Devin: Kristen, what is your superpower?
Kristen: Daniel and I were, you know, marinating on this earlier today. I think my superpower is connecting with people.
Devin: Daniel, what is your superpower?
Daniel: Optimism. Language revitalization requires optimism. When you start a project to reawaken your language, you need to have a degree of faith that a generation from now you will have had success and that a new generation in your community will appreciate what you’ve done.
“Seven thousand languages are spoken or signed today, but as many as 3,000 languages could disappear in a generation, erasing half of humanity’s cultural, historical and ecological knowledge,” explains Daniel Bögre Udell, executive director of Wikitongues.
“Language loss impacts all facets of our lives,” notes Kristen Tcherneshoff, the programs director for Wikitongues. “It impacts not only our personal sense of self, our mental health but also access to education, quality of education, economics—GDP is impacted by it.”
The implications of language loss are scary. “It’s important to take a moment and emphasize that languages don’t just die naturally,” Daniel says. “People abandon mother tongues because they’re forced to by economic exclusion, political oppression or violence.”
As I let these ideas sink into my consciousness, I begin to see protecting and reviving languages as critical. I imagine the heartbreak of being unable to communicate effectively with my grandchildren.
“Language extinction is not inevitable,” Daniel says. “Adults can learn ancestral languages and teach their children, raising new native speakers and breathing fresh life into their culture.”
Wikitongues helps people keep their languages alive. “We safeguard endangered and at-risk languages,” Daniel says. “We expand access to critical mother tongue resources, and we directly support language revitalization.”
The results of language loss can be dire, including death.
“It’s not uncommon for communities that have recently experienced some form of genocide or violent oppression to have higher rates of suicide because of all of the mental health problems that come from experiencing those crimes,” Daniel says.
“Language revitalization is an immediate redress to that,” he adds. “It’s a healing force.”
Daniel sites a study of indigenous communities in North America and Australia who were subject to culturally devastating educational practices until the 1970s and 80s. Some students were beaten for speaking their native tongue. With language revitalization programs working over three or four decades, suicide rates have declined.
Wikitongues’ latest effort is a grant-based accelerator program for 15 competitively chosen participants. Applications were due in January, and they will announce the winners in March. Daniel and Kristen hope to fund 15 language revitalization projects.
As examples of the sorts of things that Wikitongues could fund, Kristen highlighted a board game in the native Mongolian language as an example.
“Cherokee activists, about ten years ago, created a keyboard for the Cherokee language so that you could have, as opposed to using the Roman alphabet, the Latin alphabet for the Cherokee language and having to get creative with different commands and things like that, you now can have the Cherokee language keyboard,” Kristen said of another innovative project.
“In addition to funding, we’re providing a year of training and in-kind support, so it will function very similarly to a startup accelerator or a research fellowship,” Daniel says.
The two have deeply personal reasons for the work they do.
Daniel shared his personal experiences:
I was first exposed to a family language that isn't a globally dominant one at a very young age. My grandparents on my father's side were Yiddish speakers, and the language kind of stopped with him, although he definitely retained a lot of it in what a linguist might call a post vernacular since his mother tongue was English. But it was heavily peppered with Yiddish.
[Dad] would use a lot of those Yiddish fragments with me, and I knew that they were Jewish words, and I knew that they were our words. But it wouldn't be for a while that I would come to realize that they were actually the remnants of a living family language that had been ours, you know, just two generations ago. It only takes a generation to forget.
I spent two years in Spain where I learned to speak Spanish and then also Catalan, which was persecuted by the Spanish government during the Franco dictatorship in most of the 20th century, but has been successfully revitalized since the 1980s. And so living in a part of the world where a revitalized language was spoken and growing and culturally central to the lives of the people who use it, I think helped distill just how important language is. And it got me thinking about my own languages as well.
Kristen shared hers, too:
I had an interesting childhood in that my mom's best friend was from Ethiopia and was an Amharic speaker. Along with my dad's close friends—he works in the disability movement in the U.S. and so he has a lot of close friends who are deaf or either a child of deaf adults. So, both of my parents are fluent in American sign language. I grew up in Alabama, in a small town with Amharic regularly in my ears and learning American sign language.
When we left Alabama and we moved to Florida when I was in elementary school, I was bullied a lot for how I spoke and how my variety of English was very different than everyone else.
These experiences framed their lives linguistically, leading them both to begin pursuing this work independently—until Kristen found Daniel’s early-stage efforts on YouTube.
He originally created Wikitongues as a YouTube channel where people submit videos of themselves or their community members speaking in their mother tongues. “Everything kind of snowballed from there,” he says.
An effort in Texas to restore the Afro Seminole Creole language is inspiring to Daniel and others working in this field.
“It’s code red for their language. There are only a few dozen native speakers,” he says. The only dictionary for the language contains just 1,000 words.
Windy Goodloe started the effort. Taking the long view, she recognized that the priority would be to create a program for adult learners. She began with Zoom classes. Today, she measures her success in participation in the training.
“When that community becomes more active, the next goal is going to be an actual level of fluency among them,” Daniel says.
Another example of language revitalization is the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, “whose language originally went extinct or dormant (as the more preferred term) in 1948 when the last native speaker died,” he says. “In the 1980s, a member of the tribe named Donna Perry realized that they had a language and that she wanted to bring that language back.”
She found and copied dictionaries and then began teaching her children, making it a family language. Her example became a movement. Ten percent of the community is enrolled in immersion classes, and 32 people are fluent speakers, some raising a new generation of fluent speakers.
Daniel also reminded me of something I’d forgotten. “Of course, the first language that was ever revitalized was Hebrew, which went dormant as a mother tongue in the second century and was revitalized as a mother tongue in the 19th century, about sixteen hundred years later. And it’s now the mother tongue of five million Jewish people.”
Wikitongues was a 2021 recipient of the JMK. Innovation Prizes.
In their vitally important work, they draw upon different strengths. Kristen describes her superpower as connecting with people. Daniel sees optimism with a healthy dose of patience as his.
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How to Develop Connecting With People As a Superpower
Kristen describes how she developed her ability to connect with people:
I've had a chance to really meet a lot of different people in different, different careers and different backgrounds and things like that. And just being someone who's a transplant and immigrating and immigrating also really makes you reach out to people and try to create a home wherever you are.
She sees that her ability to connect is also essential to the work. “It’s difficult to revitalize a language. It’s a lot of hard work. It might not happen in your lifetime,” she says. As a result, discovering someone has your back the way Wikitongues does can empower those doing the work.
She offers three tips for those looking to make deeper connections.
Active Listening: it is important to use active listening skills, like paraphrasing, to ensure that you understand what people are trying to convey.
Put your phone down: when you have a one-on-one conversation, it is crucial to put your phone away and focus on the moment.
Take notes and follow up: Kristen suggests that when you visit with someone who mentions an upcoming event, especially something they worry about, you should make a note of it. Then, put a reminder in your calendar to check in with them immediately before or after, depending on the nature of the event.
Following her tactical advice will help you connect with people and possibly make this a superpower that will enable you to do more good in the world.
How to Develop Optimism As a Superpower
Daniel shared an intriguing insight that merits a moment or two of thoughtful reflection. He says, “I would encourage you to understand possibility as limitless and not always achievable.”
That insight defines his brand of optimism. He recognizes that the work he is undertaking will not be accomplished this year. Even on the projects he starts, they may not be finished in his lifetime. He relies on optimism that may not ever have the satisfaction of seeing dreams become full-fledged realities.
He offers a simple reminder to motivate action in the face of daunting challenges. “Nothing will happen unless someone does it.”
“You also kind of have to manage your own expectations and be kind to yourself when you don’t always live up to those goals,” he notes.
He adds, “It’s really important to occasionally take stock of what you have been able to do.” Progress is best made when you can stand on the evidence of what you’ve already accomplished.
Following his advice to build that patient optimism can enable you to push the boundaries of what you hope to do, making it a superpower in your life.