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Technology Gives New Spark to Minority Language

by Alissa Stern of BasaBali.org

In The Republic of Technology, Daniel Boorstin predicted that in the twenty-first century, technology would rob us of the awe with which we see the world. But a recent initiative which electronically brings together linguists, anthropologists, and videographers from a dozen countries to re-energize the waning Balinese language is anything but the alienating experience that Boorstin warned about.

Balinese, an Austronesian language, is the native tongue of a diminishing 1 million out of 3 million people living in Bali. Its script is already endangered. As with other minority languages, globalization and tourism encourages the use of English while the central government's efforts to keep together a country of disparate ethnic groups promotes the use of the national Indonesian.

The Balinese unique system of levels, an infinitely more complex system than the French "vous" and "tu" of French (see Balinese: Language of Many Levels, Nov. 16, 2011 in The Economist), requires speakers to identify their status relative to that of their listener, as well as selecting a level based on the formality of the situation and the subject of the conversation. A simple sentence like "I haven't eaten your cake" can suggest that the cake is worth gold if the speaker uses the higher register for the word, "cake" or that the cake isn't worth its flour if "cake" is said in a lower register. Saying the whole sentence in a higher register elevates the listener, in a lower register puts the listener in their place.

To avoid a social faux pax of using the wrong register on Facebook - easily done without knowing the identity of listeners - many Balinese prefer the status neutral Indonesian or English, making Boorstin's prediction of technology as a force of assimilation quite apt.

BASAbali, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, was created to provide a vehicle to electronically bring together anthropologists and linguists from around the world to create the first multimedia materials for the teaching of Balinese. Money was raised on Kickstarter.com, an online fundraising tool, which also produced donations of legal expertise, a sound studio, logo design and publicity. "Desktop volunteers" found through Sparked.com came forward to design the website and produce e-learning modules, Balinese videographers were located on YouTube, listsserves identified Balinese linguists and anthropologists, and Transparent Language, a language learning software company, donated its software and hundreds of hours of technical expertise.

The resulting materials consist of 24 dialogue based videos, language exercises, grammatical notes, cultural resources and interactive modules to teach Balinese script. They will be distributed, free of charge, to nonprofit organizations and community groups.

As a result of this initiative, a new Balinese institute is starting which will sponsor internship programs for university students to teach Balinese in elementary schools using these new materials and to work with Balinese teachers to create additional curriculum for the language.

When a species becomes extinct, our ecosystem is weakened. When a language disappears, explains K. David Harrison in his book When Languages Die (Oxford University Press), we lose ideas. Technology is retaining the concepts, construction and deep culture that Balinese holds.

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