How much good can you do at 19 years old?
Bolivian student Fabiola Acapari might have just saved a language in her free time, thanks to an app, which last month exceeded 10,000 downloads.
Just in case you didn’t know, out of the 7,000 languages spoken on the planet, half are in great danger, according to the UN: a language is lost every two weeks; 90% of them will have died by the end of the century. For example, the Russian language of the Akkala Sami disappeared in 2003 with the death of its last speaker, a recurrent phenomenon in small villages, where youngsters prefer to learn English rather than the local dialect (although Akkala Sami might be a nice addition to your LinkedIn skills).
The Aymara is not yet at this point, but is a seriously damaged language in South America, classified as “endangered” by the UN, which specifies that its survival is “fragile.” With over two million speakers it is not yet the most jeopardized language in the world, but the domination of Spanish in the region is endangering both the Aymara and its culture. Recognized as an official language by Bolivia – it is President Evo Morales’ mother tongue – as well as in Peru, it is also spoken in Argentina and Chile due to the important immigration in the early 20th century.
In Argentina, the language is mostly spoken in rural or urban areas, where the Bolivians settled, and – fun fact to share at a fancy dinner party – Argentine’s declaration of Independence is redacted in Aymara, along with Spanish and Quechua.
So let’s go back to that 19-year-old girl. She made the headlines in 2016 when she released an app to learn the language along with the culture it incorporates, called simply “Aprender Amayra.” Being a 2,000 year-old language, it was essential that she get it right; while she is not a native speaker herself, she asked her grandfather and uncle to record themselves speaking. “They helped with the pronunciation of the words,” said Acapari to El País. The student, who is along with being a genius, truly generous: “[The app] is free, so everyone can download and learn!”
As she taught herself English with an app, she knew it would help youngsters to learn the ancestral language at their own pace. She was right: in 2018, the app has had more than 10,000 downloads coming from Bolivia, Peru, Argentina… and even from Germany. Ich spreche Aymara.
In 2014, a group of Bolivians had distinguished themselves by starting the translation of Facebook (the entire interface, from the Likes to the Comments) in Aymara. A titanic work which they have not yet finished, as they have to translate over 24,000 words to be accepted by the website. “It takes some time,” said Rubén Hilari to the BBC at the time, explaining that they had to create the majority of the vocabulary: in Aymara, words like internet or Wi-Fi were never translated. History does not say if words such as fake news, Russian manipulation on public opinion and data collections were translated.
Various Argentine languages are now nearly extinct, because people like us never bothered to learn granddad’s languages. The Puelche has nowadays around 5 speakers; the Tehuelche had 4 in 2000; and in 1991 the Selk’nam (or Ona) had 1 to 3 speakers, but is probably dead now, as full blooded Ona people have been extinct since the 1994 death of Virginia Choinquitel in Buenos Aires.
To avoid this terrible fate, for Rubén Hilari or for Fabiola Acapari, the mission is the same: create a renewal of the speakers thanks to new technologies.