes – yes, it is. But I didn’t know it’d be tooting our horn so good.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, no. This is really nice. It’s exactly what we wanna do in the world, right?
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. That’s fantastic. I doubt that people that listen – I like to think that people that listen to our podcast aren’t huge assholes – raging assholes – in the first place. I’m sure Jeff was not a huge asshole in the first place, but I really appreciate that email. Thank you.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Me too.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, I, too, learn from our podcast because, I mean, we have people that – we have guests on here for a reason because we don’t know everything. It’s definitely made me more thoughtful as well.
Carrie Gillon: Me too.
Megan Figueroa: I like hearing that. And thank you, Dr. Melissa. There was a little Twitter fiasco around a very racist tweet related to language that we missed that we didn’t get to talk about. Luckily, someone screen shot it because it was deleted.
Carrie Gillon: Well, rightfully so. This was definitely one of those tweets that you should be like, “Oops.”
Megan Figueroa: I think that that’s what happened. Because it’s – I actually don’t know how many people follow this Twitter. So, I’m looking at the screen shot and it’s @HSTeachProbs – “teacher problems,” “high school teacher problems” – and it says, “‘I ain’t trippin’ is probably one of the most annoying phrases a student can say. What are some other annoying phrases your kids say that get under your skin?”
Carrie Gillon: “#Stuffstudentssay” and I’m fixing this: “#teacherproblems.”
Megan Figueroa: Then, you shared with me someone’s lovely tweet. This is @KaiserMoore. “I feel like all the white teachers saying that African American Vernacular English is annoying should be removed from predominantly black schools. They’re clearly holding prejudice against the students they are supposed to be there to help.” Which – absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: The reason why I even saw this was because someone else quote-tweeted it and said something like “All teachers should be removed from all schools” – “Any teacher who has these ideas should be removed from all schools.” And I was like, “Yeah. You’re right.” I mean, yes, it’s more of a problem when you’re in a class with black children, but if you’re infecting children with these ideas regardless of their race, it’s very problematic.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. I mean, that’s gonna be coming through in whatever you do, then. Obviously, when you think that you hold different ways of speaking above each other and, as we’ve learned on the show, that means that you are holding people above each other. I mean, you’re creating a hierarchy here and you’re passing that on if you believe that – if you’re teaching kids from that point of view.
Carrie Gillon: If we wanna fight white supremacy, I mean, the biggest source of it is white people, right? We want the white kids not to pick up on these ideas. Granted, obviously there’s gonna be other places where they can. But at least in the school we should be helping them not pick up these ideas.
Megan Figueroa: It sucks though because that’s still the biggest population of teachers just from the way that things have shaken out is white women.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. There are a variety of reasons for that. Because it used to be, at least, more gender-balanced but then the pay was so bad men won’t do it anymore. And then, yeah, there’s obviously reasons why it’s mostly white women. Obviously, not all white women are gonna have these kinds of racist ideas but many, many do.
Megan Figueroa: Right. Let us hope that there’re some that hold this view that, when told, they’re like, “Oh, shit.”
Carrie Gillon: “That was a bad thing to think” – yes.
Megan Figueroa: Yes.
Carrie Gillon: Well, let’s hope that because they deleted the tweet, they realized how bad it actually was.
Megan Figueroa: And not just because they were like, “I don’t wanna deal” –
Carrie Gillon: “Deal with it.”
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. It’s sad for me because this is a reminder – I don’t think that this is uncommon. That’s the problem that this is –
Carrie Gillon: It’s incredibly common. I mean, we know this. I didn’t get this exact message from my classes but – from my teachers – but something kind of like it that there were “correct” ways of speaking and “correct” ways of writing. And, yeah, there was hidden anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity and anti-everything else in there. It was just more subtle.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Absolutely. No. It’s not an innocuous thing to say, “I ain’t trippin’ isn’t” – “I hate when my students say that.” This is no innocuous. This is part of a much bigger problem. I dunno. I dunno what the message is here. Just the message that we always have, I guess. Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: At least, at the very least, keep your bad ideas about language to yourself because it’s not helping you. It’s not helping the kids that you teach, and it’s not helping the communities around you. Stop.
Megan Figueroa: I know. Think about it a little bit – about where this is coming from our why you might think this.
Carrie Gillon: We all have things to unpack. All of us. All of us have grown up with bad ideas about language in particular and other things in general.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: You’ve gotta work through it but don’t work through it on Twitter. [Laughter] All right. Yeah. This is episode really fun and uplifting.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. It almost sounds like we never have anything fun or uplifting to say. Like, “Let’s preface this by saying, ‘Hey! This is a fun, uplifting episode today.’”
Carrie Gillon: I guess they’re usually a least somewhat uplifting. It’s just that there’s something even more uplifting about this one because it’s the living languages episode, right? It’s about Wikitongues, which allows people to upload their own language video or audio – although they encourage video – so people can at least record what their language is actually like right now regardless of what it was like in the past, regardless of what it will be like in the future, just a snapshot. It’s just – I love it.
Megan Figueroa: I love it too. It’s a reminder that language is living. And it’s okay that it changes.
Carrie Gillon: Language will always change no matter what you try to do. Colonization had this huge impact on many different languages, and I don’t wanna ignore that, but it is what it is. Languages would’ve changed even if that hadn’t happened.
Megan Figueroa: Right. To have a little place on the internet to celebrate what your language sounds like now is lovely.
Carrie Gillon: Okay. Today, we have Daniel Bögre Udell who’s the co-founder of Wikitongues, a non-profit organization that aims to document all of the world’s languages. Welcome, Daniel.
Megan Figueroa: Thanks for being here.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Thank you for having me.
Carrie Gillon: Of course!
Megan Figueroa: Excited to talk about this today. I’ve heard of Wikitongues, but I don’t know much about it. I don’t know anything, actually. I don’t know how old or young – you’re gonna tell us all about that, right?
Daniel Bögre Udell: It’s funny. I’ve been following Vocal Fries on Twitter for a while and so, Carrie, when I found out that you and I would be on that show together, I was excited because it was an opportunity to meet you too.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It was an interesting experience. It was really strange being on a TV show that will be shown soon, I think. It was all very professional. There’s a panel. And I was, like, way far away if you’re in Phoenix. And that was in London, I believe.
Daniel Bögre Udell: It was my first remote talking head experience actually.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Me too.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, wow. Was it a BBC thing?
Carrie Gillon: No. It was a Turkish news channel. I don’t remember what it was called. Do you remember, Daniel?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Off the top of my head, I do not. Well, the show itself was called “Round Table,” but I don’t remember what the network was.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. Well, very cool. We’ll have to share that when it comes out.
Carrie Gillon: Definitely. So, tell a us a little bit about Wikitongues. How old is it? Why did you start it? Etc.?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Sure. Wikitongues started in 2014 as a non-profit initiative to crowd-source documentation in every language. We started with oral histories because that is a kind of linguistic documentation that is easy to do without a lot of training or advanced equipment. Pretty much anybody with a smartphone or with access to a smartphone can produce them.
We did that for two reasons, 1.) language revitalization is only possible when accessible documentation is available in the language in question and, from a question of representation and inclusion, we thought it would be an interesting online project to try and represent every language in the world, which is in effect representing every culture in the world.
As we grew, we started to get the question, “How do I save my language?” which is an incredibly loaded question and one to which there really isn’t a systemic answer despite all the work on language revitalization over the past few decades. Starting this year, we’re actually teaming up with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages to build a toolkit for people who wanna get started with language activism in their communities.
The idea is giving people a framework to do a health check on their language. So, if you are worried about the future of your language, you can actually assess what it needs because different languages need different things, right? If your language has already been documented and the community has that documentation, maybe what you actually need is a framework for community organizing to keep it relevant for young people. Or maybe your language actually is undocumented or under-documented and you actually need to start from the beginning with oral histories, dictionaries, whatever.
The idea is to give people the framework for doing this health check and then a roadmap to achieving what needs to be achieved. Because over the past 30 years, there has been a ground swell of language activism around the world and there are successful cases of languages being revitalized, or perhaps a better way to put it is there are successful cases of cultures keeping their languages alive – people asserting their cultural sovereignty.
There are universal lessons there, we think, that can be applied because there are cases of languages being revitalized with the help of a government. And there are cases of languages being revitalized in an entirely unfunded and grassroots way with no institutional support. Then, there are cases where people have attempted to keep their languages alive and not succeeded, right? Our hope is to be able to build a very wide and open front door to the process of language activism.
Megan Figueroa: You said, “crowd source,” and I think sometimes – I’m always skeptical when I hear that because it’s so sad in the US how we have to crowd source, like, people’s medical bills and all this stuff. But this is one of those things where I feel like crowd sourcing is the right thing to do, that way the community can be involved. You may hear from groups that we didn’t know that wanted some outside help or whatever – or these frameworks to work with.
I like the idea that the internet can be used for crowd sourcing in this way, especially when we get kind of jaded when we see all the ways where it’s kinda sad that we have to crowd source things.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Yeah. The internet is powerful technology, and all powerful technology has good and bad application. In this case, I think it’s good application. What we’re doing would not be possible without the internet. One really positive thing from the past few years is that increasingly more and more people have access to internet. It’s not always stable. It’s not always good. But, for the first time, they have it.
What’s interesting is every now and then we’ll get contacted by someone who just got internet in their town, and the internet’s not very good yet, but they wanna contribute soon. There was someone who reached out to use from the interior of Papua New Guinea. One of the first things that he wanted to do was see if there are other people around the world that are concerned about this, and he found that there were.
It’s a very, very exciting thing that makes me very optimistic. I really am pretty confident that the internet is going to be a really positive thing for marginalized peoples because it offers a way to organize around your language when your community has been culturally displaced.
Carrie Gillon: It’s been great to see, for example, on Twitter people using their language – just tweeting in their language and not using the dominant language, which has been really fun.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Absolutely. It really creates an opportunity for breathing space for your language because one of the most challenging things for language revitalization movements is, if your community has been culturally displaced, it becomes almost impossible to use your language in the ancestral homeland because it’s been displaced by a more dominant one.
With the internet, you can circumvent that and create Whatsapp groups and Facebook groups and other online forums where you can use the language on a daily basis without the pressure of a locally dominant one. That’s an increasingly common tactic among language activists. And it usually leads to good results.
Carrie Gillon: What has been one of your favorite results that you’ve been a part of?
Daniel Bögre Udell: That’s a really good question. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of support for language activist movement, so I would feel very uncomfortable necessarily giving Wikitongues credit for an actual language revitalization initiative. We have definitely been a platform for people looking to amplify some of their work.
I don’t wanna say I have a favorite, but some of the ones from the past year that have been particularly meaningful to me is the Kihunde language in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It only has about 200,000 thousand speakers. Children are learning it but it’s very under-documented and it has no institutional support. Wikitongues has been a channel for a man named Hangi Bulebe, who is at the center of this effort to keep the language alive, teach it to children, standardize it, and all that.
He said that being able to share the language on a global platform like Wikitongues has helped accelerate work for him because he says when people in the community look at him skeptically, he says, “Well, look, people from other countries care about our language. Why can’t we?” That, he said, has resonated with people. I met him in person for the first time in Rwanda a couple months ago and this was one of the things he said, which was just fabulous.
Another movement that we have been a platform for amplifying is – and, really, that I just feel privileged to get to be close to – is the effort to revitalize the Tunica language of Louisiana, which went dormant in 1948. If you haven’t had any of the members of that community on your show, you should definitely invite them because they’re doing really, really cool work and they love sharing it with the rest of the world.
They’re one of the languages that prompted Ethnologue to add a “reawakening” category to the language vitality scale because they – the language went dormant in 1948. In the 1980s, a woman named Donna Pierite decided that she wanted to revitalize it, and that was partly because her husband is Choctaw. He was learning Choctaw. Choctaw is a language that is still being taught to children and still spoken natively.
She paused and said, “Wait. We don’t actually have our language anymore. But we had one.” So, she would go to Baton Rogue and New Orleans to photocopy old dictionaries and grammars and things that were kinda stored away in university archives, and she brought the language home that way and made it a family activity. She reclaimed Tunica, taught it to her children.
For a long time, they were the movement – their family was the movement to revitalize Tunica. In the 90s, they started sending out newsletters – physical newsletters because the internet mailing lists were still a fresh technology – and other families started to get involved in that way. Something happened in the late – like, 2010 or something around that year – where they got some support, academic support, from linguists in New Orleans and over that next few years they were able to convince the tribal government to actually allocate funding and resources for the program.
Now, I think upwards of 10% of the tribe is enrolled in language immersion. They have 32 new fluent speakers, hence the new “reawakening” category. This is very inspiring to me, personally. One of my more immediate ancestral languages is Yiddish, which means I also have a connection to the Hebrew language, which went dormant in the second century and was revitalized in the 1800s by Jewish activists at that time.
For a long time, that was the only instance of a dormant language being reclaimed by its people. The Tunica are another case of that. In so enthusiastically promoting their work online and around the world, I think it’s a source of inspiration for other people. So, those are two cases that I feel very grateful to have been close to.
Megan Figueroa: I know people are in their communities doing work, but sometimes the help or support they need is really just amplification, which is really great that Wikitongues can do something like that. Those are really good examples of it. Because maybe the framework that they need is just how can I get a bigger audience to hear our oral histories because this is something that we want to share, or we just want people to know what we’re doing.
So, it’s really great that that’s where Wikitongues is coming from. Because linguists have gone into communities and kind of been this savior-type people. They try to be the savior-type people or force things on people. I know, just, linguistics has this terrible history, so it’s really lovely to hear something where it’s like this is about the people and what they need – or what they want – and sometimes that’s just sharing.
Daniel Bögre Udell: There’s one language activist in Scotland – his name’s Àdhamh Ó Broin – and if either of you watch that Showtime show, Outlander, he’s the Gaelic dialect coach for that show. He’s very, very intent on keeping alive his dialect – or his variety of Scottish Gaelic – which is moribund. They’re classified as moribund. Scottish Gaelic, obviously, is not classified as moribund.
He is linguistically trained, right? He is actually a linguist. He just happens to be a dialect coach. He’s very able to do the documentation work. That is not a challenge for him. For him, he said his biggest desire is just to talk to other people who are doing this work because sometimes it can be lonely. There’s a huge community building and solidarity aspect to it.
I do wanna say that at least in my experience over the past several years, there’s been a huge shift in linguistics to be the discipline that supports people in this work, especially the new generation of linguistics who’re doing incredible work. The question is, how can we standardize some of these processes? Like, the Tunica did something correct, right? That can be replicated, not exactly the same way because every community has different needs, but there are universal lessons that everyone can have been there just aren’t enough field linguists in the world to help everybody who needs help.
It needs to be thought of in these systemics terms. I’m excited that we can be part of that conversation and hopefully, actually, behind some producing materials that can be useful to people.
Megan Figueroa: Well, I really like the idea that can be their own community’s field linguist, so that’s something that can facilitate that because you’re right that there aren’t enough PhD field linguists that can go everywhere or have particular skills for a particular community. The idea that you could be your own community’s field linguist is really great.
It’s funny because I’ve been thinking, I dunno, all these think pieces about the new decade and has the internet ruined us and what has the internet done in the last 10 years. It’s nice to hear these stories about how the internet can actually make the world smaller in a good way.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Yeah. I mean, I’m very optimistic. I think the internet obviously has its problems, but I worry that a lot of the critiques of the internet come from jaded people who live in places that have had the internet for a very long time and who just spend too much time on –
Megan Figueroa: Twitter?
Daniel Bögre Udell: – following people on – yeah. And I love Twitter, but you can unfollow people if they’re annoying. So much of this is – nobody who just got the internet last year is mad about it. Right? So, a little global context would be nice beyond “Partisan arguments on twitter are mean-spirited and therefore the internet sucks.” So much of the critique is that. It’s just so limited and is unfortunate.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of bad actors on the internet, but it’s true that in some ways you can make your experience better by blocking the ones that are for sure bad actors and focusing on the ones that are good, which is what I do try to do.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Right. There’ve been bad actors since before the internet.
Carrie Gillon: Of course. Just because the internet’s so powerful, it’s really to easy in a bad way, just like it’s really easy to use in a good way. Let’s focus on the good!
Daniel Bögre Udell: That’s right. It’s like nuclear technology – double-edged sword.
Carrie Gillon: Absolutely. 100%. Why is this work so important?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Why is this work important? I think this work is important because language is the vehicle of expression for communities. When a language disappears, it means that a community has collapsed. I saw this BBC headline the other day that was – it was just a headline. I didn’t actually read the article. But the fact that this is the headline that got written as it did is so indicative of how the discourse around this stuff needs to improve.
It was like, “Yeah. Yiddish used to have ten million speakers in Europe and now those numbers have depleted.” [Groaning] Right? It’s like, “No. There was a genocide that murdered everybody.” What we’re talking about is Ashkenazi Jews in Europe were the victims of a massive genocide. That’s why Yiddish’s number of speaks have depleted.
And that’s how we talk about all these languages. Like, Lakota isn’t a “dying” language, Lakota is a language that is taking work to be kept alive because the community has been at the blunt end of genocide, land theft, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of systemic racism. Language revitalization is a way for communities who have been marginalized to assert themselves on the global stage. It’s about justice. It’s about reparation. That’s why I think it’s most important.
Then, there’s this more intangible question of knowledge. Because, in languages, there’s almost always unique vocabulary, which sometimes have biological applications, which is why there’re fields in biology that work with local language speakers to accelerate conservation. It contains prehistories. We know about the Bantu migration and the Bering Strait migration in part because of how languages change across vast geographies. It’s so important. It intersects with everything.
Megan Figueroa: I’m so glad that you brought up the point about Lakota’s not dying – or to say that a language is “dying” – I’ve heard a lot of people starting to say that they don’t like to hear this kind of language around a language, like saying it’s “dying.”
I think that’s such a good point because I’ve been thinking a lot about intergenerational trauma. Even say the Jewish people that did survive the holocaust and did speak Yiddish, there may be some trauma there that makes you not want to pass on a language. I see that in Spanish in the American Southwest. I’m learning more about this and how that’s happening in Ireland with the Irish language.
To remember that things have been done – horrible atrocities have been done – to people and what happens with language is kind of the consequence –
Carrie Gillon: -knock-on effect.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. I think that’s so important for people to sit and think about.
Carrie Gillon: The thought I had was – I didn’t realize until really recently because I am not Jewish but, I dunno, like a year or two ago someone posted something about, “Did you know that in 1939 there were more Jewish people on the planet than there are now?” and I just couldn’t even believe it. I mean, I believed it, obviously, but you know what I mean? It was just like, “Oh my god. That’s so true.” Obviously, that’s true as soon as you say that.
The tie-in with Yiddish is also very important and, yeah, we really need to talk about these things differently. I know some of the language has changed towards “sleeping” or “dormant,” but that still doesn’t get at the heart of it, which is what you’re talking about, Daniel, which is like, “This is the result of genocide usually.”
Daniel Bögre Udell: Or, if not genocide, at least forced assimilation. The Occitan people weren’t necessarily victims of physical genocide in France, but there was a concerted effort by the French government to erase Occitan identity, culture, and language, and forcibly make the French. How did they do that? The beat children in school who were speaking Occitan. They forbade the use of Occitan in the public sphere.
And, low and behold, within a generation, the people kinda had their culture squeezed out of them. That’s the nicest case. It’s funny that you bring up the intergenerational trauma because there is this other counter-discourse that I hear sometimes which is that, “Well, if the community doesn’t wanna teach their language to their kids anymore, that’s their choice.”
Going back to the Yiddish case because that’s my personal one, it’s like, there’s a reason that my dad wasn’t taught Yiddish. It’s because Ashkenazi Jews fled Europe and they either went to Israel, or they said we’re gonna speak Hebrew now and reclaim this ancient language, or we’re gonna go somewhere else and assimilate. And if we assimilate, they’ll be nice to us.
It’s sad. Language is about so much more – so much more. I was talking to another person you should get on the show. Her name’s Hali Dardar. I forget home to pronounce her last name. She’s from the Houma community in Louisiana. Their language, when it went dormant – potentially problematic description, but for lack of a better phrasing – it was undocumented.
Unlike Tunica, there were no complete dictionaries and grammars gathering dust in libraries. So, they’re in the middle of reconstructing Houma before they can consider reclaiming it. When I asked her what her end-goal was, it’s like, do you want this to be the mother tongue again of Houma people? And said, “Maybe. But I just want us all to feel Houma and not forget.”
That’s really what the core is. Revitalizing language is about community. It’s about history. It’s about your ancestors, your descendants, your place on earth.
Carrie Gillon: And the stories about who you are.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, I think about it because – I’ve talked about it before – how I feel like Spanish was forcibly removed from my generation. But Spanish is always gonna be there for me when I want to learn it. It won’t be, perhaps, not my family’s Spanish, but it’ll be there for me.
Whereas, these languages, are they gonna be there? That’s the question. We want them to be there. But, again, just this horrible ways that we have treated other human being where we’ve got to the point where we are where there are some languages that are, for lack of a better word, “dormant,” it’s not true for everyone that that language will be there for them, unfortunately.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Right. That’s why the documentation side of things is so important. We have one oral history of a language from Vanuatu called Lemerig. It has two known speakers. From what I understand, there isn’t really any active movement to revitalize the language and the culture.
If in 30 years there is, there emerges that desire, it’s important that the language be there for the community to bring it back. With the Tunica case, the last native speaker was the Chief – Sesostrie Youchigant, I think was his name. You can ask them when you bring either Donna or Jean-Luc or any of them on the show.
He worked with a linguist named Mary Haas to produce dictionaries and grammars because he knew that he had to leave the language behind for the next generation. It took 30 years. He passed away in 1948. It was the 80s when Donna Pierite started this movement again. So, thank goodness it was there. Thank goodness he did that. The documentation is so important and the first step, really.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It’s the first step that it’s necessary but not sufficient.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Yeah. I’m convinced that there’s actually been a huge shift in the history of cultural diversity over the past couple years and we’re just starting to realize what that is because I think this statistic that half the languages in the world are gonna disappear in 80 years keeps getting touted and that statistic is from the 90s. Even then, there were different estimations.
But let’s be charitable and say this estimation was correct. That was the 90s. There was no Tunica revitalization – well, I guess they had started, but it was still a couple families. There’re just a lot of cases of languages being in a better – and cultures, really, communities – being in a better position now than they were in the 90s.
I mean, there’re probably cases of others being worse. So, maybe the net is not any better. That’s part of what makes this so hard because it’s so vast a scale.
Carrie Gillon: It’s really hard to estimate how many languages really are under extreme threat or just a little bit of threat. It’s hard to really know for sure because we don’t – and no one person has that amount of information. We can’t possibly know.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Exactly. That’s why I think another thing that needs to happen for an infrastructure to sustain cultural diversity at scale is beyond there being these systems or these frameworks for people to do the work in their communities. There needs to be a better survey method that’s more frequent, more consistent.
Carrie Gillon: Because even census data isn’t that good. I mean, it’s really good but, like, it’s not very frequent and it’s not that deep.
Megan Figueroa: It’s different from each country, right?
Carrie Gillon: Exactly. Each country does it differently.
Daniel Bögre Udell: When you look at Ethnologue or Glottolog – they work with what they have. This is no knock on them. But sometimes you’ll see the last datum about this language is 1980. It’s like, “Cool. That’s where this language was 40 years ago.” A lot can happen in 40 years.
I was having a conversation with a Shanghainese person. That’s her heritage language. She doesn’t really speak it. She’s American, I think. But she was like, “How long until Shanghainese dies?” And I was like, “Well, damn. That’s a question.” I was like, “It’s not even classified as endangered.” Maybe it’s not. Maybe this is just her perception. Or maybe she’s getting news from relatives back home that the language is not spoken anywhere near like it was 10 years ago, and the census isn’t even caught up with that.
Of course, Beijing is not gonna be taking censuses about this stuff because they’re one of the few countries that is still actively working to assimilate minorities. This stuff is really messy. There needs to be a better survey method that would probably rely on some self-reporting, which is its own unreliable can of worms.
Carrie Gillon: But I think it’s the best that we would have in this instance. Because there might only be one speaker, and so who else is gonna report it but that one person?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Exactly. There would also have to be a way to report and track language revitalization that would be okay. There’s a new initiative on the ground – and then also keep track of all the different ones. Because the Tunica case is really interesting. It’s got incredible momentum over the past 10 years. But for the first 20 years, it was just a few really persistent people. There’s a lot of variables to track, I think.
Megan Figueroa: Well, and of course, most of these languages do not have institutional support. With institutional support would come, perhaps, some better numbers on things. But that’s not what’s happening. That’s not the reality.
Carrie Gillon: I’m curious about the Yiddish case. I know there was a revitalization effort. Is that still ongoing? And if so, are you involved in that at all?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Not yet. I’m decided that I’m gonna start with the – I’m learning Hebrew right now. And once I get conversational, I’ll move over to Yiddish. The reason I did that is just because all Jewish languages are Hebrew plus something else, right? So, I was like, “I’ll start with the oldest one.” There’s a certain ancestral quality to it that has drawn me to it. I will learn Yiddish when I get a little more proficient in Hebrew.
There is a lot of Yiddish activism right now because, for a long period, the only community that really kept it alive were the different orthodox communities in North America. There was a secular – what was really depleted, as the BBC said, was the secular Yiddish world, which was lively and had theater and literature and all this stuff.
There is a movement to bring that back. A lot of young, especially diaspora, Jews in North America are starting to rediscover that because it really is the one that we can go back a couple generations and find an ancestor speaking. In fact, another guest you should get on the show is a woman named Sandy Fox. She lives between Tel Aviv and New York. She’s part of that whole movement. She actually runs a feminist podcast in Yiddish.
Carrie Gillon: Cool! Definitely need to have her on.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Definitely!
Daniel Bögre Udell: She’s great. So, there’s a lot of that. That’s definitely happening. What’s interesting is because the orthodox communities, especially here in New York City, they kept the language alive, it was there for the rest of us – as you put it, Megan – because they had kept the language alive, it was there for the rest of us when we were ready to come back.
Megan Figueroa: As a kid – I’m very millennial-age, and the internet came around for me when I was like 8 or 9. The best part about it is – well, it wasn’t Google then, but whatever kind of search engine I had – I could ask questions like, “Is Yiddish still spoken?” Because I remember watching “Laverne and Shirley” and being like, “What did they say? Like, ‘schlemiel,’ ‘schlimazel’?”
[Excerpt “Laverne and Shirley”]
Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!
[End excerpt]
I was like, “What? What is that?” Being able to finally ask – because I was just this kid in Phoenix, Arizona. I knew Mexican culture and that’s about it. I didn’t know whether Yiddish was spoken or was it fake. This is where I was at 8, based on who was around me. I’m just so happy that kids these days – or anyone, I mean, I’m not saying you have to be a kid to know whether if Yiddish is spoken and where – to be able to go to the internet and be like, “Tell me.” Just how powerful knowledge is about language.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Exactly. It’s history, which is interesting and important. So, your ancestral language is Spanish?
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Well, my dad speaks Spanish and my – I have traced it back five generations to Sonora, Mexico, my family.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Incredible. Do you speak it now?
Megan Figueroa: A little bit. I’m more receptive, so I can understand it. I get really skittish about speaking it because I have this shame of people expecting me to have the knowledge that they expect of me because of my last name or because my dad spoke it. That’s where my baggage is at.
Carrie Gillon: There’s also a lot of shaming from other people like, “Oh, you don’t speak the real Spanish.” Makes it hard.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly.
Daniel Bögre Udell: That stuff is so toxic. We’ll get comments on our YouTube channel a lot in that vein like, “This person is not speaking the language well.” And it’s like, “Well, okay. Of course not because of the history of how this person got access to their language. Calm down.” Celebrate that they speak it. It’s all right if it has some loanwords from the dominant language. Our thing is always like, “Okay. Then you send a video.” Sometimes, people do and, sometimes, they go away.
Carrie Gillon: That’s a really good response.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Because that’s our thing, right? We’re not policing authenticity.
Carrie Gillon: No. Nor should you. How would you?
Daniel Bögre Udell: It’s funny how ubiquitous the desire to police authenticity is though because we get those comments from a wide range of communities on every continent. There’s always that person who says, “This person’s not speaking well.” I get the desire to keep the language alive in its most robust state because it probably has better vocabulary than the loanwords that this person is using – but celebrate that they still speak it.
Carrie Gillon: Well, there’s also dialect differences too that sometimes people either forget about or don’t wanna admit exist. So, you come from the wrong family? Oh, that means you’re not speaking correctly. I’ve definitely encountered that as well.
Megan Figueroa: That’s why I like to use the pronouns like “my Spanish,” “This is what my Spanish is,” or “That’s what your French is.” I think it gets around that because, again, I do have these insecurities but it’s like, “No, this one’s mine.” I try to remember that when people are cruel. But it’s true. The policing comes from inside the community, outside the community. It’s everywhere.
So, people send videos to Wikitongues?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Yes.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, that’s so cool. I mean, I’m sure there’s just audio recordings as well, but to see videos, what a great resource to have.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Video’s important because it puts a face to the language. It makes the evidence of language and culture a little more explicit. It’s also necessary if you’re looking at every language because at least 300 of the world’s languages are signed. You cannot have an audio recording for that language.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. That’s exactly the point I was getting to is, I’m so glad that they’re video because – yes. Myself, I probably made this mistake growing up too, a lot of Americans think that ASL is the signed language, but there’re so many signed languages.
Daniel Bögre Udell: In my travels I found this to be a global misconception.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, really? Okay.
Daniel Bögre Udell: I mean, not ASL exactly, but most people think that there is a sign language that all people who are deaf in the whole world speak somehow. And then when you say, “No, they all have different languages,” people have a hard time processing that until you say, “Well, there’s different spoken languages and it’s the same thing.” And they go, “Oh.”
Carrie Gillon: This is probably the most common misconception about language that I’ve encountered as well is that there’s one sign language. For once, it’s not just Americans.
Megan Figueroa: I always like to drag Americans under the bus – [Laughter]
Daniel Bögre Udell: What’s more American than that?
Megan Figueroa: It’s just a recreational activity. [Laughter] I do it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Well, I just think it’s great because, like I said – I’m obviously a linguist, a trained linguist, now – but the internet’s helped me so much to learn about language. I hope our podcast does that as well because I think there’re a lot of things that people might be too scared to ask.
I like to remind everyone that I am very naïve. I’m still – in my 30-plus years and after a PhD program – I’m still very naïve. And I think that we can’t be ashamed.
Carrie Gillon: We can’t possibly know everything.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. You can’t be ashamed. If you have to go and Google, “Where is Yiddish spoken?” after this, that’s okay.
Carrie Gillon: In fact, I encourage you to do because you will learn something for sure.
Daniel Bögre Udell: It’s totally fine. People always get confused about – because they don’t understand that there’s multiple Jewish languages, and so they’ll confuse Yiddish and Hebrew a lot. And I’m like, “No. Very different.” One’s close to Arabic and one’s close to German. Then, there’s also Ladino and Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Farsi and Judeo-Malayalam, which is one that I just learned about recently and I’d never even known about existing.
It’s like, okay. Because I think that’s the other thing, I think, when people start, they get really intimidated because culture is so vast, and they don’t wanna be perceived as ignorant or they don’t wanna offend people – a lot of eggshell walking. And it’s like, “No. Just ask the questions. As long as you’re being respectful, it’s fine. No one should be expected to know everything.”
Carrie Gillon: It’s impossible.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. How are you supposed to know it until you learn it?
Carrie Gillon: And it’s impossible to know everything. It’s just impossible. Just learning a little bit every day, that’s good.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Exactly. Learn one new thing every day.
Carrie Gillon: I think that’s a good life lesson.
Megan Figueroa: I think it is too. It’s also a great plug for listening to Vocal Fries.
Daniel Bögre Udell: By the way, I love your name. Because I actually found you through Twitter because I’m not an avid podcast-listener. I remember when I saw that, I was like – follow.
Carrie Gillon: I’m pretty proud of that.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Are your listeners well prompted on the whole vocal fry?
Megan Figueroa: Yes. And we don’t get hate mail about our voices. I think that that is also a really good thing is like, “Okay. We’re coming right out, and our name is the Vocal Fries, and we’re about linguistic discrimination. Don’t shit on how either one of us talk.”
Daniel Bögre Udell: It’s true. You have a built-in defense barrier, which is pretty cool.
Megan Figueroa: I hope it makes our customers – our customers? – our guests –
Carrie Gillon: What? [Laughs]
Megan Figueroa: – our guests feel comfortable too because we’re like, “You’re safe in this space.”
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. No shaming allowed.
Megan Figueroa: There is no language shaming here. That’s for sure.
Daniel Bögre Udell: No language shaming, baby.
Carrie Gillon: Exactly. How can people support Wikitongues?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Oh, there’s a lot. We’ve only worked with about 500 language communities. I’ve kind of been off the grid for the past few days taking long walks and recovering from New Years, so the number’s probably a little higher now – maybe it’s like 504 or something. But that’s only 14% of every known culture.
There is an endless amount of contribution still to be done to this seedbank of linguistic and cultural diversity. Please, send us videos of your language – whatever that language is and however you speak it. We love all dialects, sociolects, idiolects, accents. Then, of course, you can also donate to Wikitongues – Or, if you’re a Patreon user, you can make a monthly pledge on Patreon. You can subscribe to us on YouTube, which also helps.
Wikitongues is a non-profit. All contributions are tax-deductible. They go primarily to supporting the documentation work or now, also research on language revitalization as we work with the Living Tongues Institute to build this toolkit.
Finally, we have grown almost entirely organically over the past five years. Word of mouth is also an insanely valuable contribution to building the community that we’ve built. So, talk about us to your friends, help make the name known more around the world.
Megan Figueroa: Again, I feel a little naïve because I didn’t – I mean, you’ve been around for about 5 years now, and I just never pursued you further, and I feel guilty now. But I’m glad to know you know. That helps, right?
Daniel Bögre Udell: Oh, yeah. Hey, I never messaged you guys. I never tried to slide into the Twitter DM because we’re on the same – [laughter].
Carrie Gillon: Which you definitely could have. We encourage people to let us know if they have something interesting to talk about.
Daniel Bögre Udell: DMs are open.
Megan Figueroa: You know what would be a fun way to contribute – now that I’ve just spent time with family that I actually like, I know not everyone likes their family because family – but you could do that with your elders is ask them to contribute, and you can do it yourself. You can help them. You can use your smartphone. It’s a way to preserve some of your family’s culture too.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Absolutely. That’s something that I should have clarified a moment ago. Send us your language, but you can also send us your friend’s language too. You can send us your neighbor’s language. You can help people to participate. There was one volunteer in our very early days named Plator Gashi from Kosovo. He travelled all up and down the Baltics and must have contributed oral histories in up to 30 or 40 different languages.
Megan Figueroa: Wow. That’s very cool.
Daniel Bögre Udell: He is a remarkable individual. But, yeah, it doesn’t have to be you speaking is what I’m saying.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. That’s what I was thinking because I know some people might be shy. You don’t have to do a video either, right, it could be audio only?
Daniel Bögre Udell: It could be audio. We won’t publish it on YouTube if it’s just audio, but we will archive it. We’re on the verge of rolling out an accessible archive on our website so you can actually browse every video we’ve ever done, which is a long time in the making. But when you’re a non-profit, resources are limited, and tech is resource intensive.
We also are on the verge of rolling out templates for other kinds of documentation like phrasebooks, wordlists. If you do want to send us videos in the meantime, these templates are not yet out, but if you wanna send us videos, just head over to and you will see “Submit a Video” in the toolbar. There’s a form to fill out and a Google form if that doesn’t work.
Megan Figueroa: Awesome. We’ll be happy to update our listeners whenever ya’ll make progress on the new templates or projects.
Daniel Bögre Udell: Thank you. There’s a lot this year. I am grateful to have kicked it off with the Vocal Fries. Thank you for – [excited exclamations]
Carrie Gillon: Thank you so much.
Megan Figueroa: Well, it was so lovely to meet you virtually.
Daniel Bögre Udell: You too.
Megan Figueroa: Do you know how to say, “Don’t be an asshole?”
Daniel Bögre Udell: No. Not yet.
Carrie Gillon: That would be high level.
Megan Figueroa: It’s fine. One day.
Daniel Bögre Udell: That’s a great thing to learn how to say in a language. That should be a core phrasebook – we should add that to our phrasebook template.
Carrie Gillon: You should. Even if you make it slightly nicer and just say, “jerk,” I still think it’s an important thing for people to be able to say.
Megan Figueroa: Or “Be nice.” Something like that.
Carrie Gillon: “Be nice” is probably already in there, I’m guessing.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah.
Daniel Bögre Udell: “Don’t be an asshole”’s more fun though, right?
Carrie Gillon: It is way more fun!
Megan Figueroa: That’s why we always tell our listeners to not be an asshole. They know we mean it with love.
Carrie Gillon: It also feels more boundary-enforcing, which is sometimes really important.
Megan Figueroa: I can see that, yeah. I never thought of it that way.
Daniel Bögre Udell: On that note –
Megan Figueroa: So, don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Okay. We would like to thank our newest patrons for this month. Russell Lee Goldman, Paige Andrews, Jeff Goldman, and Ellen Pearleberg – or “Pearlberg.” It’s probably “Pearlberg.” I went a little French there.
Megan Figueroa: I love seeing names that I recognize from Twitter!
Carrie Gillon: Me too.
Megan Figueroa: Yay! Thank you so much.
Carrie Gillon: Thank you. If anyone still listening would like to support us, we have $2.00, $3.00, and $5.00 levels. The $2.00 level, you get a thank you. The $3.00 level you get a sticker. Actually, you get multiple stickers. You get a sticker every few months. $5.00 level you get the stickers and our bonus episodes.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Our latest one is about child language, and I get real salty. So does Carrie.
Carrie Gillon: So do I but, yes, you do more so because it is your area.
Megan Figueroa: Yes.
Carrie Gillon: Thank you so much. We’ll –
Megan Figueroa: See you next time.
Carrie Gillon: See you in a couple weeks.
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at and our website is
[End music]

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