Social Innovation

These are the linguistic superheroes saving entire languages

© Ben Guy
Written by Phil Barker
Languages are more than just a means to communicate. They’re a key part of our culture, and Tribalingual wants to help save those that are rare and endangered.
“We are all now living at the dawn of a major global extinction event.”
It’s a sentiment we’re seeing a lot recently, with as many as one million animal and plant species under threat, but in this case social entrepreneur Inky Gibbens is talking about the possible loss of up to 3,500 languages by the end of the century.
Not content to sit by and watch, Gibbens founded social enterprise Tribalingual in 2017 to teach some of the most rare and endangered languages to people all around the world. “After all,” Gibbens points out, “the only way to save these languages is to get more people to speak them.”
For Gibbens and Tribalingual, that involves running courses that run for four weeks, with each week made up of “bite-sized” chunks of information. There’s written text providing grammatical explanations and cultural points, and supporting audio.
“There are some short videos each week as well,” Gibbens adds. “We also offer weekly 30 minute Skype calls with a native speaker. Most of our teachers are from the local communities, so if you want to learn Yoruba, you can Skype directly with Omo in Lagos, Nigeria, or if you fancy dipping into Gangte, you can Skype with LalPaul from the hills of Manipur, Northern India.”
When it comes to understanding the importance of language, Gibbens herself has the perfect background.
“I studied languages, language endangerment and anthropology at Leeds, Glasgow, Aberdeen universities, where I did my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees,” Gibbens tells us. “After my studies I worked in a couple of start-ups and then moved to London to begin my PhD at SOAS, University of London.
“During my PhD, I also taught Mongolian and Russian there and worked at FutureLearn, the UK’s first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It was there that I really fully realised the potential the internet had to make education accessible worldwide.”
A photo of the Tribalingual website on a laptop.
Tribalingual is saving languages
It was while working and studying in London that Gibbens discovered the language of her maternal grandparents – Buryat, a language with roots in Siberia – was in danger of disappearing.
“Upon further research, I realised that this is a fate that awaits half the world’s 7,000 languages. I knew organisations from The UN to local non-profits were all trying to do something about this. On top of that, academics all over the world are also scrambling to document and record these languages before they die out. But the way you conserve species is not by collecting them for display in a museum, but by encouraging them to procreate.”
While it’s easy to see the importance of conserving different species of animals or plants, the need to save a language may not be quite so readily apparent.
“When each language dies, we lose much more than just another parochial means of communication,” Gibbens explains. “We lose part of our shared cultural heritage, a whole way of thinking, acting and story-telling, and one more chapter of humanity’s rich yet slowly dwindling tapestry of cultural diversity. Piece-by-piece this colourful masterpiece becomes more-and-more monotone.”
Gibbens points out that languages are added to Tribalingual’s roster by two routes: being approached by native speakers who want the organisation to add their language, and through an assessment procedure that looks at the level of endangerment, revenue potential and policy support.
“We have a list of languages that we target based on the level of endangerment and potential interest to customers,” says Gibbens. “We then go out and see which we are able to develop easiest. This requires getting teachers – which dictates which of the languages on the list get adopted. Ultimately we need to find people who are passionate about preserving their culture but are also inspirational teachers.”
Tribalingual’s desire to help preserve cultures as well as languages goes a long way to shaping the organisation’s future, and Gibbens concludes: “We’ll be rolling out new products in the next few months, and they’ll comprise cultural courses including cooking, singing and storytelling.” For the more adventurous, who wouldn’t be interested in a traditional Yoruba recipe?