Wikitongues is an international volunteer community and 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit organization dedicated to preserving, protecting, and raising awareness about language diversity. To do this, we’re collecting content in every one of the world’s 7,000 languages for the sake of preservation, education, and cultural bridge-building. Since we started, we’ve recorded hundreds of oral histories in more than 170 unique languages, representing 40 countries on every continent — and we’re just getting started. By the end of the year, we’ll have recorded videos of more than 350 languages, representing 5% of every language community on Earth.
However, while watching videos of speakers is a great way to get introduced to other cultures, it only scratches the surface. We want to go beyond raising awareness about 7,000 languages, by helping people learn them all. Communities need simple, connected and intelligent tools to share, and in many cases, preserve their language. That’s why we’re building Poly, an app that makes it easy for anyone to create and share language dictionaries with people from around the world, by adding phrases and their meanings in text and video.
When the Internet went public in 1995, some seven thousand languages were spoken around the world. Today, that reality is in rapid decline, as the side-effects of globalization provoke the extinction of a different language every two weeks (Wade Davis, 2009). Unless something changes, this trend is likely to spell the collapse of more than 3,000 language communities before the turn of the century. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
One of the primary causes driving worldwide language loss is that support for language communities drastically varies. While some languages are recognized by governments and taught in schools, the vast majority go unrecognized, unsupported, and untaught, leaving communities ill-equipped to pass their languages on to future generations.
Wikitongues was born as a school project late in 2012, when Daniel Bogre Udell, out of an exploration on cultural identity, began recording short oral histories with friends and colleagues in New York City, with the simple prompt: tell me about yourself, or your home, in your native language. The first interviews he recorded reflected New York’s rich cultural diversity, running the gamut from Hessian to K’iche Mayan. He began posting the videos to YouTube, and the channel quickly garnered a modest following.
The project’s inspiration arose from a burning passion for language that had been amplified after Daniel spent several months working in Catalonia, Spain, where he became fluent in Catalan and was immersed in the political realities of Europe’s cultural and linguistic minorities.
In Spring 2013, Daniel’s college friend and eventual roommate Freddie Andrade joined the project. A native of São Paulo, Brazil, Freddie had been raised bilingually in Portuguese and English, and studied French and Japanese growing up. Like Daniel, Freddie was motivated by a drive to explore questions surrounding cultural experience, intersectional identity, and displacement.
Together, Freddie and Daniel doubled their efforts, recording more and more people throughout New York, and began traveling to meet speakers and signers from different language communities. They planned and conducted their first expedition: a long, winding route through the Southeast of the United States, where they recorded speakers of Cherokee, Louisiana French, American English, and Gullah.
Throughout the course of their activities, their viewership grew, and people began asking about opportunities to get involved. One of their first volunteers, polyglot blogger Lindie Botes reached out to Freddie and Daniel offering to help the project. A native of Pretoria, South Africa, Lindie had grown up traveling the world, and on top of her native Afrikaans, had come to speak English, Korean, Japanese, Urdu, and French. Together, Lindie, Freddie and Daniel assumed the mantle of organization. And by leveraging the power of internet, the Wikitongues volunteer community was born.
For a full year, we’ve prototyped and refined the interface to easily and quickly create translation dictionaries, so that all people can share their languages.
We’ve built Poly using the web technologies Ember.js and Firebase.
Poly will be free and open for anyone to create dictionaries, but we'll still be working hard to make sure it contains as many languages as possible. Aside from our volunteers, the Wikitongues community is comprised of nearly 10,000 online subscribers from around the world, representing hundreds of language communities. In other words, we can do this!
Wikitongues is a 100% volunteer community and all work until now has been done pro-bono. By funding Poly, you’ll be helping us hire a team of developers to speed up the project and edify it against scaling issues, and cover operational expenses, such as server space, as well as support and infrastructure services.
- Robust search and better browsing: with an astounding potential of unique language combinations, and an infinite amount of content to capture, an intelligent search system is crucial. Curious users will be able to explore and discover, while users who know what they're looking for will easily find it. You'll be able to search by words and phrases, language names and places, as well as tags, and browse based on country, language family, writing system, and more.
- Offline-first application: only half of the world's people have Internet access, which means only half of the world's language communities do. We know that you don't always have coverage when traveling, so it is our priority to make the app offline-first, making it easy to create, edit and browse offline, and sync with the cloud later.
- A Poly API: every dictionary is a new set of data for two languages, and we need to do some work under the hood to make sure this data is efficiently stored and leveraged. As the volume of content on the app grows, the potential to utilize it for research becomes available, opening the doors to better and more inclusive machine translation, as well as natural language processing. Once Poly has grown to include hundreds of languages, all of its stored information could advance the development of the language services we use every day — and that's huge!
- Audio and video support: it’s hard to start learning a language if you don’t know the pronunciation, and you certainly can’t learn sign languages without video. Adding support for audiovisual content will make Poly a more inclusive and complete language learning tool.
Funding this project is just the beginning! If we surpass our goal of $50k, you can expect an expanded feature set with bigger and better milestones.
The Wikitongues community is from dozens of countries around the world. Meet some of our team’s most active members.
Risks and challenges
Building an app that can handle growth can be seriously complex. But several members of the Wikitongues community are involved in tech already, so we're equipped to manage a project like this at scale.
Recording dictionaries in all the world's 7,000 languages is hard! But just as we've successfully taken our first steps towards recording videos of every language in the world, we're confident that we can do this, too.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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