BASAbali: How the Internet Can Save Local Languages

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The Balinese Cultural Agency estimates that less than a fourth of Balinese can still speak the Balinese language.  Worldwide it is believed that “by the end of this century, in the next 85 years, we will lose 3500 languages – half of the 7000 languages that are spoken today” due to a number of social, political and economic factors.
Despite all that we know about the benefits and sustainability of diverse ecosystems, we are heading toward a world that is a linguistic monoculture.
The Balinese Language
At BASAbali, a collaboration of scholars and community members trying to revitalize Balinese, a local language of Indonesia, we’re trying to change the way we think about and address local languages:

  • Intervene – and engage others – while there is still a solid base of speakers
  • Use the power of the internet to provide a platform to share knowledge and to make a statement about the relevance of Balinese in today’s digital world
  • Bring people from the local, national and international communities together to leverage their wisdom to reversing the decline of local languages

Our approach is to use two different technologies to document and engage the pubic in becoming part of the effort to strengthen the local language:

  • A video-based dialogue learning program to teach Balinese
  • A Balinese cultural wiki-dictionary

The learning program is part of an ambitious effort by Transparent Language to provide materials for all under-resourced languages.  The platform allows for video-based dialogues to emerge from the community rather than using one standard set of dialogues for all languages.
For the Balinese materials, we brought together local linguists, videographers, and community members to design and develop the materials together with the belief to thrive, we need to engage multiple sectors, disciplines and viewpoints.
The Balinese cultural wiki dictionary/encyclopedia shares this same inclusive multi-perspective philosophy.  It is being developed with semantic media wiki software, the same software behind Wikipedia.
Our Challenges
Like Wikipedia, the Balinese wiki benefits from the collective wisdom of the public.  We’ve had some challenges though:

  • Internet access is spotty or not available,
  • Wiki newbies often feel that they lack the technical skills to contribute (a problem of Wikipedia for the neophyte as well),
  • We often find ourselves hitting the limits of what is possible on the programming end,
  • Users have expressed fear of using Balinese on the internet because of the complexity of its status registers.

Some young techie Balinese have also told us that although they really like the wiki, “it feels weird” to use what is traditionally an oral language in a digital format.
Things are starting to change
We see the emergence of a flattened modern form of Balinese emerging that can be used on the Internet even when users don’t know who is reading their posts and what their relationship is to the readers.  This “social media language” is increasingly being embraced by millennials and (reluctantly) by traditionalists.
Yes, Facebook can revitalise local languages.
Those without sufficient bandwidth or courage are sending us additions to the wiki by email, via social media, or sometimes, by handing us a flash drive, so we’ve needed to increase our capacity to enter what people give us for the wiki rather than solely relying on the public to enter information directly themselves.
Since encyclopedias and dictionaries are not traditionally part of Balinese culture, explaining the wiki as online encyclopedia or dictionary does not always make sense.  So we’ve started using storytelling, comics, word games and other traditional “technologies” as a ramp on to the wiki.
Bali has a rich tradition of political commentary through the use of clown type characters in performance and more recently, through print media. We’re also increasingly trying to involve girls and women, who are very present in Balinese traditional culture but less so in Balinese digital culture.
The wiki is coming along.  In addition to the dictionary part, there are sections for books about Bali, a Who’s Who, traditional manuscripts, modern literature and more.  It was just named as this year’s International Linguapax Award winner, a prize given to “outstanding action carried out in different areas in favour of the preservation of linguistic diversity, revitalization and reactivation of linguistic communities and the promotion of multilingualism.”
With Google analytics, we can easily measure the number of people using the wiki (over 300,000), where they are from (the majority are now from Bali), what pages users access and how often they stay on each page.
We’re equally interested, though, in the deeper impact of the wiki on Bali’s cultural ecosystem.
With the United Nation’s proclamation of 2019 as the International Year of indigenous Languages, we’re trying to access how best to ascertain the impact of our approach on how people value, use, and pass on Balinese to future generations and how to engage even more people in keeping Balinese – and all local languages – strong.
By Alissa Stern, Founding Director of BASAbali
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