This is at the Decolonizing the Internet’s Language Conference 2020 where I met Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur (WhoseKnowledge?, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

How can the speakers of indigenous languages be educated during a pandemic like coronavirus? In this episode of O Foundation Conversations, O Foundation’s Subhashish Panigrahi speaks to Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur who is a linguist and heads the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at the SOAS University of London. (read transcript in HTML)

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Dr. Seyfeddinipur shares how indigenous and endangered language speakers need to document their language, and recommendations for the government and other authorities to ensure that such speakers get access to critical information (like health advice during COVID-19) in their own language(s). Recorded during the Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages Conference 2019 that was organized by Whose Knowledge? October 2019 in London at the Mozilla Festival 2019.


MUSIC/SOUND EFFECTS: Flight announcement by Subhashish Panigrahi, CC-BY-SA 4.0 YVONNE GuitarArpeggiation.wav by gutiyvon, CC0 1.0 bingBong.wav by stib, CC0 1.0 Warm guitar rhythm Intro by quetzalcontla, CC-BY 3.0 hospital_lobby.flac by tim.kahn (CC-BY 3.0)


This is a non-verbatim transcription that is created for people with hearing impairment or those who would like to read instead of listening to this episode of O Foundation Conversations. with time-code in curly brackets “{ }” and speaker names in square brackets “[ ]”. Full names of the speakers are used in the first occurrence whereas first names are used in the second time onward. Links to external resources, wherever appropriate, are provided inline. There is also a “Citations” section for specific references.

Duration: 00:28:32

{ 00:00 – 00:13 }

[Introduction by host Subhashish Panigrahi]

How can people get critical information like the health and safety advice on coronavirus in their own language?

I’m Subhashish and we’re going to look at the answers for this question through an interview with Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur who is a linguist and heads the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at the SOAS University of London.

{ 00:26 – 00:45 }

[Response by guest Mandana Seyfeddinipur]

My name is Mandana Seyfeddinipur and I am a linguist by training. I direct the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, the Endangered Languages Archive and the SOAS World languages Institute — and all three are housed at SOAS University of London.

{ 00:45 – 01:22 }


I met with her in London while attending the Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages Conference that was organized by WhoseKnowledge? in October last year when we didn’t hear about COVID-19 and traveling was normal. There are 7 billion people around the world and they speak about 7,000 languages. It’s important that all the people receive health advice and other vital information in a language that they understand. Dr. Seyfeddinipur has some brilliant recommendations to share. But before that let’s hear about the invaluable work she has been doing.

{ 01:22 – 10:08 }

[Dr. Seyfeddinipur]

The Endangered Languages Documentation Programme is a funding program that supports linguists, anthropologists, documenters, community members in their efforts to document their language. We provide funding to go out, live, work in and with the community, and to record the ways language is used in everyday life in songs and rituals and poetry, in oral literature and so on. The recordings that are being made are then brought back into the Endangered Languages Archive — which is a digital archive — that makes these recordings available to the community, to scholars, to the public free of charge.

So it’s openly accessible. It is free of charge. So, these are the key components of what we do. The Programme of the Endangered Languages and the Endangered Language Documentation Archive were basically a response 20 years ago to the decline in linguistic diversity because of globalization, climate change and urbanization.

Linguists, biologists, people all over the world recognize that in the changes through modernization, industrialization and the digital development are so massive and are so fast that they’re having a massive impact on the lives of people. One impact is that people are leaving their traditional ways of life behind, and moving to cities which are holding the promise of a better life.

So, they move to cities in order to enable economic and social mobility for themselves, and a better life for their children. When they do that, they want to make sure that the children have the best access to education and to resources for a better life.

And this comes at the cost of the language that they’re speaking — their traditional language, their heritage language — which is not being taught to the children anymore. Now, the majority of the world’s languages are oral languages. They’re not written and the only way these languages live on is by transmission — namely from one generation to the other. The moment that transmissional chain is broken, meaning that the language is not passed on from the parents to the children, these languages will disappear because the children don’t learn them anymore. They don’t learn the knowledge that is encoded in these languages. Because these are oral languages, they don’t have a written script.

There’s no books that’s written in those languages. There’s no libraries. This is all in heads of its speakers. Once there are no speakers this knowledge disappears.

If we’re lucky, there was a linguist, a missionary, a traveler or an anthropologist at some point who recorded a couple of words, who wrote a ‘word list’, a grammar that is sitting in some archive or some library but is not accessible to the speakers themselves because it’s written in the language that they don’t understand, or it’s behind a paywall, or it’s a commercial publisher so they cannot even afford to buy the book even if they even know that it exists.

So, what is happening is that we’re losing the linguistic diversity of humanity at a dramatic speed. The response to this was from the linguists’ side to document as much as we can, as fast as we can, to preserve it for posterity. This was to support communities in their efforts to maintain and preserve their languages, and to create a digital repository, and it will tell the world about the diversity that we had today with 7,000 living languages this century.

So, our linguists and our community members go and make these recordings, and they bring these back into our digital archive. So, this archive is a digital archive that holds recordings in over 500 languages and all these languages are highly endangered. They will very likely be falling silence within the next 100 years or 50 years or 10 years.

Some of these collections are this recordings of last speakers that are quite old. We even have recordings of speakers that died during project. So, it’s the last recording of someone. We feel it’s a very important thing that the digital advent has allowed us to to equip linguists or field workers to go and to record as much as possible in the way language is used, and not as abstracted as it is written in grammars. It is also an important thing to have a grammar but the idea behind this is what the main author of the seminal paper Nikolaus P. Himmelmann called a “multipurpose record” — a record of a language (Himmelmann 2006) that is there for the historian, the speaker, the grandchildren of the speakers. It is the oral history of the person who’s interested in rituals, in religious contexts, the ethnic musicologists, but also the public, the people want to know how do people live in these place and how they used to speak.

And each language is a testimony to the creativity of the human mind, right?

There are 7,000 varieties that the humanity has created. Each of them has been developed over centuries accumulating the knowledge, the world view, the cosmology of a community in a particular place at a particular time. What we want to do is to, at least, capture a snapshot before it is too late, and before this goes without a trace or is only in a grammatical description in a library.

I think, it is really important that there has to be grassroots efforts to support community members, activists and other people that can start documentation themselves. There are efforts all over the world where you can see activists doing exactly that where they’re recording themselves and putting these recordings on YouTube or they create Facebook pages where they start chatting and sending messages back and forth in their languages or they start writing their stories down and publish little dictionaries and whatnot.

So, there’s efforts all over the place where you don’t need to have the most fancy video camera to get started on it.

It starts out with a pen and a paper and it goes on with a phone and it goes on in, into building capacity within the community to even get the community behind it to start doing this. For example, in South America, we know about the efforts where communities seek out linguists that can build the bridge into getting funding, right? These linguists have the ability to speak to a funding body in the language that the funding body needs to be able to create the resources that the community then can have to step up their game and to create a digital archive or something that is sustainable for them. There is community radio that is happening where the they’re airing shows in their languages, talks in their languages, news in their languages, and then the radio station archives these materials and with the advent of the digital it is possible because a small SD card can hold a lot of audio recordings.

So, there’s a lot of activity going on on the ground in different areas where community members, where speakers or activists get incredibly creative in trying to document and trying to be active in maintaining and preserving their languages and the knowledge that is expressed in the language.

{ 10:08 – 10:38 }


I must mention here that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — UNESCO — has been working towards protecting languages for years now.

2019 was declared as the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) to encourage indigenous-language communities, and to help promote indigenous languages.

You can check out for more details about this campaign.

{ 10:38 – 12:19}

[Dr. Seyfeddinipur]

So, UNESCO has created so the (International) Year of Indigenous Languages is celebrating indigenous languages. It’s an important activity to showcase the issues around indigenous languages and language endangerment, and basically, marginalization of speakers of communities and their exclusion of access to knowledge, also through the web. So, (International) Year of Indigenous Languages that the UN created and UNESCO has actioned has allowed people all over the world to have events and recordings to really bring to the public mind what is happening all over the world in terms of languages, and in terms of the shift that is happening with less and less children learning the languages of their heritage and of their families, but, the children are giving them up for majority languages of the society surrounding them.

So, UNESCO created a registry so you can register your events. Just looking at all the global events are happening all over the place is very impressive. I think, there is some push that might be of interest to think about having a decade of indigenous languages because what centers around languages is not about language, it’s about the lives of people.

And, in that respect it is actually key for the UN and UNESCO to take action because of the effects of globalization, urbanization and climate change on the effects, on the life of marginalized people all over the world.

{ 12:20 – 12:33 }


So, I wanted to ask Dr. Seyfeddinipur for about a scenario where speakers of an indigenous language do not have a linguist working for the protection of their language, and they need to document the language on their own.

{ 12:33 – 15:46 }

[Dr. Seyfeddinipur]

Oh, that’s a difficult one, right? The questions the linguist is asking and the things that the linguist needs to know to be able to do their work are different from what often the community is interested in, right?

So, the community that we often see were interested in recording their oral and other traditions, songs, rituals. Of course, that’s all a very specific kind of language. But, the linguist who wants to understand the structure needs to have one in the same sentence spoken in different ways. They need have sometimes the word at the beginning of the sentence and sometimes at the end. So, that is incredibly boring for a community member or for a community as the structural aspects are not the key part. So, I think that makes two things very different sometimes to bring together.

However, I think it’s about bringing the two perspectives together. Given the situation, it is key that the community records what is relevant to them and what they see.

But, I want to put out the question ‘who do we mean ‘community’ when I say ‘the community’. Because, a community is not a coherent body, right? There is some hierarchical structure. There’re people that decide what is important and what is not. So, first we do this and second we do that. Of course, for me as a linguist, I want it both, right? I want to see the recordings that are relevant and most important for the community. It will be also very important for the linguist because ritual language is incredibly interesting as it has some formulaic things in it. But it’s not the language that people speak. If the linguist wants to understand what the structure of a language is he needs to first understand how they speak it before he can then see what the ritual version of the language is.

So, as a linguist I would always ask can you just record how you chat. Can you record how you prepare food? Can you record how you build boats? Just talk about it and tell me how do you do this. Already, that is going to create a really rich body because that would also document, for example, how you create your material culture and around that you will have all the stories.

If I ask you how do you harvest honey or how do you make honey then I will know everything about bees. When I know about honey and bees, I might know something about the songs the bee sings in the love story of what not because these are all interwoven things.

So, one gets to the other, and at the far most end on the linguistic side might not be the interest of the community in the first place. But whatever the community will do will be of use for a linguist no matter what. So that’s why this has to rule first.

{ 15:48 – 16:17 }


Many of you might have heard about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a 1948 historic document that was adopted at the United Nations General Assembly. This was right after the World War II.

The 30-article-document is vital to framing the individual rights. Of these, Article 2 identifies access to information in one’s own language as a fundamental right.

So, I was curious to learn about the use of indigenous languages for providing access to information.

{ 16:18 – 19:22 }

[Dr. Seyfeddinipur]

First and foremost, we should not forget that in many places in the world, people are multilingual, right? They not only know one language, they know two, three, four, and they speak two-three-four languages on a daily basis.

If we are in a situation where the government information to the resources that are available to people in terms of education, health, access to resources is in a particular language that they cannot access then that means that it’s a measure of exclusion — meaning they cannot participate.

Access to knowledge is access to resources. If you don’t know about something and if you cannot find out, then you cannot use this. As a citizen you have a government that will provide this for its society. The linguistic barrier — that is introduced by not making it available in different ways and in heterogeneous ways to respond to the heterogeneity of a society — means that particular parts of society will be excluded from accessing that knowledge. The moment they’re excluded, we’re dealing with a case of inequity. If they’re not equitable and cannot take part, they also don’t have a way to partake in policy making. If you cannot understand or if you have no access about information about elections, you cannot elect. If you cannot elect, your voice is not represented. If your voice is not represented, then you’re not partaking in decision making in your own country, and also in the resources that are made available to you and your family and your children.

So, the linguistic barrier is a massive political instrument or a massive political issue that we need to address and we need to address the issue around the idea that it’s all about translation, right? If you are in a situation where you have a lot of oral languages which are not written, how do you do the translation, right? If you have non-literate people that need to access that information, you need to make this material and the information available in non-literate ways and in visual ways — whatever that might mean in your context. Because, that’s a part of being equitable and in caring for the society in its breath as it is.

It’s the same situation if you have a sign language and a sign language community. The material has to be made available in that language so that they can understand and access that knowledge to be able to take advantage of it.

{ 19:22 – 19:36 }


We live in a time where our privacy is always under risk. I asked Dr. Seyfeddinipur if the use of indigenous languages also plays a role in understanding about privacy among the native speakers.

{ 19:36 – 21:52 }

[Dr. Seyfeddinipur]

I’m not sure that this is a language issue. I think that’s that’s an issue that pertains to all of us. That has to do with the fact that through the digital and through the massive and fast changes in the world about how information is processed, how information can be linked. It is to understand what privacy and protection of private knowledge and of private information means. I think we’re all still in the boat where we’re actually quite shocked to understand what can be done with information about us. If you look at the generational shifts and you look at the kids that put the most problematic information up on the web for free not understanding what kind of repercussions that had and can have at a later point in their life, and how this can be abused misused in different ways. That is I think something that is incredibly shocking and scary and it’s something that we grapple with all together. That to in the world where we think we have an understanding of what governments do and don’t do, and how information can be used and not used be used. Of course, that pertains to people that provide information to governments about their lives. But that pertains also to me to not really understand when I input all my information by getting on an airline that that then is shared with authorities whether or not I’m entering a particular country or not. So, I think the privacy issue in the digital age and sharing information with governments where with any kind of institutional body is highly highly problematic at the moment. I think we as a lot of people where we all are suspicious and no know what’s actually happening and how this information is being used. We’re grappling with it at every count. Of course it might be even accelerated if the understanding of the digital is not even there.

{ 21:52 – 22:00 }


What role does access knowledge in one’s own language play and their understanding of issues like privacy?

{ 22:00 – 23:14 }

[Dr. Seyfeddinipur]

It’s the same kind of question if you ask someone for consent to record something and they put it on the internet. If this is someone who’s not using the internet, and has never seen it, and doesn’t really know what that means, if they say yes, does it mean they understand to what they just said yes? No, they haven’t, right? The fact — that your daughter is recording you telling a story and that she’s gonna put that on her Facebook site [profile or page or group] — that you’re being seen in the entire world telling a story you might have no idea what that means when you said “oh yeah, sure you can do this, little girl”. So, if you don’t have access to knowledge, you don’t know what is happening on this world you can’t access, you can’t control it or you can’t see it because you’re not partaking in the discourse. Then that excludes you.

But, even if you’re included, you don’t know what is happening even if you can access this knowledge. Of course, it’s accelerated if you are in a community where you don’t know at all what is actually happening with that kind of information that you’re providing.

{ 23:14 – 23:30 }


My final question to Dr. Seyfeddinipur was — when government bodies or other key stakeholders of a region must ensure that indigenous and other native languages are used so that people are well aware of any kind of critical information?

{ 23:30 – 26:54 }

[Dr. Seyfeddinipur]

I think that is one of the most most important and pressing points. You can just take it as very simple things like emergency responses, right? Emergency responses of governments, emergencies responses in case of epidemics. So, one of the main issues that you have whatever it is: say the ebola crisis or with kind of epidemics is to get information as fast as possible to places where you cannot send out a pamphlet and a flyer written in the majority language, because they might not read. They don’t read that language and they don’t know the language. You need to have the information that needs to be spread as fast as possible. For that, that is one of the areas exactly what is important to make sure that information is being made available. But to do that you need to know what language it is and where that language is spoken, and where these people sit to be able to get that information out there.

Now, as I said before, we cannot expect that all governments will be able to make everything available in 7,000 languages, right? So, there has to be a reality check. The reality check is that these are all multilinguals. These are all people that speak multiple languages but you need to understand which ones they are and which ones are the most effective way of spreading and making information accessible.

There’s also a problematic assumption that often comes into that is that in a lot of places in the world multilingualism is the norm namely the fact that people speak a particular language in school, a particular language in the religion, a particular language with their mothers, and another language with their fathers. People are multilingual but it’s not the case that they’re these are communities of practices they’re very good in talking about ‘X’ in this language and ‘Y’ about that language, right? So, you have repertoires that at your disposal that you are juggling around, and using it as you need it, and as you go along. It’s not the case that every single language in its full, and can do everything with every single language, right? So, the model that is behind this idea is of course the model of a monolingual speaker that is born to a family, that speaks one language, goes to school in that language, learns to read and write in that language, is in a society that only functions in that language, and then learns another one. But, this is not the reality on the ground in many many different places.

There’s an area in Cameroon in the Lower Fungum that colleagues of mine Jeff Good and Pierpaolo Di Carlo researched. In 10 by 10 kilometers radius live 10-12,000 people that speak nine languages on a daily basis. So, that questions this whole notion about one language, one people, one whatever! So, we need to think in a way more dynamic way about what language use, the linguistic reality, and the linguistic ecologies of communities is to be able to understand how we can make sure that they get access to the information they need. Because, access to information is in our day and age one of the most valuable things that we have.

An informational video on coronavirus in the Mambila language of eastern Africa by medical professional Barme Julienne, created under the VirALLanguages project (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) | See more details

{ 26:54 – 28:28 }


Recently, Dr. Seyfeddinipur’s own institution the SOAS World’s Languages Institute in London, and two other academic institutions — both at the University of Buffalo in the U.S. — have created a project called Speakers of any marginalized languages including indigenous minority and endangered languages can use the scripts that are available on this website along with several other resources, and they can translate into their own languages, and create informational videos about COVID-19. You heard earlier how most languages in the world are oral. The speakers of many of them don’t have access to information in their own language. If you yourself are speaker of any of the marginalized languages or you know someone who is, please do check out this website. You can also go to the “Get Involved” tab on the website to contact. Thank you for listening to this conversation with Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur. My name is Subhashish and this interview is hosted at the O Foundation under a Creative Commons Sharealike 4.0 International License (CC). I’d like to thank WhoseKnowledge? because of who Mandana and I met and talked. Thanks to Mozilla Festival organizers. We recorded this conversation at RSA in London. More details about the attribution for the CC licensed music used here are listed in the description. Thanks again and stay safe!

{ 28:28 – 28:32 }




Himmelmann, Nikolaus P. (2006). Empirical Linguistics and Language Documentation (ELLDo) – MA program at the Faculty of Modern Languages and Literatures, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. “An initial, preliminary answer to this question is:a language documentation is a lasting, multipurpose record of a language.”

Preferred citation

Panigrahi, S. (2020, April 28). Episode 1: Indigenous Languages in the Times of a Pandemic. O Foundation Conversations [Audio podcast episode]. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.23945.67686

Other episodes of our podcast O Foundation Conversations can be found here.