Languages are critical pieces of our identities. Each represents the unique worldview of its speakers, offering a connection to specific cultures and perspectives. It seems reasonable, then, that people would want to use their own languages when interacting with technology, one of the most impactful communication tools at our disposal today.

Most software and mobile apps are available in a variety of global languages, such as English, Spanish or French. But bilingual speakers of minority languages – those spoken by a minority percentage of a population – often have limited access to those same programs in their native tongues.

Associate Professor of Communications Derek Lackaff studies the intersection of minority languages and technology, and uses that knowledge to create software in minority languages in partnership with native speakers.

Until a couple of years ago, Lackaff’s primary research focus was civic technology, but a trip to Ireland with his Interactive Media master’s students inspired a new area of scholarship. He learned the country only has about 40,000 to 70,000 daily speakers of the Irish language – most of Ireland’s 4.6 million people speak English. This statistic piqued Lackaff’s interest in the relationship between language and identity.

Communication technology can be an obstacle to minority languages. Using a minority language on mobile devices may present technical challenges, such as lack of writing support like autocorrect or text prediction.  Social platforms like Facebook and Instagram are designed and optimized for global majorities, not linguistic minorities. But Lackaff thinks technology also presents an under-explored opportunity to preserve and revitalize indigenous and minority languages.

Major tech companies like Apple or Microsoft have little economic incentive to localize their software into languages that few people speak, particularly when many of those people also speak another language. But Lackaff is using his scholarship to help minority language communities bring their languages into the digital realm themselves.

Lackaff interviews people in these communities about their connection to their native language and the issues they face in preserving it. He uses that feedback and the expertise of native speakers to facilitate the translation of open-source software into minority languages. The source code of open-source software is publicly available, so anyone with the right technical skills – like Lackaff – can modify it.

You should be able to boot up your laptop and use it entirely in Lakota. That’s the dream, and it’s an achievable dream if you’re working with open-source software. I see my role in that as finding the best ways to bring the people who have the language ability into that process, and to reduce the technical barriers as much as possible.

In addition to his work with the Irish language, Lackaff is exploring these avenues with Cherokee and Lakota collaborators in the United States. This summer he led a workshop in South Dakota on localizing open-source software into the Lakota language. His current work involves developing a program to facilitate this process and determining the most effective way to make it transferrable across minority language communities. His ultimate goal is to help this process become self-sustaining in these communities, empowering speakers to take ownership of their heritage languages in digital spaces. He also plans to formalize the insights gained from these projects in publications and presentations.

This work fills a practical need in these communities, enabling minority languages – some of which are endangered – to survive and thrive digitally. It also expands the literature on language revitalization, and brings to light the significant role technology can play in it.