Like his ancestors, 65-year-old Clayton Long spent his childhood immersed in Navajo culture, greeting fellow clan members with old, breathful Navajo words like “Yá’át’ééh.” Then he was sent to an English-only boarding school where his native language, also known as Diné, was banned. “I went into a silent resistance,” Long says from his home in Blanding, Utah. He vowed that he would help to preserve it after he left, work he has done for about three decades as a teacher. This week, he’s entering new territory on that mission: the app store.
Long is one of the educators working with language-learning startup Duolingo on the company’s latest endeavor: using its popular app to revive threatened languages. On Oct. 8, celebrated in some places as Indigenous People’s Day, Duolingo will launch courses in both Navajo and Hawaiian, two of the estimated 3,150 languages that face doubts about their long-term survival. That’s nearly half of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world.
It’s not something the company anticipates will be a money-maker. “It’s just something we feel like we have to do,” says Duolingo’s Myra Awodey, who led work on the project. The company, which has attracted some 300 million users by offering free, ad-supported lessons in dozens of languages, is in a unique position “not only to preserve dying languages but make them something that’s spreading,” she says.