How iPhones Can Save a Language

Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled the inclusion of the Cherokee language on the iPhone.  Adding the Cherokee language to the iPhone illustrates how technology can provide a lifeline to keep alive languages of small communities.  This is important because it’s not an exaggeration to apply the concepts of “endangered” and “threatened with extinction” to some languages.

Granted, most people don’t speak Cherokee.  In fact, few people speak it well, at least according to the Chronicle’s article.  But that’s not the point.  The inclusion of Cherokee is more than a PR stunt, it represents so much more.  Smaller communities have always been at the mercy of their larger and more powerful neighbors, no matter if that community is defined by  geography, language or other cultural attributes.  Nonetheless, relative isolation often enabled these smaller communities to survive.  For better or worse, that’s no longer the case.

The boon of the 21st century Information Age is that information has flooded the entire world.  The problem, however, is that information has flooded the entire world primarily through the paradigms and language of the most powerful actors.  As a result, smaller communities have suffered from an inability to stem that flood.  Isolation no longer protects these communities because it’s incredibly difficult to remain isolated.

But the inclusion of the Cherokee language on the iPhone points a way forward.

Technology, or in this case mobile technology, allows individuals from around the world to discover and engage the language of smaller communities.  Although such exposure carries risk, the net gain is likely worth it: these new individuals can engage, learn and continue the language, breathing new life into a language by adding new speakers; or, at least, by developing a resource of knowledge that keeps the community alive.  Indeed, one never knows when a language might be needed!

To be sure, once exposed to the global information age, no community will ever be the same.  And, by no means am I claiming that the iPhone will save the Cherokee language or any other language.  But that’s not the point.  Society’s change and adapt.  Adding the Cherokee language increases the chance that the language will survive by keeping it active and exposed to more people.

At Udemy, our goal is to increase the accessibility of education to everyone.  One of the intangible benefits of our work is to watch instructors develop lessons in areas we never thought of or even knew about.  We hope that by including the Cherokee language in the iPhone more people will learn more about the Cherokee community and, of course, learn the language.  Thereby opening a new world of study and communications.