When Ibrahima Traore takes his sons to a park in Montclair, N.J., he often sits on a bench and reads. He reads English, French and Arabic, but most of the time he reads N’Ko, a language few speakers of those languages would recognize. N’Ko is the standardized writing system for Mande languages, a family of closely related tongues — among them Traore’s language of Mandinka, but also Jula, Bamana, Koyaga, Marka — spoken, for the most part, in eight West African countries, by some 35 million people. N’Ko looks like a cross between Arabic and ancient Norse runes, written from right to left in a blocky script with the letters connected underneath. Traore types e-mail to his family on his laptop in N’Ko, works on his Web site in N’Ko, tweets in N’Ko on his iPhone and iPad and reads books and newspapers written in N’Ko to prepare for the N’Ko classes he teaches in the Bronx and for his appearances on an Internet radio program to discuss cultural issues around the use of N’Ko. For years, the Web’s lingua franca was English. Speakers of French, Hindi and Urdu, Arabic, Chinese and Russian chafed at the advantage the Internet gave not only American pop culture but also its language. For those who lived at the intersection of modern technology and traditional cultures, the problem was even worse. “For a long time, technology was the enemy,” says Inée Slaughter, executive director of the New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute, which teaches Native Americans and other indigenous peoples how to use digital technologies to keep their languages vital. Heritage languages were being killed off by increasing urbanization, the spread of formal education and the shift to cash crops, which ended the isolation of indigenous communities. Advances in technology seemed to intensify the decline. “Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language,” Slaughter says. “Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that. It was a huge, huge problem, and it’s still there. But now we know ways technology can be helpful.”
more from Tina Rosenberg at the NYT Magazine here.